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About American Theatre Wing

Defender

This may well be the longest blog piece I’ll ever write, and that’s precisely because it wasn’t written as a blog. What follows is an essay I wrote 17 years ago, as I was trying to work out my feelings regarding a production of The Merchant of Venice for which I was doing publicity. I felt that, at the time, I had no one with whom I could share my internal conflict, and this was my only outlet. It has remained on the multiple computers I have owned since that time.

The new Broadway production of Merchant is on my theatergoing agenda this week. Spurred by a few comments from a regular Twitter correspondent about his feelings while watching the current production, which even in their brevity reminded me of this outpouring, I reopened my essay, long unread by me and never read by anyone else. So much has gone on in my life in the ensuing 17 years, that I could pepper the piece with emendations and new perspective. Instead, with only a few edits, I share with you the words of a much younger man, at something less than a crisis, but something more than a professional challenge. While it recounts my particular personal experiences, I hope it illustrates how much we bring of ourselves to theatre, far beyond what may exist in a given script or production, whether we work on or in or simply attend it.

* * *

An anecdote: late last month, late September to be exact, I stopped in at my dry cleaners to pick up some laundry. As I turned to leave, the lady behind the counter, with whom I’d previously exchanged nothing more than comments like “No starch,” “Hangers please, not folded,” and “Is tomorrow possible?” wished me “Happy New Year.” I wished her the same, on reflex, and left, realizing only after I was out of the shop that she had identified me — correctly — as Jewish, since only a Jew would be wished Happy New Year in September. I do not cover my head with a yarmulke, adorn my face with no beard, have no trace of Yiddish or even New York accent. Yet I must, apparently, fit the visual and vocal stereotype that identifies me as a Jew. I wear no star of David, but it appears that I am, inexorably, marked.

Another anecdote: when I was in the seventh grade, somewhat unwillingly attending Monday night confirmation classes at synagogue, our class was told something by the teacher that compelled me to walk out of the schoolroom and sit outside until my car pool arrived perhaps an hour later. Though I have forgotten the context of the comment, made by a man who during the day was the principal of a local public school, the remark itself remains etched in my mind: “You can’t really trust your non-Jewish friends, because if there were to be another Holocaust, you’d learn it’s only your Jewish friends who can be trusted.” Though I eventually met with my rabbi, who tried to explain the origins of such a comment while assuring me I was right to be upset by it, it’s funny that I remember only the private apology of the rabbi. I cannot recall if the rest of the class ever heard it as well.

And another: Five years ago, I visited the former Soviet Union on a business trip that included a good deal of sightseeing. As my group toured the Hermitage in Leningrad, I suddenly stopped on one of the grand staircases of the enormous, ornate building. Another in our group, noticing that I’d fallen behind, came to where I stood to ask if anything was wrong. “When my grandparents fled this country 80 years ago or so,” I replied, “I’m sure they never believed that anyone from their family would ever be allowed back in, or would even want to go. They certainly never could have dreamed that their grandson would be a guest in the Tsar’s Winter Palace. I just realized that.”

One more: when I was in the fifth or sixth grade, I found myself fairly close to our congregation’s cantor, a man probably the age I am now, who took the time to spend an occasional afternoon taking the rather awkward me to museums, which I remember most specifically, and involving me in the theatrical presentations he produced at the our synagogue. Though an adult’s memory of childhood events often seems magnified by time (since we probably only took our outings a few times), they do loom large in recollection — I remember this as the period when I felt closest to my given faith, even though I don’t recall a single moment with Cantor Epstein that we spent discussing religion. Yet I know that the career I’ve pursued for some 10 years is a direct result of his interest, his care and his opening my eyes to a world I had not seen in school, at home or in synagogue.

* * *

Over the past few months, I’ve found myself continually thinking about the title of an old Philip Roth story, one I’ve actually read a few times over the years, though not recently. The story, from his Goodbye Columbus collection, is called “The Defender of the Faith.”

You may have noticed I’ve mentioned that it’s the title that keeps popping into my head, not the story itself necessarily. The story, in short, as I recall it, is about a Jewish army sergeant who is manipulated by a Jewish private through a calculated play on the sergeant’s largely dormant Jewish identity. The private cadges time off from his duties through what is clearly only a feigned interest in the Jewish customs which he purports to be trying to observe in his newly acquired free time. I may be confusing the men’s ranks, but that’s the gist of the plot.

So why do I keep thinking about the title, “The Defender of the Faith?” Because I am a Jewish man whose job for the past couple of months has been to promote a production of The Merchant of Venice, a play reviled by many of my heritage for its portrayal of Shylock, a vengeful Jewish usurer. And as a result, I have been forced to examine my allegiances: to my race, to my religion, to a job I have devoted myself to for more than eight years.

