A new look at an ancient life / by R. Sheth

February 10, 2012
By Pauline Dubkin Yearwood

Israeli author brings latest play to Chicago

Why didn’t Jesus become the Jewish messiah? What if he had? And how did Christianity come about, anyway?

Those are some of the ideas that renowned (and controversial) Israeli playwright and screenwriter Motti Lerner explores in a new play being presented for the first time in English in Chicago next weekend.

Silk Road Rising presents Lerner’s “Paulus” in three free staged readings, Feb. 17, 18 and 19 at Pierce Hall at the Chicago Temple Building in downtown Chicago. Lerner will be on hand for a workshop and for question-and-answer sessions after the readings

Paulus explores Paulus of Tarsus, otherwise known as St. Paul, the founder of Christianity, and his vision to universalize monotheism in the face of opposition by the Jewish establishment, the Emperor Nero and other factions. Meanwhile he and Jesus, who has already been crucified, are having a dialogue inside Paul’s head.

Just how a relatively obscure Chicago company (formerly known as Silk Road Theatre Project) snagged this new drama is a story that goes back to 2009 when the troupe produced Lerner’s controversial play about West Bank settlers, “Pangs of the Messiah.”

Lerner “was talking about a project he had in mind that had to do with the Apostle Paul,” Jamil Khoury, Silk Road Rising artistic director, said in a recent phone interview. “He approached it very much as part of an inter-Jewish conversation. The central figures of (early) Christianity are Jews but Christians and Jews don’t think of them as Jews.” Khoury, who was raised Christian in the Syrian Orthodox church, found the whole idea intriguing.

“It raises fascinating questions, placing the character of Jesus in a very Jewish nationalistic concept, (where he is saying), I am the Jewish messiah. Beyond that he was a defender of Jewish law. In Christian belief Jesus sort of replaced the law. Following Jewish law is no longer a requirement,” Khoury says.

As the drama weaves through Paul’s past and present, he imagines conversations he might have had with an elderly Jesus and expresses his thoughts about the Jewish people. “The tension of the play is between a Jewish tribalism and nationalism and a Jewish universalism,” Khoury says.

At the same time Lerner, many of whose plays have a political context and who teaches “political playwriting” in Tel Aviv, links the ideas explored in “Paulus” to contemporary Israeli politics, Khoury says.

Lerner, in a statement (he was not available for an interview) wrote, “It is not a coincidence that Silk Road Rising is the first theatre in the world to explore this play in a workshop. The ideas that the play struggles with are shared by many of the artists working on it.”

Silk Road Rising produces theater and videos that tell stories primarily through Asian-American and Middle Eastern-American lenses. “Our mission is to look at Silk Road people and how they intersect with other people,” Khoury says.

Lerner also wrote that although most of the play takes places in the kingdom of Judea in the first century, “yet Paul’s separation of Christianity from Judaism resonates throughout the world to this day.”

Silk Road commissioned the translation of “Paulus” from what Khoury describes as biblical Hebrew to English for the production. New York-based Daniella Topol will direct.

Khoury says that despite the play’s setting and the formidable ideas Lerner grapples with, it is highly relevant to contemporary life, both American and Israeli.

“He sees this very much as the preeminent conflict – are Jews a people of the world or a tribe?” Khoury says, noting that Lerner implicitly links the first-century ideas to the growth of Jewish fundamentalism in Israel and Christian fundamentalism in America.

Many of Lerner’s plays, which include “Pollard,” “Paula,” “Hard Love” and “Benedictus,” are controversial, especially in Israel, where he has nevertheless won many awards and written for movies and television. One of his plays, “The Murder of Isaac,” about the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, was considered too provocative for production in Israel but was mounted in several European cities.

Khoury says of “Paulus,” “I see this as a very American conflict. In reading this play I’m thinking it’s totally about America, the fundamentalist Christianity in this country and those of us who stand in opposition to that.”

He says the plan is to mount a full production of the play in the fall of 2013. That, he hopes, “will open up opportunities of Jewish-Christian conversations. A lot of scenes resonate for so many different people. Most Christians forget that we are Christians because of Paul, not because of Jesus. Paul became the messenger.”

The play, he says, “presents wonderful opportunities for looking at today and at yesterday and how they inform each other.”

While some might ask “Why would Jews be concerned with this play about Jesus?” Khoury says Lerner “situates it so that (audiences see that) Jesus was a very important Jewish thinker. This is a very Jewish conversation.”

While a description of “Paulus” might make it sound like a jumble of abstract ideas, Khoury assures potential audience members that’s not the case.

“It’s a very good play, very compelling,” he says. “In Paul’s final years he had many enemies. The emerging church was against him, the Roman emperor, the Jewish establishment were all against him. He was a very tortured soul.”

The play also looks at Paul on a more personal level, Khoury says. “He grappled with sexual desire for both men and women, which has been speculated on historically. There were a lot of issues with sex and the body. There are allusions to the fact that this man had essentially declared himself celibate and was struggling with his own very human feelings. A complicated Paul comes through in the piece.”

The play, he says, was written in biblical Hebrew because Lerner “wanted to write in a language that was representative of the time.” The English translation, however, represents a more idiomatic American English, and during the workshop and readings the playwright and theater personnel may move a little more in that direction.

“Motti will be here, and I fully expect there will be changes. This is the development process,” Khoury says.

And audience members can say without exaggeration they saw it here first.