Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Mavens in DC: Identifying the Other
By Daliya Karnofsky

Two weekends ago, David Schiller and I went to Washington D.C. to perform Parshat Vayera: Child's Play for two very special communities. We had two incredible experiences. Our first performance was on Friday night for Gay and Lesbian Outreach and Engagement of the Washington DCJCC (GLOE), in collaboration with Bet Mishpachah Congregation. The Saturday morning performance was for the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes (JFGH), in collaboration with GLOE.

We adapted the story of the exile of Ishmael and Hagar to become something deeply personal to these communities.

Ishmael and Hagar live with Sarah, Abraham, and Isaac as one family, until one day Sarah sees something pass between the boys that she does not like and this is the straw that breaks the camel's back. Sarah insists that Abraham break the family up and send Ishmael and Hagar into the desert on their own, leaving Isaac as Abraham's one and only heir.

When David and I first received the script for Child's Play, the main characters were Sarah and Abraham, and the focus of the story was on whatever it was that passed between Ishmael and Isaac that incited Sarah to take such a dramatic step. The word used in the Torah is "metzachek", and has many different meanings: from playing to laughing to fighting and even fooling around.

But for these two communities, we decided it was not important to decipher what exactly was meant by this word and what exactly transpired between the two brothers. What was more important was the aftermath of this crucial moment. The breaking up of a family, and one half of the family being made to feel like the "other". The notion that not everyone belongs in a family, and must be sent on their way because of their "other"ness. We chose to highlight the voices of Ishmael and Hagar; to feel what it was they felt as they were cast out into the desert. This is a topic that is viscerally relevant to the two communities for which we performed.

As Alex Greenbaum (a lay leader for GLOE) stated as the last point in a riveting discussion that could have gone on all night with the GLOE and Bet Mishpachah communities, the "other" in this story is exactly equivalent to a queer family today. A family that is not good enough to be a family. That is told that because of who they are, they are not fit to be part of a family. This point summed up a lot of the emotions that had been coming out that night, and Ishmael and Hagar's voices were poignantly heard.

Performing this point of view for the members of the group homes was equally touching. The families formed in the group homes are certainly not traditional and are made up of people who have lived their lives as the "other". Our audience recognized that what Sarah did was wrong, as they empathized with the importance of inclusion and the different definitions a family can have.

All in all, mission accomplished. The voice of the "other" was heard; the notion of a non-traditional family was explored. We wanted to give these communities the opportunity to voice this for themselves as well, and that they did. The discussions we had during and after the Maven were eye-opening and encouraging, and will continue for many years to come. Hopefully with very different endings.

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