On Tuesday, March 27, J Street U invited actor and photographer Gili Getz to perform his autobiographical one-man performance, The Forbidden Conversation. The “forbidden conversation,” as Getz refers to it, is one that is not only forbidden from happening, but is also one that has been banned from even being talked about.
It is a conversation that seems to linger in the minds of almost everyone that identifies as Jewish, yet it is one that, by its very definition, cannot be discussed.
Getz’s performance explores just that: the conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Jewish-American community, and the difficulty of having it.
While visiting Israel during the last Gaza war in 2014, Getz experienced difficulty talking about the path Israel was on with his father for the first time in his life.
He joked in his performance that, while many people hate talking about Israel, he is actually a “political junkie” and lives for discussions about it. Such conversations are actually what he finds fun.
Getz explained what it was like growing up in a household where he was encouraged to engage in passionate political debates.
“We share our disagreements and argue our positions when we meet. And then, we eat,” he said.
This was naturally met with a great deal of laughter from the audience, laughs containing notes of understanding and agreement.
Finding himself in a forbidden conversation with his dad, and worried that it might put a strain their relationship, Getz embarked on a journey to understand the most complicated, sensitive and contentious topic in the Jewish community — Israel.
By acting out the parts of both himself and his father, moving ever so slightly around the stage when switching between roles, Getz’s voice built and built before eventually reaching a point of eruption and, consequently, returned to the calm and controlled tone he had previously possessed.
He then explained that it was at this point in the conversation with his father, specifically him discussing the death of the Prime Minister and the kidnapping and deaths of three boys in Gaza in 2014, that he entered the “forbidden conversation.”
Three years and nine months ago he declared again, returning to the words with which he started the performance, that he had entered the conversation, crossing the line that he previously hadn’t even known existed. He entered “without the ability to understand how he got there.”
As Getz described near the beginning of his performance, talking about Israel can be, or usually is “toxic, uncivil, divisive, destructive, violent, aggressive, rude, insulting, full of angry diatribes or, as some students eloqAuently describe it: a bummer issue.” The last words were said in a comically exaggerated voice which should definitely have been followed by the word “dude.”
Having started his career in photography as a military photographer during the turbulent Oslo accords and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Getz documented the carnage that was occurring in Israel, “protected by the glass of the lens” as he beautifully put it.
Standing behind the shield of the camera, which he acted out by raising his hands and miming (and verbalizing) the clicks of the shutter, injecting the click, click, click of the camera, he captured vivid depictions of what he saw.
This barrier meant, he explained, that he only had to give meaning to what he really saw later that night in the lab while developing the photos, creating a disconnect between the concrete evidence that he was immediately witnessing before him and what he was capable of actually processing at the time of the events.
Getz turned to photography in the hopes that it would help him once again make sense of a painful political argument. The second half of the performance was accompanied by pictures he took during the conflict.
After a highly personal and emotionally charged performance, Getz opened up the room to further conversation. A discussion was held with a panel consisting of himself, Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen, sophomore co-chair of J Street U at JHU Hannah Fajer and the audience.
While moments of the discussion did prove to be contentious, I think that it proved just how thought-provoking and interesting this performance, by just one man on stage alone, was.
Junior Lexie Botzum described her thoughts on the performance.
“[It] was unique and valuable in that, rather than talking about Israel, it was a really personal and poignant discussion of how difficult it is to talk about Israel and how painfully the topic can divide families and communities,” she said.
When it comes to a topic which is clearly, and understandably, very difficult for people to talk about, I can see how hosting a performance like Getz’s can be extremely helpful in promoting discussion and illustrating how to engage with this issue in a nuanced way.
Instead of expressing his personal stance clearly one way or another (although it is worth noting that, since he was invited by J Street U, his views most likely align with theirs) Getz discussed his own personal experiences struggling with such conversations.
Sophomore Evan Drukker-Schardl, co-chair of J Street U at JHU and regional co-chair of J Street’s Southeast region related the performance back to his own experiences.
“There were stories that he told about having conversations with his parents about the Gaza War and arguing about that, and that definitely resonated with me,” he said.
Botzum also commented on the community aspect of this performance.
“Seeing a room full of Jewish adults ready and willing to discuss the issue this poses in our communities was really inspiring,” she said.
Drukker-Schardl explained that personal performances such as Getz’s have the potential to engage with audiences and help open up tough conversations like this.
“Performances like [his] start to break the ice and demonstrate that actually it’s ok to be vulnerable with each other about why this is so painful, for one reason or another, and I think that that’s the only way that, as a community, we can start to change the status quo,” he said.