A Life Interrupted, a Dream Fulfilled


Joan “Pessie” Hammer recently bustled through the crowd of hipsters and Chasidim at the first gallery exhibition featuring art by her late son, Moshe.

Clutching a siddur, the Lubavich mother animatedly chatted with patrons who admired his ethereal religious drawings: pages of a siddur and other texts he had fancifully calligraphied and illustrated. The tears came only when she stood alone before his work — which had been his sole and secret obsession before a truck struck and killed him two years ago at age 26.

Sixteen pages from his handwritten sefarim (religious books) are on display at the Jewish Artist Network gallery in Los Angeles, part of a show that also features four other artists.

Moshe Hammer’s pieces look like quirkier, black-ink versions of medieval illuminated manuscripts. The Hebrew letters dance and morph into images based on his intensive studies of commentaries on the sefarim.

A bedtime blessing depicts a gods-eye view of archangels guarding sleeping children; diverse, disembodied eyes decorate morning thanks to the Creator for opening one’s eyes, literally and metaphorically. A tempest-tossed ship, secured by its anchor, adorns the traveler’s prayer.

At the gallery opening, a middle age Orthodox woman held a magnifying glass to that piece, to see the meticulous detail.

“He had so much potential,” she murmured of the artist.

A young man wearing chains and black leather gazed at Hammer’s “God’s Deliverance Quick as a Gazelle,” noting how the letters leap in sync with the animal.

“Moshe’s work is both religiously and graphically compelling,” said Aaron Berger (a.k.a. Aaron No One), the exhibition’s curator.

Apparently, Hammer was feverishly working on such drawings when he took one of his late-night walks to clear artist’s block in July 2004. He had trekked miles from his Fairfax area apartment when the truck hit him at the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Western Avenue, killing him instantly, according to a coroner’s report.

At the time, Pessie Hammer did not know that her intensely private son had dedicated his life to studying Chasidism and illustrating religious texts.

“He was very protective of his work and he refused to speak of it or to show it to anyone,” recalls Hammer, 55, at her Beverly-Fairfax home after the opening.

Her son had often been elusive about his art. She didn’t learn that Moshe, as a 9-year-old, had sold his handmade comics at yeshiva until one of his old classmate told her after the funeral.

While Hammer had excelled at school, his family, in keeping with traditional Chasidic views, was concerned that he was showing too much interest in popular culture: “He wanted to know about anything and everything — to be part of it all,” his mother recalled.

In grammar and middle school, he had scribbled superheroes as students gathered to watch, sometimes delaying teachers from starting class.

“We felt he could not properly distinguish between the secular and religious worlds, so we wanted him to focus on Judaism in order to be able to make good decisions in life,” she said.

After consulting the family rabbi, the difficult decision was made to send Moshe away to East Coast yeshivas at age 14; four years later, he returned home thoughtful, quiet and studious. Yet he still pursued his artwork, both secular and religious, striving to find his creative niche. Over the next eight years, he took computer animation courses and studied creative writing at Santa Monica City College. He penned poems and taught himself to write comic screenplays, which he registered at the Writers Guild of America. He would also draw cartoon characters as well as a portrait of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

All the while, he supported himself, with help from his parents, by working odd jobs that allowed him time to pursue creative endeavors. In the last years of his life, he drove hearses and guarded the dead for the Jewish Burial Society, which ultimately laid his own body to rest.

The Schneerson portrait hangs above the mantle in Hammer’s living room, which is adorned with a photo collage depicting Moshe, the third of Hammer’s five children, at various ages. Nearby, on an antique buffet, are professionally bound scrapbooks filled with his art: his mother’s effort to turn his drawings into completed sefarim.

She had not seen the vast majority of these pieces when she didn’t hear from her son for two days in the summer of 2004. Pessie Hammer and her husband, Yosef, a postal worker, frantically searched the neighborhood for information on his whereabouts. The bad news came when a rabbi, a rebbetzin and a police investigator knocked on the Hammer’s door the night of July 15, 2004.

“I saw their dark, contorted faces, and I told my children, ‘Go to your rooms,’ because I knew what they were going to say,” she recalls.

