Culture and conflict

Marilyn Klinghoffer places flowers on the casket of her late husband, Leon Klinghoffer on Oct. 21, 1985. Leon Klinghoffer, was an American citizen killed by terrorists who hijacked an Italian cruise liner. Composer John Adams’ opera ‘The Death of Kinghoffer,’ stirred controversy from its inception. Opera Theatre of St. Louis is staging the opera in June — its first North American production in 20 years. File photo: Religious News Service photo

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Kathleen Sitzer was braced for the impact but it never came.

“Surprisingly, it was extremely positive,” she said. “I was all prepared for a lot of flak about it. I didn’t get it and I was delighted.”


It was 2005 and Sitzer, artistic director of the New Jewish Theatre, found herself breaking new ground. “The Merchant of Venice,” after all, isn’t a traditional piece for a Judaic stage. Renowned for its unflattering portrayal of Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, the Shakespearian classic is sometimes shunned even by mainstream theaters due to its anti-Semitic themes.

Still, Sitzer believed it was worthwhile.

“You are reading what the sentiment was at that time,” she said, “and there’s a value to placing these feelings and sentiments in time, hopefully to see how we’ve progressed beyond them.”

This month, another opportunity for community reaction beckons, this time in response to the Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ production of “The Death of Klinghoffer,” which tells the story of Palestinian terrorists boarding the Italian ship Achille Lauro and sending a Jew, Leon Klinghoffer, overboard to his death.

The question of when and how culture and art should tell stories that are socially painful is a difficult one. Artists, educators, social critics and even those who have been affected directly, such as the Klinghoffer family, bring myriad opinions and perspectives to the table about what constitutes valuable and constructive dialogue. Such dialogue is the linchpin in a new quarterly series called “Can We Talk?” sponsored by the Jewish Light, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Community Center. The first community conversation, “Culture and Conflict: Jewish Issues in the Arts” will take place at 7 p.m. Monday, June 6 at the JCC’s Arts and Education Building. It is free, though RSVPs are requested (see sidebar).

‘Subtlety, nuance, shades of meaning’

Sitzer may have been surprised by the lack of negative blowback from her staging of “Merchant” but she was ready for it, just as many in her position across the community must be when grappling over questions of appropriateness and balancing works that have historical, stimulative or thought-provoking content with the desire to be sensitive to one’s audience. It’s not always an easy or clear-cut task to know when to push the envelope and when to pull back on the reins.

“The arts, by their nature, are ambiguous,” said Bob Goldfarb, president of the Los Angeles and Jerusalem-based Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity. “They use subtlety, nuance and shadings of meaning.”

He said that productions, like paintings or sculptures, are meant to be interpreted by the viewer. “Whenever you have significant works of art, they are bound to invite different responses from different people,” he said. “It’s the reason the arts can be the best way to talk about difficult topics.”

But considering the composition of the audience can be just as important as the composition of the piece in question. With its focus on community building, the Jewish world is not always the right place for pieces that don’t accomplish that goal, he said. Other venues, such as general interest films at the local Cineplex, may apply a different standard.

“I think it’s perfectly reasonable for the Jewish community to say there are some things that are less appropriate to be sponsored by the community than to be seen in a different context,” Goldfarb said.

It’s a fact that became very apparent in 2009 at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. According to reports from J Weekly, the local Jewish newspaper, a showing of the documentary “Rachel” provoked a strong reaction from the area’s Jewish community. The 100-minute film chronicled the story of Rachel Corrie, an American college student killed by a bulldozer during a protest action in the Gaza Strip. Since her death, Corrie has become a symbol to many pro-Palestinian groups.

The brouhaha over the showing – and the invitation of Corrie’s mother to speak – resulted in strongly worded complaints from some film festival sponsors. A pro-Israel speaker was added to the agenda for balance but video of the event showed him being frequently shouted down by a hostile audience during a 10-minute talk. Reactions were mixed from Jews in the theater, some of whom told the newspaper they had been interested in seeing the film but were dismayed by the audience reaction.

