I left New York for Los Angeles as an actress intending to work in the television and film industry. Something, however, changed when I arrived. Maybe it was the space and the slower pace; maybe it was the light and the vegetation. Maybe it was my own past, the memory of ten years as a child lived in Covina, rich with the scent of orange groves, the shade of banana trees, the parrot-headed birds of paradise! Or maybe it was the shock of my move from East back to the West in mid-life, a move whose ensuing heartache mirrored my ancestors’ voyage from Eastern Europe a century earlier. One of these or all of these led me to develop my own stories and my own voice, and to work with others to do the same.
My solo plays, /Looking for Louie/ and /The Dig/, both inquire into my own family history. The focus of my work often is the bridge between personal narrative, or first-person testimony, and artistic expression. When I teach creative process, I use the metaphor of the archaeologist, whose task it is to sift through tons of dirt and debris for beads, arrowheads, shards, anything that catches her eye, sparkles with potential meaning. She then turns her focus to each one of those shiny things, investigates, finds out all she can. In that same way, we sift through the morass of information that is our lives, our past, our experience, for something that draws us, fascinates us, inspires our imagination, feels–for whatever reason- -important. We inspect it, name it, follow it deeper and deeper. We dig, sift and select, then dig more, sift and select again, in search of the story: what we need to say.
I named my most play, /The Dig: Death, Genesis & The Double Helix/, out of a desire to communicate the power of digging up the raw material of our lives and using it to make meaning. The play actually emerged from an opportunity I was given in 2003 to take an extended residence in Israel, thanks to John Rauch (z”l) and Ruth Rauch from the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity. When I first thought about what I would look for in Israel, I thought of my Hebrew name, Sarah. I went to Israel in search of Sarah, to find out who I would be in Israel, to find out what in our first foremother would call to me. What you look for when you start digging is not always what you find. The process of digging itself became the key metaphor of the play, exemplified by the central character, Sally (born Sarah), an archaeologist at the top of her field. The play begins when Sally–who is an expert in ancient DNA–is summoned to a dig in the ancient Arab-Hebrew town of Jaffa. Archaeologists from Israel Antiquities have found something buried deep below the Armenian monastery and Sally is the only person in the world who can tell them what it is.
In Israel I walked the beach every morning from Tel Aviv to Jaffa, with its ancient turrets and domes. I roamed the streets, imagining the 3500 years of conquests, devastations, burnings, drownings of one people by another, which are so elegantly chronicled in the underground historical exhibit in Jaffa’s Old Town square. When I saw a map of the strata – the Canaanites conquered by the Egyptian Tuthi, drowned by so and so, massacred by such and such – it reminded me of my family: generation after generation of hurt, passed down, in my case, through the matriarchy.
Sally had chosen a course of cool research and pursuit of facts – data – but like me, finds herself confronted by a land of iridescence, where nothing is black and white, and where profound love and sense of belonging coexist with the growing immediacy of the horrors that have taken place and continue to take place. She is compelled to make a choice she never expected to make – and that we never expect her to make.
It took me nearly five years to write /The Dig/. It’s a big layered play, and it took me a while to negotiate my way into a story that is honest and personal and as multipledimensional as my experience is of Israel. It’s been especially hard because of the politics that swarm around Israel and the Middle East. It doesn’t serve me to be condemned as either “right” or “left,” and thereby not listened to. I live in Los Angeles, where the Jewish community may be more polarized around the issue of Israel than any other in the United States, and finding an audience that brings together the whole community for a play about Israel is difficult.
I encountered that same division years ago, when I was preparing to tour Looking for Louie in Israel. Louie is not a play about Israel. It’s a little play about family, forgiveness and Jewish identity. However, I made the mistake of hoping I could make a subtle connection between healing in the family and healing between peoples. So I the word “reconciliation” in the fundraising materials to refer to the mending of the relationship between my grandfather and Louie’s father. People were up in arms: What am I? An ignorant peacenik? “Pro-Israel”? “Pro-Arab”? I quickly discovered thatsubtlety on this issue is out of the question. Six years later, I chose instead to write a play that is actually about Israel, for which I aspire to a broad audience, and I’m walking a knife’s edge.
I cannot simplify my relationship with Israel any more than I can simplify my relationship with my mother, out of whose body I came, with whom I struggled, just as she had struggled with her mother, who struggled with her mother before her. I have a profound, unexpected, visceral love of that land and its passions and its people. At the same time I believe that we who claim Israel as home need to claim its history as our own, including those parts of that history that are shameful and heartbreaking.