Once they had run upstairs, the rabbi said her son was gone. He had identified Hammer’s body in a morgue photograph.

“I wanted to see Moshe, but everyone said he was so mangled that they did not recommend it,” Pessie Hammer says. “I felt I didn’t get to say goodbye to my son.”

She received some closure as she helped clear out his single apartment on Formosa Avenue two weeks later. After numbly packing up his antique bottle collection and Judaica, she opened the bottom drawer of his pine desk and discovered more than 300 pages of drawings.

“I was shocked, because I had never imagined he had created this much work,” she says.

She spent the next week sorting the pages around the clock — and figuring out what they actually were. Turns out her son had written and illustrated a Passover haggadah, a Book of Esther and a “Song of Songs,” as well as a siddur.

Terrified that the pages might fade, she spent the following two weeks quizzing experts about how to best preserve the drawings and to duplicate the originals. She insisted that copy shop employees redo any page that cut off even a millimeter of his intricate work.

Her goal was to carry out what she believes was her son’s last wish: In his apartment, she had found a list of his aspirations, which included a gallery show. She saw her chance when the Jewish Artist Network opened in her neighborhood and its 31-year-old founder, Aaron No One, responded to Moshe’s portfolio.

“I consider his work to be a kind of spiritual graffiti art,” the curator, wearing a hose clamp and a ski cap, said while standing in the back doorway at the recent opening, framed by secular graffiti outside. “His drawings bring the intangible into the physical realm, for all viewers to see.”

Pessie Hammer, standing nearby, nodded and said she felt her exceptionally private son had intended one day to praise God in a most public way.

He hadn’t been quite ready to do so in life, so his indefatigable mother made sure he was able to after his death.

The exhibition will be on display through May 25 at 661 N. Spaulding in Los Angeles. For information and gallery hours (sometimes it is necessary to make an appointment), call (562) 547-9078 or visit www.thejangallery.com or www.exitnoone.com.

 

Did You Know…?


Did You Know…?

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• Sometimes the marriage ceremony is held outdoors. Particularly in ultra-Orthodox and Chasidic weddings — but anyone can do this — the marriage ceremony is performed outside at night. The custom developed because the stars are associated with God speaking to Abraham: “I will bless thee and multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven and as the sand of the seashore” (Genesis 22:17).

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• The bride stands to the right of the groom because of a biblical verse is Psalms (45:10): “The queen stands on your right hand in fine gold of Ophir.”

In Jewish tradition, the bride is a queen and the groom is the king.

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• A light bulb is often substituted for a glass during the ceremony. Since many believe the main purpose of breaking the glass is to create noise (to scare away the demons), some prefer a light bulb because it is easier to break and usually makes a louder noise.

Will You Marry Me?

Grooms are making big productions of their proposals these days. Sometimes they rent a billboard; sometimes they pop the question at a quiet, intimate time; sometimes it is in a restaurant while a violinist plays their favorite song.

What’s in Style Today?

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• Bridal suits are making a comeback.

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• Rosette details on sleeves, bodices and backs are in the news. Rosettes are also used on the headpiece and accessories to complement the wedding gown.

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• Pink, peach, and other pastels are a fashionable alternative to traditional white, ivory and silky white.

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• Beads, lace, sequins, pearls and embroidery are used for embellishments.

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• In place of a regular wedding album, you might also choose a “storybook” plan, where the photographer takes continuous pictures so that you end up with a copy of a picture of each event and each shot. (This produces a very large and thorough album, and is more expensive than a standard album.)

Little Tricks of For a Great Wedding

For Him:

If you are able to control the music, select a romantic one. She will always remember the song that played when he proposed — and it is bound to become “your song.”

For Her:

Are you going to have a “Presentation of the Bride?” The groom is brought into a room before the ceremony. There he finds the bride, looking her most beautiful, in her wedding attire. The couple has some time to spend together, after which they have the signing of the ketubah and take photographs.

Other Kooky Wedding Customs

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•Couples in 18th-century Mexico shaved their heads to signify their adulthood.

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•French suitors sent their nail clippings to their betrothed.

