In N.Y. play, echoes of anti-Semitic discrimination and the horrors of an African war

At the start of “Rash,” Jenni Wolfson appears onstage in a green peasant skirt and khaki top to the sound of cascading gunfire. Her long brown hair is unceremoniously pulled back with a black scrunchie. From a trunk she pulls out a flak jacket and puts it on.

Wolfson then takes center stage and starts speaking about an incident from her years of U.N. service in post-genocide Rwanda.

In her Scottish brogue, she talks of being forced from her vehicle by Hutu rebels with her fellow human rights observers, stripped of her identification and threatened with death, of a hand running up her thigh as one of her abductors whispered in her ear, “We’re going to have fun with you.”

Rising from her knees, she slips into a story about her time in a Glasgow high school, when a cute boy tossed a half-penny coin in front of her and said, “Pick that up, Jew.”

The juxtaposition is not exactly subtle: Her experience of discrimination as a Jew led directly to the human rights work she wound up pursuing after completing her master’s degree in the field at Essex University.

“If I didn’t have that firsthand experience of being discriminated against on the basis of religion, then I may have never ended up going into human rights,” she told JTA over coffee at a cafe near her office at Witness, a nonprofit that trains activists to use video to document humanitarian abuses. Wolfson, 43, is the managing director.

Onstage during “Rash,” a one-woman show now playing in New York as part of the All for One Festival, tea is Wolfson’s beverage of choice. Born in Scotland, a country of just 5,000 Jews, Wolfson was raised in a traditionally Jewish family, observing holidays and rituals, though not stringently. It was during a Friday-night family dinner that Wolfson learned the United Nations had offered her a job as a human rights monitor in Rwanda.

“But Jenni-kins, you can type more than 80 words a minute,” her father said, protesting her intention to deploy to the violent central African nation.

In Rwanda, it wasn’t her typing prowess but her gift of gab that proved most useful as she collected prisoner testimonies and investigated claims of atrocities. She would spend three years there in prisons filled with Hutus accused of genocidal crimes.

Her superiors at the United Nations credit her volubility for influencing the Hutu rebels to release her and her colleagues, she says in the play. Nowadays she uses the same talent for narrative at Witness. Storytelling, it seems, pervades all of Wolfson’s work, on and off the stage.

Not that the stage is her natural habitat. She began taking acting classes on a lark when she moved to New York to work for UNICEF after returning from field work in Rwanda and Haiti. She trained UNICEF employees being sent abroad to manage crises, teaching them how to demobilize child soldiers and what to do if they’re taken hostage.

“Unbeknownst to UNICEF, the entire training schedule was built around my classes and showcases,” she explained.

At first, Wolfson brought fictional monologues to class. But one night she decided to tell a short story from her time in Rwanda.

“I read it and I looked up and no one was speaking. A few people were crying,” she recalled. “They said, ‘Dump your fiction. We really want to hear about what’s happened in your life.’ ”

“She was a walking New York Times article,” said Jen Nails, who taught Wolfson in a solo performance workshop at the People’s Improv Theater and is directing this production of “Rash.” “She was an accessible, normal woman who we can identify with, but had been a witness to all of these horrific crimes.”

Every week after, Wolfson brought in stories drawn from her experiences in Rwanda. At the end of the class, Nails told Wolfson that she had a one-woman show on her hands. Eventually Wolfson was persuaded to consolidate her experiences into a play.

“When I first started writing the play, I had nightmares for the first time,” she said. Up until that class, Wolfson had rarely spoken about her time in Rwanda.

The result of this artistic therapy is “Rash,” so-called for the skin irritation that developed under her eye when she first began working in Rwanda. The title also speaks to her state of mind and personal decision-making style during this time. During the play, she confesses to the foolhardy things she did to visit her boyfriend, a Cameroonian animist and fellow U.N. employee, including driving alone on roads rigged with landmines.

Wolfson first performed “Rash” in 2007 and has since traveled the country with the show. She even performed it in her native Scotland with her parents in the audience. But this run in New York, which ends Sunday, marks the first time she has stepped back into her younger self since becoming a mother.

“I wanted to see what it was like to perform onstage being a mum because I feel like I’m a very different person,” she said. “I’m much more emotional and I feel more connected to my story.”