Notice I separated race and religion. Like many of my generation, much to the consternation of my parents’ generation and the generation that preceded them, I unwaveringly identify myself as Jewish, but I cannot call myself a faithful follower of Judaism. I am Jewish the way others are Italian or French. Though I’m often told the two are inextricable, I long ago bought into something I was told often in Hebrew school, which is that the Jewish faith is not dogmatic (usually this was held up in contrast to other faiths). I therefore forged my own identity as a Jew, subject to no dogma but the inner self which steered me.

I frankly long for faith. I envy those I know who have true faith in their religions, but at this point in my life, I’m highly skeptical. I often wish I did believe, especially when someone I love dies, but that is longing and loss I’m feeling, not belief. However, when a childhood friend who is now a Protestant missionary, in a discussion of my feelings about faith, tentatively floated the suggestion that Jesus might be my answer, I recoiled — I knew immediately that if I was to find faith, I knew that it had to be through Judaism.

But I’m digressing.

Defender of the Faith.

For eight years, I have very proudly been responsible for sharing the work of a theater company and an artistic director with a community through its media. It is work that I admire, generated by the sensibilities of a artist I have grown to love.

Though my opinions on the plays we do are heard internally, I can neither get a play included in our season nor blackball one. I’ve often joked, though in my humor there is truth, that while a play is on our stage, I’m paid to like it, and so I do. As a result, I have successfully promoted plays I’ve loved, a few I’ve hated, and on several occasions ones I thought I’d loathe to find they moved me unexpectedly. So when Merchant was chosen, I never even suggested it shouldn’t be done. Yet, as one of the theater’s very few Jewish staffers, I suddenly began to find myself in the position of being, in the phrase that kept coming to mind, a defender of the faith.

I should say that I have no problem with Merchant being produced if the artists involved are using it to reinforce humanity, not fracture it — I do not believe that Shylock should be taken as an emblem of his people any more than Superfly or Fu Manchu represent theirs as a whole. They are all characters, created at a certain time in the history of the human race, which allow certain stories to be told. We lock these characters away at our own peril, for they must be exhumed periodically in an environment of enlightened debate — we must never forget them, we must be forced to grapple with them, if only to be reminded of the ignorance which led to their creation.

That’s not even fair to Shylock, since I think Shakespeare gave his character great complexity and variety, though I know that a certain ignorance indeed informed some aspects of his character. But knowing our theater’s director as I do, and knowing how he approached the play when he had directed it once before, I believed that Merchant could be performed as a condemnation of prejudice, not a perpetuation of it. Once the play took the stage, my faith in the director, my boss, was borne out in a complex and provocative production.

Yet…

I cannot discount the concerns of my Jewish brethren, even though I do not personally share them. Just as I respect and defend my theater’s right to produce the play, I absolutely understand where the animosity towards the play is coming from, and I respect it, even though I can’t help feeling that Merchant has become for many a Rorschach test, where each person projects themselves, and perhaps their own fears about others’ perceptions of the same ink blot, onto the images placed before them.

There are people in our community who are deeply pained to see Shylock on our stage, who see only his ugliness. There is nothing I can do or say to them or for them that would lessen their distress, though I understand its source, or alter their perceptions, which they have an absolute right to hold. I have tried to represent their reactions and their positions, which I anticipated from the moment the play was chosen, and will continue to, as a voice inside the institution. And in any job I ever have, when questions and concerns about Jewish identity come up, I will represent our common heritage, even though I may not wish to take up their distress as my very own.

I defend the race and the religion we hold in common even as I despair of not wholly sharing it. In doing so, I hope it brings me closer to the kind of God I so desperately want to believe in — the God who saw to it that a member of the Jewish clergy exposed a young Jewish boy to the decidedly Christian images which adorn many museum walls, a God who brought a Jewish man into the Tsar’s palace two generations after his ancestors fled from tyranny and poverty, not a God who would allow a Holocaust to happen only to find it used as a tool which would forever keep people wary of each other’s natures. But just as I defend my heritage in hopes of finding God — I defend The Merchant of Venice that is disturbingly alive on our stage, in the hope that it will bring everyone who sees it closer to eradicating the anti-Semitism, the anti-racism, it portrays – and I believe condemns.

(October 1993)



Posted on Monday, November 1st, 2010 at 9:25 am
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10 Responses to “Defender”

  1. Tweets that mention Defender -- Topsy.com Says:
    November 1st, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Esther and AmericanTheatre Wing, Theatre Department. Theatre Department said: RT @TheWing: Our exec dir @HESherman says that MERCHANT OF VENICE can be a Rorschach test for the viewer in new blog: http://ow.ly/32Be0 [...]

  2. Cole Matson Says:
    November 1st, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    This was beautiful. Not only as someone who is academically interested in the relationship between theatre and faith, but also as someone who decided to make a religious conversion because of a play I was performing in (A Man for All Seasons).