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•In 18th-century England, a new bride’s mother-in-law broke a loaf of bread over her head to bring luck and happiness to the couple.

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•Polish brides brought luck and happiness to their new homes by walking around a fire three times and kicking each door with their right foot.

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•Prenuptial agreements, which have enjoyed a resurgence, actually date back to ancient Jewish and Roman marriages.

How To Get Through the Day

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• Stay Calm.

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• Break away for a few minutes

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• Take some deep breaths.

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• Keep focused and avoid problems before they become problems.

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• Just remember: The most important parts of planning an event is having fun and enjoying the benefits of all your hard work. With careful planning, even the most elaborate and glamorous affair can be a dream.

Joan Greenberger Friedman lives in Reading, Pa., and can be reached at joan@friedman.net.

Geneva Initiative Is Merely a Dream


The Geneva initiative is a dream. It’s unrealistic; it’s hoopla. I suppose people need diversions in their lives.

That it was a private Israeli citizen and members of the opposition party who drafted the initiative is fine in my book. That’s not a crime in Israel. There is no Logan Act forbidding ex-officio personalities from engaging in foreign negotiations. Israel actually has a history of similar actions.

The plan lays out borders that nearly approximate a return of Israel to pre-1967 borders. But it was the prerogative of those who composed the plan to put in it whatever they saw fit. So that, too, is OK with me.

What bothers me is that those who drafted the initiative and those who applaud the initiative don’t realize that it is only a dream. They think of it as a reality.

What bothers me is that they think that because they’ve put pen to paper, it will be possible for miracles to happen, for Israelis to live in peace and harmony with the Palestinians. That history has taught them nothing.

What bothers me is not what’s in the Geneva initiative, but what’s missing. That it never deals with the reality of "what happens when …?"

In international negotiations, when a country, like a person, is fooled once, we can chalk it up to naiveté. But when the citizens of that country commit the same exact mistake again, that’s sloppy thinking, it’s myopic vision, it’s irresponsible, it’s wishful thinking bordering on the delusional.

The first time, we can reason that the public may have been so consumed by the frenzy generated by an idea so powerful that it literally overwhelmed them, silencing all alternative voices in the public debate. Second time around, it frightens me and sets off warning bells. And that’s what I see happening now.

Geneva is the second time Israelis are making a colossal mistake in reasoning and calculations. The first was the Oslo accord.

The Oslo mistake was understandable — then and even now — in retrospect. Given the stresses involved in daily living in Israel at the time, the feelings of despair, the effort of absorbing suicide bombing attack after attack in major cities, it’s only reasonable that Israelis would embrace Yasser Arafat and his promise of peace.

The public, like Israel’s leaders at the time, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, ran headlong into the arms of their longtime enemy, dizzy with the prospect of a true peace. After all, everyone reasoned, things can never get any worse; now we’re going to make it all better.

Well, they were wrong, and history proved it.

And yet despite that history, there is very serious excitement in many corridors of power around the world. The Geneva initiative is being considered by serious personalities as a viable plan capable of advancing a just peace.

Has nobody read the document? No doubt, reality and politics are blurred here. Presidents and prime ministers, past and present, have sent letters of support for this initiative. Former President Jimmy Carter is a featured supporter of the program.

More telling, Richard Dreyfuss, a fine actor but nevertheless an actor, was the master of ceremonies at the official Geneva accord ceremony. Master of ceremonies? For a peace initiative?

The Israeli mastermind and senior representative is Yossi Beilin. He was one of the architects of the failed Oslo accord. Geneva is his second Oslo.

This time he thinks he can get it right. And he hopes that it will catapult him right back into the center of Israeli politics, a position from which he was rather unceremoniously removed for being even too far left for left-thinking Israelis.

Now he and his colleagues are out to magically resolve one of Israel’s great unsolvables. They think that it can be done with no consideration of failure or of potential unfulfillment of the agreement. The document contains not one clause dealing with what happens when.

What happens when the Palestinian side does not live up to its end of the agreement?

What happens when illegal weapons are not collected in the newly demilitarized Palestinian state?

What happens when new weapons are smuggled into or manufactured by the Palestinians and used to shoot at Israel?