She is also much more sympathetic to her parents’ perspective.

“It wasn’t until I had a child three years ago that I realized what I put my parents through,” Wolfson said.

Though her parents’ sleepless nights may be over, Wolfson plans to take her show to college campuses, which just might persuade other young people to travel abroad and make their parents sick with worry. At the end of “Rash,” Wolfson imagines a phone call like the one she answered at 27 that sent her to Rwanda.

“Can you leave next week for Somalia?” she imagines being asked.

In a past life, Wolfson probably would have packed her bags, her rashness overcoming concerns for her personal safety and her parents’ frayed nerves. But now it’s someone else’s call to answer.

A Good Place to Start

The Torah has no title page. It has neither an author’s introduction nor a preface — nothing to tell us why the book was written or how it is to be read. The very first line begins with a complete lack of self-consciousness: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).

On this line we find a remarkable comment by the most famous of Jewish Bible commentators, Rashi, Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of 11th century France. Rashi cites a classical midrash: “Rabbi Isaac asked: Why does the Torah begin with Genesis? The Torah should have begun with the verse (Exodus 12:2): ‘This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months,’ which is the first commandment given to Israel. For what reason does the Torah begin with Genesis?”

Rashi’s commentary on the Torah provides the Jew with a broad survey of law, theology and wisdom — a basic curriculum of Jewish learning. Rashi’s genius is to state the most penetrating questions in the most concise idiom. This one is a gem. Within this innocuous question is a world of debate on the nature of Judaism and purpose of the Torah.

Follow the logic of the question: If the Torah began at Exodus 12, what would we lose? We would lose the accounts of Creation, the origins of humanity, the Flood, the Covenant with Abraham, the lives of forefathers and mothers, the birth and call of Moses. Who would want to delete these stories? Who would expect the Torah to begin at Exodus 12? Only one who understands Judaism as preeminently a system of behavior, a set of religious actions — one who reads Torah solely as a book of law. If Judaism is only about behavior and Torah entirely law, why waste parchment and ink on stories? Who needs Genesis? Start with Exodus 12!

Exodus 12 is not the first commandment of the Torah. The Torah’s first commandment is given to all humanity and occurs in the first chapter of Genesis: “Be fruitful and multiply.” Exodus 12 is the first commandment given to the people of Israel. It is the beginning of “Jewish time,” juxtaposed to the beginning of universal time at the Creation. Who would expect Torah to begin with Exodus 12? One who believes that the Torah is only for Jews; that Torah speaks in a private Jewish language, with nothing to say to humanity. One who hears the Torah addressing only the Jew in us, only our particularity, and not the human being in us. If Torah speaks only to Jews, and only to the Jew in us, who needs Genesis? Start with Exodus 12!

The Torah begins with Genesis and its narratives to refute the reduction of Judaism to obsessive behaviorism and narrow chauvinism. The Torah begins with Genesis because the behaviors that Judaism demands of us are rooted in the biblical narrative. There we find a distinctly Jewish orientation toward the world — a Jewish understanding of life, of what it means to be human, of good and evil, of God’s presence and involvement in our world. The mitzvot have a vital purpose — to cultivate our spiritual character, to grow our souls and connect our lives with God. Performing ritual acts without concern for their meaning and intent is as hollow as professing beliefs that have no impact on behavior. Meaningful imperative requires compelling narrative.

Even Exodus 12 validates this conviction. Commanded to instruct the people Israel on the detailed observance of the Passover — the sacrifice, the sacred meal, the unleavened bread and the prohibition against leaven — Moses adds one element not explicit in God’s command: “When your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say: ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt….” (Exodus 12:26-27). Rite must be embedded in story. For shared story is critical to the life of a community and to the practice of faith. To truly liberate the enslaved and broken people, Moses gave them back their story.

Those who worry over the future of Jewry cite grim statistics of assimilation, alienation and disaffection of contemporary Jews. But our real problem is deeper than statistics can show – it is the loss of our shared story, the lack of a compelling narrative of Jewish life. Go back to your beginnings, Rashi bids us, and recollect your story. For the source of your collective life and faith is in your shared story.

Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He serves on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the University of Judaism, the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the Whizen Center for the Jewish Family and the Synagogue 3000 initiative.