It is 1996 and Nathan Abramowitz, the central character of Jason Sherman's READING HEBRON, is obsessed with Baruch Goldstein's murder of twenty-nine Moslem's who were praying in the Temple of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Goldstein, a doctor who refused to treat Arabs, walked in to the temple armed with automatic weapons and shot down as many people as he could before he was killed by Arab men who had been praying. What does this event say about Israel, about Judaism, about Nathan Abromowitz himself? Nathan's search for answers is juxtaposed against scenes depicting the official Israeli investigation that decided that Goldstein's murders were the act of an individual who wasn't even really an Israeli (Goldstein was an American who had emigrated to Israel, but weren't many Israelis also such emigrants?). How could one say this was an individual act when Israeli soldiers are ordered never to shoot settlers, only Arabs? The Israelis we see and hearing the play see Palestinian Arabs as inferiors and potential killers. Some sang in praise of Goldstein. Many Israelis believe God gave Palestine to the Jews, so the Arabs have no right on Jewish land.
Nathan Abramowitz is an odd character. His own life is a mess. He has lost his wife, is indifferent to his sons, and turns down a full-time job. He is not a believer in Judaism. His search for an understanding of the Hebron massacre leads him down an intellectual rabit hole. Sherman's play is called READING HEBRON because reading about the massacre and the background of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes Nathan's life. Authors come to life -- Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Hanan Ashrawi and others become as real to him as the people in his life. Sherman's play attempts and mostly succeeds at doing what novels tend to do better than drama -- give us the internal life of a character as well as external experience. Its one hundred minutes are challenging and stimulating. There are no simple answers to Nathan's questions, so the play is also open-ended though critical of Israeli attitudes and policy toward the Palestinians. It is as timely now as when it was written in 1996. For those of us in England, it is a fascinating corollary to the television miniseries, THE PROMISE that is now being shown. THE PROMISE is a British-European-Israeli co-production shot in Israel that in its last episode depicted the horrors of Hebron where Jewish settlers viciously harass and bully Palestinians while Israeli soldiers stand by and watch. Clearly the policy is to do anything to drive Arabs out of what the Jewish settlers see as only theirs (I doubt that THE PROMISE will be shown in the US).
The wonderful Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond is to be congratulated for producing this play. The Orange Tree is a 150 seat theatre-in-the-round, so productions there are simple and definitely in your face. The five member ensemble was excellent. David Antrobus captures Nathan's obsession and his personal weakness. The other four actors play all the other characters. As usual, veteran director Sam Waters has captured the tone and rhythm of the piece. READING HEBRON is a difficult play: you can't let your attention flag for an instant. Clearly Sherman has read his Tom Stoppard. Stoppard, however, seldom has taken on crucial current events. One of the great joys of being a theatergoer in England is seeing a variety of plays that make us think about and question our world -- which is what theatre should do. There's enough mindless entertainment on television and in our movie theatres.
READING HEBRON by Jason Sherman. Orange Tree Theatre. February 22, 2011.