What happens then?

Because the Geneva accord clearly states that Israel may not even enter Palestinian air space in order to pursue terrorists.

Because the plan explicitly describes how international forces will protect the Palestinians from Israeli incursions.

Because the plan states that the role of those forces is to supervise, in order to make certain that Palestinians are not hurt by Israelis.

What happens when the Palestinians break their promises?

What happens then?

What happens to Israelis?

That’s when their dream turns into a nightmare.


Micah D. Halpern is the founding director of the Jerusalem Center for European Study.

Dream a Little Dream


Joseph’s life is linked to dreams from his youth, and the way in which he responds to dreams reflects the level of his maturity.

As a boy, he delights in using his dreams to torture his brothers and triumph over them. While he never interprets these dreams, their meaning is so clear as to need no expert reading. Indeed, everyone who hears him relate these dreams knows he is using them to raise himself over others.

His next dream encounter is in an Egyptian jail where he tells Pharoah’s chief butler and baker the meaning of their dreams. Here we find a maturing, but not yet mature, Joseph. He says to them: "Do not interpretations belong to God?" (Genesis 40:9) This is a statement reflecting newfound humility. He realizes that dreams come from God and that only God can reveal their meaning. Having said this, however, he then says, "Relate it to me," as if he were God! While realizing the need to go beyond ego, Joseph is not ready to actually do so.

When Joseph is brought before Pharaoh and asked to interpret the king’s dreams, however, he does so from a very deep and spiritually mature place: "That is beyond me; it is God who will respond to Pharaoh’s welfare." (Genesis 41:16) There are two points that must be made regarding this text.

First, to be able to say "that is beyond me" is the key to spiritual life. It is the affirmation of the surrender that is needed if we are to realize God and godliness in our lives. It is the equivalent of Jacob’s "God is in this place and I did not know." (Genesis 28:16) These are both expressions of surrender. Joseph’s "I cannot do it" and his father’s "I cannot know it" are reflections of a level of spiritual awakening that reveals the limits of self and the limitlessness of God.

Second, to recognize that "it is God who will respond to Pharaoh’s welfare" is to realize that even when we seek to do good, we must realize that we are merely vehicles for God. Thus, we should take no pride in doing good, for that is why we were born. The Torah is not saying that we should ignore the needs of others and let God take care of things (Joseph certainly does not do this), but rather that even as we go about caring for others, we should not let that feed our ego. We should let it envelop us in a greater gratefulness that we are privileged to serve. We are not caring for others. Rather, God is caring for them through us.

Here, then, is the key to living spiritually: Knowing what is beyond and allowing God to respond. The first puts the ego in its proper place; the second allows it to be used for the proper purpose.

But we would be remiss to stop here and not take up the issue of dreaming itself. The talmudic sages tell us that prophecy is a small component of dreams. They come from God and speak to godliness, though they do so in a manner that is far from prophetic clarity. Where do they come from? What do they mean? How shall we use them?

Some dreams are simply the mind processing the day’s events. Others are the cold pizza you ate during Letterman or Leno. These dreams are most often nonsensical. They do not stay with you. Yet, there are other dreams that you cannot dismiss no matter how hard you try. These dreams come from the soul.

There is a game children play where one child closes his eyes and tries to find a ball the other children have hidden. As he moves closer to the goal they call out words of encouragement, as he moves farther away from it they call out words of despair. Dreams are like this. The goal is God. When you are moving closer to God in your thoughts, words and deeds, the dream sends word of encouragement. When you are moving further away, the dream shouts out words of warning.

No one can tell you for certain what your own dream is saying. All you can do is carry it with you and ask God. If you do this sincerely and humbly, you will know. If you do this sincerely and humbly, your very asking of God will move you closer to God. Your response to the dream will make the dream a voice for good.


Rabbi Rami Shapiro is director of The Simply Jewish Foundation,

Combating Prejudice


Although only 23 miles apart, Milken Community High School in Bel Air and Jordan High School in South Central might as well exist in different worlds.

Milken, part of Stephen S. Wise Temple and the largest non-Orthodox Jewish high school in the United States, was founded in 1990. Eight years later, the school moved into a new $32 million state-of-the-art building, which now houses 500 students, all Jewish, in grades nine through 12.

