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Performing Jewishness In and Out of the Classroom

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Abstract

As performance studies scholars and feminist teachers, we have long used embodied learning to help students apply the concepts we address in class. But in the "Jewish Identity and Performance in the U.S." undergraduate seminar we taught together at Princeton in fall 2010, asking students to perform and embody the plays, theory, and history we read took on new resonances, as much of what they performed was, in fact, Jewish identity. Watching students who occupied a range of identity locations around Jewishness grapple with the implications of performing Jewishness—embodying both stereotypes and their deconstruction—gave us a new appreciation for how acutely and incisively performance can cut to the quick of political and theatrical quandaries about identity politics. Our goals in this essay are to clarify how performance circulated as both content and method in our course and to demonstrate how performance might be useful as a pedagogical mode for Jewish studies in general. Neither of us had formally taught a course in Jewish studies and performance before, although the field has been adjacent to our scholarship for years. In Stacy's examination of American musicals, the influence and prominence of Jewish men as lyricists, composers, librettists, producers, directors, and choreographers—for example, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, and Jerome Robbins—has been a notable part of the field's history and current practice. In Jill's work on feminist and lesbian theater in the US since 1960, the predominance of Jewish women such as Roberta Sklar, Sondra Segal, Clare Coss of the foundational Women's Experimental Theatre, and Deb Margolin of the historic Split Britches theater troupe, alongside playwrights such as Lisa Kron and performers such as new vaudevillian Sara Felder, has been significant and yet never purposefully investigated from a scholarly perspective. These lacunae in our own work and a small seed grant we received from Princeton's Center for the Study of Religion prompted us to develop our seminar, which culminated in a day-long public event, "Good for the Jews? A Symposium of Scholars and Artists on Jewish Identity in American Theatre and Performance." As we began to select texts from the canon of contemporary Jewish theater and performance, we soon confronted the limits of our more-feminist-than-Jewish academic backgrounds with Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1949). Before teaching this seminar, we knew Miller was Jewish, and we had frequently taught Salesman, but simply as an American drama. Jill had written about the text from a feminist perspective to deconstruct notions of the unmarked and "universal." Reading the extensive literature on Miller and the play's Jewishness opened a new slant on the play's particularity in its themes of integration, ambition, and success. Thus we parsed the questions "What is a Jewish play?" and "How do you know?" with each text we assigned. The question "Who is a Jew?" haunted our class in fluid, flexible, and ever-changing ways, and identity was never simple or self-evident in our conversations. With a mixed group of students who identified as Jewish, half-Jewish, or not-Jewish, and some as religious, cultural, or ethnic Jews, every day we were surprised by the students' affiliations and associations, by how certain experiences did or did not accrue "authenticity," and by what kinds of knowledge and experiences different students possessed. One student from Hawai'i, for example, who had not met a Jewish person before arriving at Princeton, bristled at the casual use of the term JAP among the Jewish students; for her, the epithet was offensive not as an acronym for Jewish American Princess, but because she could only hear it as a derogatory name for Japanese Americans. Moreover, with anthropology and religious studies majors in the room as well as a small cohort of serious theater students, book and theater performance knowledge productively supplemented experiential knowledge. We based our seminar's pedagogy—as all of the classes we teach separately and together—on the theories of Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), which argues against a "banking model" whereby a teacher puts knowledge into a student's head for future withdrawal...

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Article
“Opening the Windshield” argues that Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is best understood as a work of American popular culture, with a close relationship not only to realism but also to vaudeville and musical theatre. The essay identifies a core tension between the character of Willy Loman and the psychological realist style for which the play is famous. Through his indomitable theatricality, Willy resists the pressure to conform to a realist model and ends up winning the audience even as he loses his life. Reading the play in this way sheds light on the long-standing popularity of the play, its avowed Jewishness, and its place in the American literary canon.