On Being Out
I have been working in the arts for over 10 years now. I am a writer, facilitator, performer and theatre maker. For my whole career I have been what is commonly known as an ‘out Jew’. Meaning people know I am Jewish. I do not hide the fact I am Jewish. When I started focusing more on playwrighting I changed my surname back to what it would have been pre 1930s. To before my family changed it to sound less Jewish, as being Jewish in the UK then still prevented you from getting certain jobs or being in certain spaces. But I thought there is no need to hide now. I can change it back. I am an ‘out Jew’. As a white Jew, a white man I could have chosen to pursue my career without highlighting to people I was Jewish. I could have not leant into this. However it was very important to me, and still is to embrace who I am, embrace that part of myself and make work which reflects it, challenges it and empowers others to embrace that part of themselves.
On being too Jewish
As I navigated the theatre world as a Jewish artist there are several things that struck me, the first is how unreceptive some institutions are to Jewish work. Some have told me- we do not have the audiences for this here. There are no Jews here. To which I always reply, ’you don’t need to be an elf to enjoy Lord of the Rings’. This show in question has toured across the UK to some of the most rural non Jewish areas and sold out to great responses from audiences. One venue said that they didn’t see that experience as true. This was a play about a custom that has been going on in London for over 100 years. Another venue just told me, ‘they could not engage with the work’. This was a play that featured a very specific Yiddish that is only spoken in London. There is a reading of this which you might think. ‘God this person is bitter- maybe they just didn’t like the work?’ Maybe, maybe that is true. However I have also been commissioned by some of the biggest theatres in the UK and have toured internationally. Yes, things are subjective. But, the language and the actions speak to me of institutions that do not acknowledge nor understand a diversity of Jewish experience. Do not see us as a diverse group of people with different cultures and backgrounds. See us as a homogenised group. They want to understand us immediately, to put us in a box that is Jewish. Now I have already told you I am white. I’m inviting you now to take a moment to think about what ‘a Jew’ looks like to you. I bet you have a specific idea. Well it’s right and it’s also wrong. We are not a homogeneous block. And from my experience this is a challenge for some organisations to get their head round. “What! You don’t all live in New York, are white, ashkenazi and eat bagels!”…well some of us are and some of us are not and there is some thinking to do about why it is so challenging for Non Jews to accept this diversity. There is a serious lack of understanding that needs to be addressed, a huge perception gap about Jewish culture, identity and diversity. The impact of this is that it forces some Jewish makers, who want to make Jewish work, to either accept what is wanted of them or to just give up.
On being the right kind of Jew
There is something else that is insidious about this lack of understanding. And that is certain expectations about who you are and what your beliefs are. Thankfully this has only happened to me once. But once is enough. I was in a pitching meeting about a play. A play with a very specific Jewish context. The pitch went very well and they loved the idea. Then there was a moment when my political alignment with Israel was questioned. Now in the moment I shrugged it off. There were a lot of things at play here. Think about that power balance in the room. The fact I wanted my play commissioned. However my play had nothing, and I mean nothing to do with Israel. So, why ask this question? Why? The assumption about my relationship to this country is out and out antisemitic. But I did nothing. Said nothing, I answered the question. My politics aligned with the theatre. I was the right Jew for them.
Not long after this I began meeting other Jewish artists. Many of whom were still ‘in’. As I have always been out and have been lucky enough to make the work I want to, I decided that I was well placed to bring Jewish artists together. I started small, having people round my flat talking. Talking about why they feel they don’t want people to know. Why they feel uncomfortable, why they feel that letting people know will harm their career. All of this reminded me of when I saw a Jewish show and heard a member of the audience at the end say it was ‘too Jewish’. I knew this person. A Jewish person. We have been trained to be smaller, to shrink our Jewishness so as not to stand out. This impacts directly how some Jewish artists present themselves. They don’t tell people they are, they ignore micro-aggressions directed towards Jews, they actively try to make themselves seem less Jewish. Even my own family asked me when I would stop making Jewish work, as if it was embarrassing. Funnily enough the most problematic review I received for a show was from a Jewish reviewer when I was in Edinburgh, the line ‘As such, it might be more at home in the East End where it is nominally set than north of the border.’ basically saying keep the Jewishness where it belongs. Not here, not here in the mainstream.
This is an extract from a longer Think Piece that I wrote for The What If Experiment to use as part of their training. I have been asked to put some of it on the internet for people outside of the training to read. I accepted with trepidation. Over the course of the last few months I have been targeted, by some, for apparently taking the side of antisemites and getting in the way of progress. I have found the discourse online so hurtful and harmful that I have chosen to omit my name from this publication. But to say the hanging out to dry by other Jewish people and the readiness to brandish me self loathing, complicit or even a court Jew is sadly the most upsetting and offensive part of all of this. We live in an a systematically antisemitic society. When jews target other jews it is helpful to that antisemitic society. It is helpful when Jews call others not Jewish enough or the wrong type of Jew. let’s not fight over the scraps and instead hold in our minds, no one is free until we are all free