Jordan High School is home to almost 2,300 students, nearly all Hispanic or African American, in grades nine through 12. The high school, the first to be built in Watts, dates back to 1925. Protected by a high fence and barred windows, the school sits next door to the Jordan Downs housing project.

But through a program sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) A World of Difference Institute, students from both schools, including my 17-year-old son, Zack, are learning that they share more similarities than differences. They are learning that people should be judged, as Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed on the steps of the Washington Monument in 1963, not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

The students chosen for this program, 20 from each school, begin with a trip to the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance. The Milken students then travel to Jordan where, once they warily pass the gated and guarded entrance, they find that it doesn’t fit their image of a gang-infested and graffiti-covered inner-city school, that it offers an honors track and educates college-bound students. The Jordan students also spend a day at Milken.

“Students learn their own reactions to prejudice and stereotyping. It’s one thing to study in the abstract, another to experience firsthand,” says Nancy Schneider, Milken psychology teacher.

She, along with Milken history teacher Fran Lapides and Jordan drama and English teacher Mattie Harris, all ADL-trained coordinators of the exchange program, engage the students in a series of exercises from the ADL’s anti-bias teaching guide.

The students talk about times they have been hurt by name-calling.

“I get mad when people call me white boy,” says one of the Jordan students, whose mother is Caucasian and father Filipino.

“Sometimes kids call me dirty Persian,” a Milken student confesses.

“I don’t like it when my brother and sister call me Lite Bright,” says an African American student from Jordan, “just because their skin is darker than mine.”

They have clearly learned that the adage “Sticks and stones will break your bones, but names can never hurt you” is untrue.

By sharing these experiences in small groups, by talking about times they have said something hurtful or times they didn’t intervene, the students learn that they have all experienced pain, prejudice and powerlessness.

They also talk about the biases at their own schools, the conflicts between the African Americans and the Hispanics at Jordan and among the Americans, Russians, Persians and Israelis at Milken. They compare feelings of being excluded when a group of students talks in Spanish, Farsi, Russian or Hebrew.

During the social interludes, as they view the Watts Towers in South Central together or snack on pizza during a lunch break at Milken, they discuss music and clothes, television and movies. They complain about homework, overly strict parents and annoying siblings.

And they discover, as they chip away at the overlay of learned prejudices and stereotypes, that they are all teenagers, full of normal doubts, anger and stress. They discover, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once pointed out, that “most hate is rooted in fear, suspicion, ignorance and pride.”

For Milken 10th-grader Jon Kay, ignorance is the culprit. “It’s important to realize,” he says, “there are other people in the world, and they’re not much different. I don’t think kids are racist. We just haven’t been exposed much.”

Shawnta Jones, a Jordan ninth-grader, sees fear and suspicion at work. “People at my school say that Jewish people hate Black people. They say if we see Jews in person, we should turn away. I want them to see this. Jews are just like everybody else. We all have 10 fingers and 10 toes.”

The A World of Difference Institute began in 1985 as a campaign by the ADL and WCVB-TV in Boston “to combat prejudice, promote democratic ideals and strengthen idealism.” It is now a national program that, according to Julie Flapan, ADL’s project director in Southern California, has trained more than 250,000 American teachers in 31 cities and has affected more than 15 million students in public, private and parochial schools across the country.

For teachers Schneider, Lapides and Harris, the goals are twofold: to make the climate at both schools inclusive and respectful and to give the students the strength and skills to combat prejudice peaceably.
“If we are going to make any difference in this society, we have to do it on the local level, one on one,” Schneider says. “We have to reach the students before rigid ideas set in.”

To help achieve their goals, the two “sister schools,” as they call themselves, have formed an outreach committee, with five students from each school who meet regularly. Plans are also in the works for more joint ventures, including ADL training for a cadre of students in both schools, followed up with peer training.