Just as it did not serve the United States to sweep under the rug our complicity in the creation of the unthinkable hatred that brought about the attacks on our country in 2001, it does not serve us to deny Jewish complicity in the creation of the “situation” in Israel-Palestine. I know well enough not to compare the Shoah to the founding of the Israel, which Palestinians call the nakbah (catastrophe). But it is wrong to deny the hurt that we – as Jews seeking sanctuary and homeland – have wreaked on the people who inhabited the land of Israel before the creation of the state. And it does not serve Israel to do so.
In /The Dig/, I am writing an empathic story, a human story, not a political treatise. I will be the first to admit that a human story–especially one embodied before you live on a stage–has the potential to be more powerful and potentially subversive than any essay or treatise. If I do it right, I have your heart in my heart, your heart in my hand.
In exploring Sally’s story, I find myself reaching into deeper and deeper strata of my family history, Jewish history and Jewish texts. I do not believe as many do that we are damned or fated to repeat the violence of the past. At the same time, it does not serve us to deny that those who have done harm in our name, before our time, have indeed done harm. We are human and we do harm, in the realm of family and nations. And we need to inquire with open minds and hearts into dark times, for if we deny our shadow, we become it. Like Prospero in The Tempest, embracing the monster Caliban, we need to “call this thing of darkness our own,” and remember that we have tools our predecessors did not have: We can afford to make different choices.
After all these years of sifting and digging, it turns out that’s the story I need to tell.
Excerpt from /The Dig/ by Stacie Chaiken
Friday afternoon, Rashid wants to know am I free tomorrow Saturday, Shabbat.
“It would be an honor to have you visit my home.” Rashid lives in Umm El Fahem, an Arab town, nearly all Moslem, in Israel, about 45 minutes northeast of Jaffa and Tel Aviv. “Aren’t you scared?” The girl at the desk wants to know when I ask for a map.
“Should I be?”
Narrow steep streets, children peer into the car. Women here are mostly scarved. “I brought one. Should I put it on?”
“No,” he says. “You are welcome as you are.”
We climb the drive that leads to his house, swerve to avoid skinny dogs, piles of gravel, shovels, bags of cement. Rashid and three other men are building a playground in front of his home.
“Here will be a tree, here flowers, the wires for the lamps go here.”
Two girls like gazelles catch sight of us, run to Rashid, cling to his pants. His daughters, Afrah and Aisha, eight and ten. “They learn only Arabic in school, a shame.” “Salam,” I say. They giggle: “Salam.”
The girls ran before us around the circumference of the lot to where there is to be a small pond, surrounded by brush. An oilcloth over the pond is held taut with large stones. Rashid removes the stones to release one corner of the tarp, lifts it, winks at the girls.
He steps down into the pond, digs into the dusty soil with finger and thumb, gingerly seeks, finds, lifts a dirtcovered cloth the size of a dishtowel to uncover the nearly intact skeletal remains of a small human hand, a blue beaded bracelet. The site is clean, expertly brushed. Whoever found this – I assume it was Rashid – knew what they were doing. The wrist under the bracelet is largely disintegrated, but the butt end of the ulna – this bone here – can be seen at the edge of the pond. Presumably the entire remains are here, adjacent.
“The girls found it when they were digging for the pond. Today the workers will pour the concrete. Cover it up. They want to know who “she” is. I told them my friend Sally will know.”
“Rashid. I’m sorry. There is no way to know – really know – anything.”
“Yes. I know. Please. Can you tell them something.”
“Tell them it is human. That I know. It could be a young woman, possibly a girl. Make sure they understand this is a guess. The hand is small, and there is a bracelet. It could be recent, from what I can see of the state of the bone. But tell them it depends on the pH of the soil, many other factors. Was there anything more than the beads and the bones?”
I step down. The girls follow.
“Sally. I promised them you would tell them her name.”
“You have got to be kidding.”
“I know. Please. Sally. They need to have a name so they can pray for her and ask her to watch over them.”
/A very long pause./
“Aida. Tell them her name is Aida.”
This is a beautiful name. Shokrun, Sally. Thank you. The girls kneel, cover Aida with soil. Place their hands on the soil over her hand:
/Allahumma Salli ’ala Muhammadin wa ’ala/ ali Muhammadin kama sallaita ’ala Ibrahima wa ‘ala/ …
Rashid guides their hands to their ears, their stomach, their heads. “Now you say ‘Salam.’” They nod. “Salam.”
/Yit’ga’dal v’yit’kadash sh’mey ra’bbo, b’olmo dee’vro hirutey v’yamlich malchutey, b’chayeychon uv’yomeychon uv’chayey d’chol beit Yisroel, ba’agolo u’viz’man koriv; v’imru Omein/.
“She could be Moslem, she could be Jew. I like to cover all the bases.”
“Rashid. If you want ethnicity, that I can tell you. We can take a sample to the lab.”
“Let her rest. The DNA, my friend, whomever she is, will be exactly the same.”
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