Cities of Gold: A New Play Brings the Middle East to Appalachia
Though I’m not a parent yet, I’ve already created something that has taken on a life of its own. It shares opinions that I don’t necessarily agree with, and it has grown to interact with perspectives I never could have imagined.
I wrote a play.
When I returned to the University of North Georgia from my semester abroad at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I began developing a campus project to educate my community on Judaism or Israel. The driving force behind this piece of art is the Nachshon Project, which brings together 20 rising college juniors from Jewish summer camps all around the U.S. and plants them in Israel for a semester.
My idea to write a play grew rapidly from a quippy idea drawn up in a phone conversation with my mom between classes to a fully formed production whose premiere welcomed more than 200 attendees from the North Georgia mountains.
Dahlonega, GA, isn’t exactly the Jerusalem of the Southeast, so I set about finding an engaging and creative way to educate my audience. Playing off of my programmatic experiences my from time as a staffer at URJ Camp Coleman, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Cleveland, GA, I found the tools I needed to make Cities of Gold come alive.
I began writing the play in mid-September of 2015, compiling blog posts and journal entries from my time abroad and from formative experiences I’d had as a staff member at Coleman. That camp connection isn’t just Coleman magic; it’s our tie to Israel and a greater Jewish identity that calls to us.
The monologues weren’t just my own writing. Six pieces were contributed by friends who are just as in love with and confused about Israel as I am. In “I Love Israel, But,” Leah Michalove expressed the struggle of criticizing Israel and loving her in the same breath. In “Student Village,” Preston Neimeiser voiced the inner conflict of many Reform Jews with regards to kavannah (intention) and Halakhah (Jewish law). And “Facebook Survey Says” boasts a collage of various Coleman voices.
I spent afternoons on the phone with fellow staff members, posed survey questions to Facebook friends, invited Israelis to help me with my Hebrew, and reached out to other Nachshon Fellows for input on the types of perspectives people might need to hear. By December, I held auditions and finally stopped adding and editing monologues over winter break so the cast would be able to practice their parts.
Once school was back in session, we had about three weeks of rehearsal time, and it soon became clear that this was no ordinary show. Every rehearsal was a Jewish teachable moment! The performers immersed themselves in researching the subject matter each would be sharing with our community, including topics like Women of the Wall, the invention of cherry tomatoes, Operation Protective Edge, and Jewish mothers’ disproportionate amount of worrying. By the end of the project, the audience could hardly believe that my mother and I were, in fact, the play’s only Jewish performers.
The night of the show, each audience member received a mock boarding pass for his or her El-Al flight from the mountains of Dahlonega to the streets of Tel Aviv. In one scene, they followed the lines of miscommunication in an Ulpan (immersive Hebrew) course, and in another, they helped volunteers win a pair of overpriced harem pants from a game show. The performance transformed into a give-and-take between the performers and the audience. Indeed, we were all active participants in this emotional experience.
Like any Jewish experiential educational program, we can’t just leave it on the stage. The interest in Jewish culture and efforts to understand the nuanced relationships American Jews have with Israel have continued to grow here on campus, and I hope this will be the beginning of an era of broader cultural diversity and curiosity.
As for Cities of Gold, we’ve been invited to perform at The Davis Academy’s Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) celebration in May. We’re taking this show on the road – or, should I say, it’s taking us!
Rachel Glazer is a staff member at URJ Camp Coleman, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Cleveland, GA. She was part of the Olim Fellowship in 2013 and 2014 and the Cornerstone Fellowship in 2015.