And in honor of Martin Luther King Day, all 500 Milken students traveled on buses to Jordan High School, where they were addressed by Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of The Foundation for Ethnic
Understanding, and Martin Luther King III, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Mattie Harris, looking around at groups of students engaged in conversation, says, “I grew up in segregated Mississippi. Who would have dreamed that this could happen, that we could sit down and talk to one another at one table? That’s what Martin Luther King wanted — the realization that we are all our brother’s keeper. These kids now realize this.”

My son Zack adds, “This program is about more than just breaking down stereotypes. It’s about establishing personal relationships.”

Sharing Dreams


It’s a rainy Monday morning, and youth from Watts and Beverly Hills are sitting together in the auditorium of David Starr Jordan High School in South Central L.A. Rabbi Marc Schneier and Martin Luther King III share a stage, and even the ninth-graders are paying attention. This just may be what Martin Luther King Jr. Day is all about.

There has long been talk of problems between the Jewish and African American communities, but King and Schneier want to talk about shared dreams. Schneier has developed a one-day school curriculum, based on his book “Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King & the Jewish Community,” to which King wrote the forward. The book and the curriculum, distributed to 350 schools in New York and Los Angeles, use the words and inspiration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to foster better relations between African Americans and Jews. Used in addition to the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) “A World of Difference” program, the curriculum focuses on how Jews and African Americans struggled together for civil rights.

Schneier demonstrates Dr. King’s inspiration from the Old Testament, his personal friendships with prominent Jews like Abraham Joshua Heschel, and his strong public support for Jewish struggles in Israel and the Soviet Union. With Dr. King as a model, students learn that civil rights has been a struggle fought by both peoples, together.

Monday’s joint school assembly with brought a personal touch to the readings and class discussion. The choir from Milken sang “Hatikvah” and Jordan’s choir sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” with the two ensembles coming together for “The Star Spangled Banner.”

“I’ve seen and met new people,” said Milken junior Teddy Seidman, 16. “I think I need that.”

Seidman’s classmate Justin Friedman, also 16, admitted that he is “used to the same people every day,” adding that his discussion of this topic in a Jewish law class showed him it is “important to be a community, to keep an open mind and not separate ourselves.”

In Schneier’s address to the combined student bodies, he quoted Dr. King: “My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.”

When King got to the podium, he easily roused the crowd. He had found two more things shared and cherished by these teenagers, Jewish, African American, and Latino alike. They share a strong faith in God — and an encyclopedic knowledge of television commercials. King exhorted the students to keep their faith, to use it to make the world better, because “God is like Coca-Cola. He’s the real thing. God is like Pepsi. He’s the choice of a new generation.” By the time King got to God as a Visa card, Milken students and Jordan students were loudly cheering together for God.

The students of Jordan and Milken high schools have been getting to know each other and the problems they share on an ongoing basis through the ADL’s program. On this day, with Schneier and King, they got an enthusiastic history lesson on shared dreams.

A Window to the Soul


Laila Robins and Brian Cox in a scene from “Skylight”by David Hare

 

A romantic might regard a skylight as a window facing the sun –evidence of the universal but private human impulse to reach up, todream. But seen through a different lens, a skylight is a dangerouskind of artifice — a deliberately selective framing device thatoffers an idealized view of reality by excluding the messy chaos andpain that exists closer to the ground.

English playwright David Hare explores the uneasy coexistence ofwarring human impulses in “Skylight,” which is now onstage in itsWest Coast première at the Mark Taper Forum under directorRobert Egan.

Despite some moments in Act I that stall under the weight of theexposition, Hare weaves together the personal and the political herewith a good deal of wisdom and skill. To a certain degree, his workhas always been concerned with the larger-scale conflicts betweenleft and right, rich and poor, men and women. While “Skylight” is anambitious play charged with big ideas, it generally avoids thedreaded didacticism associated with “political theater.” Instead, setentirely in a modest flat in drab Northwest London, “Skylight” deftlyillustrates how the complex tensions that tug at contemporary Westernsociety play themselves out on an utterly human scale.

At the outset, we meet Kyra Hollis (played by the willowy andself-assured Laila Robins), who lives in the apartment where thedrama unfolds. A schoolteacher to underprivileged teens in “EastHam,” Kyra is intense, bookish, resolutely liberal and almost asceticin her disdain for material comforts. Her chilly flat lacks centralheating, so she huddles contentedly on the couch near a space heaterthat doesn’t work. (The apartment’s frigidity proves to be acontinuous source of humor throughout the play.)