St. Louis hasn’t had any incidents of that type though Corrie’s story has been told here as well. “My Name is Rachel Corrie,” a one-woman production, was staged in town last summer. Magan Wiles, a local actress, starred in the production, which she said was based on Corrie’s diary and emails the young woman sent to her mother.

Wiles, who is not Jewish, said the show, which has been staged in other venues nationally, wasn’t primarily about politics but rather about Corrie herself. “You can’t ignore what she has to say about the conflict and how she feels about it but the play is not intended to be a full exploration of that issue,” said Wiles.

Wiles said that a number of Jewish people in the audience for the play spoke up afterwards at a scheduled talkback event. “They were coming in expecting to see a play about this militant activist and it wasn’t,” she said.

She said some said they didn’t agree with Corrie’s views but wanted to see the play. She recalled only one man who was truly upset and had apparently known someone harmed in a suicide bombing. She said she admired his bravery for speaking out.

Wiles added that while the play is told largely from one point of view, the presentation was theater, not journalism. “It wasn’t intended to be a fair and balanced news report,” she said. “It was about what this woman thought and why she did what she did.”

The Death of Klinghoffer

More recently, another production has been stirring talk in the St. Louis Jewish community. Later this month, “The Death of Klinghoffer” will receive its first North American staging in 20 years when it’s presented by Opera Theatre of St. Louis (OTSL). A work by noted composer John Adams, the opera is an account of the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly Jewish passenger aboard the Achille Lauro, a ship hijacked by terrorists in 1985. Klinghoffer was shot, then dumped from his wheelchair into the ocean.

Since its first performance in 1991, the opera has drawn fire from some who say it promotes sympathy for Klinghoffer’s killers. Karen Aroesty, head of the Anti-Defamation League of Missouri and Southern Illinois, said the ADL’s position is a simple one.

“‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ takes a terrorist event and attempts to rationalize or legitimize it,” she said. “It was a murder, plain and simple.”

ADL has a longstanding relationship with the Klinghoffer family, which has also expressed unhappiness at Adams’ work. The group and Klinghoffer’s two daughters, Lisa and Ilsa, founded the Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer Memorial Foundation.

Both daughters are opposed to the “Klinghoffer” performance, and have called it anti-Semitic. In a statement released through the ADL, the pair said they were “distressed” at Opera Theatre’s decision to stage the piece.

“Our personal grief and sensitivity to the controversy that has surrounded presentations of the opera since its premiere are not diminished by the passage of time,” said the statement. “We are strong supporters of the arts, and believe that theater can play a critical role in examining and understanding significant world events.  This opera, however, does no such thing.  ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ takes a heinous terrorist event and rationalizes, legitimizes, and explains it.”

The statement said a murder cannot be presented in “balanced” manner.

“There can be no compassion, understanding or objectivity for terrorists, no matter who they are, where they live or what their story is,” it added.

Tim O’Leary, general director of OTSL, said the production is in fact a call to abandon violence not to justify it. He points to a touching aria near the end of the production in which the actress playing Marilyn Klinghoffer sings about the loss of her husband.

“It is a deeply moving and deeply meaningful work of art that eloquently condemns hatred and extremism,” said O’Leary. “I think that anyone who comes and sees our production will understand our point of view about the piece and why it is so meaningful and so powerful.”

He also mentions a section in which one of the terrorist characters flatly rejects the idea of peace as a solution making his extremist views clear. O’Leary, who is not Jewish, said that throughout history works of drama have always dealt with evil characters but should not be taken as an endorsement of their behavior.

He said “The Death of Klinghoffer” reminded him of the movie “Dead Man Walking.”

“In ‘Dead Man Walking,’ you are dealing with a contemporary character who is also based on a real murderer,” he said. “It’s a very similar situation in which the character tells his story.”

Steven Woolf, artistic director of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, said he understands the challenge of balancing matters of appropriateness with the need to present provocative work.

“It’s tricky and certainly difficult for any producing organization to thread those needles,” he said.

Woolf said he felt Opera Theatre was handling the production well by keeping the community informed and promoting discussion. In fact, O’Leary’s group has partnered with the Jewish Community Relations Council to do that for the play, set to premiere June 15.