    Thanks for the reminder of the reality of theatre’s effects on us. And, for what it’s worth: God be with you.

  3. Kimberly Cox Says:
    November 1st, 2010 at 5:22 pm

    Mr. Sherman,

    Thank you. Thank you so much for the honesty, eloquence and for sharing this with us. It’s a keeper.

  4. Steve Loucks Says:
    November 1st, 2010 at 5:36 pm

    Bravo, Howard, for dusting off your excellent examination of what THE MERCHANT OF VENICE represents to you and sharing it with those who wonder about its place on any stage, be it Broadway or regional theatre.

    While I’m not Jewish, the complexity of emotions regarding Shylock’s depiction is one I certainly experienced when I saw a production of Shakespeare’s controversial work. It doesn’t take being Jewish to be repulsed by many of the play’s themes. To say I felt conflicted is an understatement.

    But if there is one saving grace, it’s the dialog that each production of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE creates and hopefully actively fosters. I hope the conversation demonstrates how far society has come in dispelling ugly myths, stereotypes and caricatures. I also hope that directors and their actors portraying Shylock can find the humanity in this merchant as well as others before them have.

    Thanks again for sharing your exceptional insights publicly for the first time.

  5. Don Horn Says:
    November 1st, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    Thank you so very much for choosing to publish this thought provoking essay. I plan to mail it to some English teachers and professors I know; I’m sure they will make excellent use of it in their classes and that it will elicit thought provoking and life changing discussions.

  6. Defender | The Content Beast Says:
    November 1st, 2010 at 5:46 pm

    [...] Via: American Theatre Wing [...]

  7. Esther Says:
    November 1st, 2010 at 6:17 pm

    Thank-you for sharing a moving, thoughtful, very personal post. It’s certainly given me some things to think about and it’s the kind of discussion that makes being a theatre fan so rewarding.

    I know that there are plays and musicals that have resonated with me because there’s a character who seems familiar or a situation that reminds me of something in my life or a song that strikes a chord. We all bring our own baggage to the theatre and it can be very intense because the actors are right in front of us.

    For example, I thought Next to Normal was a gut-wrenching, utterly compelling look at how mental illness affects an entire family. But I don’t have anyone close to me in that situation. If I did, I might have reacted differently or even skipped the musical altogether. I don’t know.

    I’ve decided to skip The Merchant of Venice partly because I’m Jewish and I really don’t want to sit through it. But it’s also partly because I just find Shakespeare’s language so inaccessible, so difficult to follow. I’d rather use my limited Broadway theatergoing slots on a work I think I’d get more out of. I’d love to see Al Pacino on stage. If it were any other play, I probably would see it. (Likewise, if it were the same play in modern English, I might see it.)

    Yet I certainly don’t begrudge anyone the experience. I remember reading The Merchant of Venice in high school and I think it has one of the most eloquent passages in literature against prejudice of any kind.

  8. Kerr Lockhart Says:
    November 2nd, 2010 at 10:36 am

    I understand the feelings of Jews about this play and the character of Shylock.

    But it limits the play to look at it only through the prism of Jewishness; especially since Shakespeare knew no more about that subject than he knew about what Venice was like.

    Shylock is such a victim that he has internalized the poison and become a double victim; first of others hatred and suspicion of him, and second, the hatred that has fostered in him. This aspect of MERCHANT, which is secondary to the principal story of Antonio, a man who thinks of himself as good but who is willing to cut corners to maintain his position, is about how deep the poison of hate runs, like a buried toxin that poisons our drinking water. Shylock is merely coughing up the poison that has infected his system, and the rest of society, the poisoners have no right to be shocked. Shakespeare seems to believe in the great Karmic wheel.

    I really don’t think it has much to do with Judaism or Jews, other than Jews being the available outcast and scapegoat of Europe. It would have fallen on whoever was handy. Today in America it is Muslims and Mexicans. Perhaps in a generation it will be people from off-planet.

    Shylock represents Jews to the same extent that Othello represents black people. Which is to say, they are merely Shakespeare’s symbol of the Other — they belong to the same wronged race as Caliban.

  9. Identity Crisis: Shylock and Hershell | jewtribe.com Says:
    November 8th, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    [...] Howard Sherman a theatre producer for the American theatre Wing expressed it thus. “Like many of my generation, much to the consternation of my parents’ generation and the generation that preceded them, I unwaveringly identify myself as Jewish, but I cannot call myself a faithful follower of Judaism. I am Jewish the way others are Italian or French” [...]

  10. Fractured Atlas Blog : Race Talk Says:
    November 12th, 2010 at 7:03 am

    [...] cutting us out of the equation, there’s enough Charlie Chans, Aladdins, Pocahontases, and Shylocks knocking about in our recent theatrical history to fill a house. Using the uncultured, [...]

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