September 17, 2019

Voices of conflict arise in ‘Wrestling Jerusalem’

“It’s complicated,” Aaron Davidman says as he paces a bare stage at the beginning of “Wrestling Jerusalem.” The playwright and actor recounts the pivotal moments in Israel’s history — the 1948 War of Independence that Palestinians call “The Catastrophe,” the Six-Day War of 1967, the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and various episodes of bloodshed from 1929 to the present. The settlements, terror attacks, checkpoints and missiles. As Davidman spins out the arguments we know all too well, his words swell into a cacophony of defensiveness and accusations.

Davidman brings his one-man show, “Wrestling Jerusalem,” to the Pico Union Project in Los Angeles Feb. 6 and 7. The play confronts the challenge of having open and honest discussions about the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the centuries of history that complicate the situation. The red-haired, goateed Davidman, 47, portrays 17 characters onstage — Israeli, Palestinian, American and British men and women of various ages. There are no costume changes. He uses vocal inflections, dialect and physicality to note the transition from one character to the next, and music, sound and lighting suggests shifts in time and location.

The play is inspired by Davidman’s real-life experiences, including actual as well as composite characters from his travels. He first traveled to Israel in 1992, at 25, to study Torah. Upon arrival, he knelt down at Ben Gurion Airport and kissed the tarmac, burning his lips on the asphalt. In other scenes of the play, he meets with a Palestinian human-rights organizer and an American-Jewish medical student in Hebron. The play is “a nuanced, layered exploration of the history, the spiritual yearning and the politics that live deep in this ongoing conflict,” Davidman said by phone from his home in Berkeley.

“Wrestling Jerusalem” was commissioned by Theatre J in Washington, D.C., and had its premiere at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco last March. Davidman since has rewritten parts of the play. “It was a combination of what I learned about the play, and, added to that, what seemed to be a shift in the mood in America, Israel and Palestine after the Gaza war,” Davidman said. “It was some tone that needed to be addressed, that I didn’t quite have perfect last spring, that now I’ve really zeroed in on. A couple new characters emerged as well. Their voices were missing in the collection of voices that were in there.”

The play revolves around a kabbalistic creation myth, which Davidman recounts onstage: “Once there were vessels of light that contained all that is good in the universe. But this goodness was so powerful that the vessels, with their thin shells, could not contain it. And the vessels burst. And the light of goodness was scattered. Sparks and shards of light flew into all corners of the world. They’re hidden amidst all of us. And it’s the work of human beings, say the kabbalists, to find those sparks, those fragments of goodness, and put them back together. It’s how we heal the world, they say. We gather the broken pieces of goodness and put them back together.”

The characters Davidman inhabits are like those far-flung shards, separated as individuals but part of a greater whole. “What I’m trying to do in the play, and what I’m trying to do in my life, is keep an open heart and stay curious about the other,” he said. “And so the play is an exploration of fragmentation and wholeness.”

This isn’t Davidman’s first look at the Middle East crisis. For 10 years, he was the artistic director of the famed Traveling Jewish Theatre, also known as the Jewish Theatre San Francisco, until it closed in 2011 after 35 years. He spent three years creating and directing “Blood Relative,” a collaboration of American, Israeli and Palestinian artists, which opened in 2005.

“I think it’s an important time to be doing this play, and I don’t think a lot of people are addressing head-on that kind of inner conflict on stage,” said the play’s director, Michael John Garcés. He said audiences can relate to Davidman’s performance, as well as to his desire to reconcile competing perspectives. “The notion of wrestling with a really personal identity in the context of these big geopolitical issues, is, I think, a really American story, something we all do.”

Every production of “Wrestling Jerusalem” ends with a discussion of the play’s themes. Audience members share their hopes and fears about the Israel-Palestine situation, and Davidman helps guide the discussion. “At the end of the day, to feel that we’re building community around a more generous vision of this conflict, that feels hopeful to me,” Davidman said.

“The play is just a catalyst for a conversation. It’s an opportunity for people from both sides of the aisle to sit down and, through an artistic medium, try to understand what the other side might be thinking,” said Craig Taubman, founder of Pico Union Project, a multicultural, multifaith community forum.

Because of its subject matter, staging the play night after night can be exhausting, Davidman said. It’s emotionally and physically draining to embody such competing perspectives. Like Avram, the Hebron resident who says, “It is our birthright to be here in this land.” Or Farah, the Ramallah woman who advocates nonviolent resistance: “It is vicious, these wars. Vicious. And there is nothing we can do. We are trapped here. Surrounded by this wall. Now, even if you protest, they arrest you.” And there’s Jacob, the American who says, “Some people are uncomfortable with Jewish power. I’m not, Aaron. Jewish power was hard won. And we will keep it.”

Some might argue that, as a progressive Bay Area Jew, Davidman cannot comprehend the complexity of the situation, and that it’s naive to think that listening to one another can forge a path to peace. But there’s also an objectivity that comes from being raised outside Israel, Davidman said. One character in “Wrestling Jerusalem,” an Israeli psychologist named Dr. Tzipora, speaks of the “recycled trauma” passed on by generations of Jews since the Holocaust and by Palestinians since 1948. As she puts it, “We are two societies living in profound fear. And to end it, we must have trust. We must know with our eyes, not words, that we are safe. We must discharge these built-up feelings of anger and hurt. They must be released.”

“Wrestling Jerusalem” will be performed at the Pico Union Project, at 1153 Valencia St. in Los Angeles, Feb. 6 and Feb. 7. Each evening’s performance will be accompanied by a post-show discussion with the playwright and leaders of local Muslim and Jewish communities. Tickets are $20-$30. More information is at