Woolf said it was important not to be sensationalistic just for sensationalism’s sake. He added he would not stage something that openly promoted bigotry but he thought it was also vital to push the boundaries now and then.

“The stories are there,” he said. “We shouldn’t be avoiding the stories. I firmly believe that the theater is a civilizing force and you can only get to civilization it seems to me by having interaction and discussion.”

Woolf, who is Jewish, remembered attending a performance in London of a David Edgar production called “Albert Speer,” which presented Hitler’s favorite architect in a somewhat empathetic light. He said some audience members were disturbed by the idea.

“My reaction was that it was thrilling theater and raised a whole series of questions that I thought needed to be dealt with,” he said.

Woolf said many factors go into deciding the appropriateness of a show from the intended viewership to the mission of the company to the region of the country in which it plays.

Still, almost any production can draw critics who see insensitivity in it. Woolf said a recent Rep staging of “The Fall of Heaven,” drew a complaint from someone who didn’t like the idea of angels and humans interacting directly. Even classic shows such as “Cabaret,” some versions of which involve an unfurling of the Nazi flag, can also attract negative comments.

“It really makes no difference how controversial the show is. We could do the most innocent piece and somebody is going to question something,” Woolf said.

Sitzer said she, too, understands Opera Theatre’s position. She recalls the opening of “Via Dolorosa,” in 2007, which also had themes related to the Mideast conflict.

“It was seen by some as being a little too left-leaning,” she said. “I was looking for something as balanced as possible and that was the closest I could find at the time.”

Where art meets life

Sometimes a production’s opening can draw more than complaints. Joan Lipkin, artistic director of That Uppity Theatre Company, remembers doing a pro-choice-themed production called “He’s Having Her Baby” in 1990. She was shocked to find death threats on her answering machine.

The experience prompted thoughts that would echo in her head some years later, before the opening of “Becoming Emily,” based on the story of a nurse whose life was changed by an abortion clinic bombing. Just weeks before the curtain was to rise, Lipkin was horrified to hear of the murder of Dr. George Tiller, a Wichita, Kan., abortion provider who was gunned down in his church. She knew Tiller so it hit close to home. She wondered whether she should continue with the play.

“I was frightened for me. I was frightened for my cast. I was concerned for my audience,” recalled Lipkin, who said there hadn’t been any threats against “Becoming Emily.” “I did a lot of soul searching and the upshot was that the police department provided us with around the clock protection.”

She said the show went on.

Lipkin, who is Jewish, said that she has been no stranger to controversy, sometimes focusing her work on gay-related issues or topics such as abortion.

“Through the alchemy of theater and live performance, I feel you can shine a light on injustices in the world or on experiences that need further illumination but sometimes it is not without consequence,” she said. “There can be such a fear of the free exchange of ideas that it can trigger violence or censorship.”

She said the nature of art is to be unsettling, questioning assumptions and inviting dialogue. It’s a mission she sees as tied to Jewish traditions of learning and discussion. It’s also important to experience a production before being critical of it, she said.

Still, Lipkin notes that while art is often controversial, not all controversy is necessarily art.

“What we don’t want is controversy for controversy’s sake because that’s not dialogic,” she said. “That’s just based on grandstanding and commerce. Can I make enough of a fuss that somebody will pay attention to me? That doesn’t necessarily constitute art.”

One thing most people seem to agree on is that the border between insensitive provocations and thought-provoking art can be a difficult one to discern. Both can be controversial.

“Raising a dialogue and addressing issues is legitimate but I don’t think there’s a line you can draw,” said ADL’s Aroesty. “I think the nature of artistic creativity is such that every individual instance needs to be taken on its own merits.”

“Can We Talk?” is a quarterly series sponsored by the Jewish Light in collaboration with the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Community Center. The first community conversation, “Culture and Conflict: Jewish Issues in the Arts” will take place at 7 p.m. Monday, June 6 at the JCC’s Arts and Education Building. The session is free, though RSVPs are requested in advance by contacting Diane Maier at 314-442-3190 or [email protected] or RSVP online at A dessert reception will follow the conversation.