It’s a life of small conversations on the cross-town bus and quietevenings at home, grading papers. Kyra may have spent her childhoodnear the cold English sea as the daughter of an affluent but remotesolicitor/father, but she now appears at home in the hardscrabbleenvirons of bohemian working-class London.

Her new life is thrown off balance, however, by a conversationwith the adolescent Edward Sergeant (an exuberant and entertainingturn by Michael Hall), a boy she watched grow up during the years sheworked for his parents. As chance would have it, she’s visited laterthe same day by his father, Tom Sergeant — a gruff and roguishlycharming business tycoon, played with relish by the magnetic BrianCox.

It turns out that years ago, Kyra was a young and talentedemployee of a growing restaurant and hotel empire run by Tom and hiswife, Alice. While Kyra was quickly welcomed into their family, herrelationship with the Sergeants was somewhat complicated. She sharedan intimate friendship with Alice, whom she admired and respected,and, for six years, she carried on a torrid and secret romance withTom. When Alice discovered the love affair, Kyra fled and neverlooked back.

Now, three years later, Alice has recently died of cancer, andTom, who has turned 50, stands with false bravado in the middle ofKyra’s living room — looking both seductively threatening andfaintly ridiculous in his expensive topcoat.

This chain of events, sketched only briefly here, is graduallyrevealed during the long, passionate night of talk that follows Tom’ssudden appearance at Kyra’s door. During the first few minutes ofthis reunion between former lovers, the air is heavy with old wounds,unanswered questions, sexual tension and the comic awkwardness thataccompanies it. The emotionally layered atmosphere (as well as DavidJenkin’s cleverly cluttered and inviting set) draw us in quickly.What keeps us there, interested in spending the night with thesemismatched lovers, are the full-bodied performances by Robins and Cox(whose looks and bearish energy are strongly reminiscent of AlbertFinney) as well as Hare’s wit and insight about modern life.

While Kyra makes dinner, trying to keep a wary distance from Tom’sforce field, he strides about her apartment, alternating well-placedswipes at her composure with funny observations on a variety ofsubjects, such as his dealings with the smug new class of youngbusiness consultants he has to contend with now that his company hasgone public. Of one he says, “He’s the kind of person who has beentold he’s good with people. He smiles a lot…. Naturally, he’s quiteinsufferable.”

Since Alice’s death, Tom is equally impatient with the false,touchy-feely intimacies extended to him by therapized professionals.With comic precision, he recounts to Kyra the invitation of a womanfrom a local “support group” who showed up at his door one day to”help him grieve.”

As the night grows late, their conversation, as well as theirattraction, grows more frank and piercingly close to the bone. BothKyra’s and Tom’s public faces are slowly stripped away. Her sense ofself-containment and righteous liberalism are rattled by Tom, whoaccuses her of living a niggardly emotional and material life builton denial and fuzzy leftist sentiment. Her thin, almost abstracthuman relationships and chilly apartment, he argues, are closer tothe icy loneliness of her childhood than she thinks.

Kyra dismisses Tom’s own initial show of gruff cheer as numb maleposturing, fueled by an inability to face pain. His blustergrudgingly gives way, revealing the anger and confusion that liebehind the surface.

“Skylight” may paint the picture of a highly specific love story– messy with psychological scars and conflicting desires — but it’sincorporated onto the larger canvas of historical and politicalcrosscurrents. (“It wasn’t until I left those capriccio andricotta-stuffed restaurants of yours,” Kyra tells Tom at one point,”…that I remembered how other people lived.”) Personal ambitionsversus social responsibility. Love versus self knowledge.

With “Skylight,” Hare illuminates how our public selves are shapedand propelled by our private lives. On close inspection, the detailsthat make up the “big picture” are a series of potently individualones.

“Skylight” is at the Mark Taper Forum through Oct. 26. 135 N.Grand Ave., Los Angeles. For tickets ($29 to $37), performanceschedule or other information, call (213) 628-2772. n