June 10, 1999
Speaking of Evil—and of Acting
For the last few months, I have been involved with "Speaking of Evil," an original play based on the life of Kurt Gerstein. Gerstein was a member of the Waffen S.S., one of the most deadly and heartless arms of the Third Reich. According to his memoirs and letters, he entered the S.S. with the intent of subverting it, and of discovering who had given the orders to "euthanize" thousands of patients in mental hospitals. He witnessed the gassing of Jews relatively early on, when few people knew what was happening and the poison of choice was still diesel fumes. He risked everything by smuggling full reports of what he saw to the Swedish ambassador to Germany, the Vatican's nuncio in Berlin, the French government, and American relatives, among others. At the same time, he maintained his "cover" in the S.S. as head of Technical Disinfection. His commission included obtaining Zyclon B to kill Jews more efficiently. In this role, Gerstein derailed several shipments, but also procured enough Zyclon B to kill thousands.
Had Gerstein been more successful in convincing anyone to intervene, his name would be a household word, and every child with a Hebrew-school education would know his biography. Had he been less successful and been caught, he would be celebrated as a martyr. Neither fate was his. Instead, he lived out the war, doing his job poorly enough to undermine the system trivially, but not so poorly that he was punished or discovered. He continually bore witness, begging people to drop leaflets, bomb Auschwitz, send food to the ghettos, do something. When it was all over, for reasons we can all suspect and none of us quite fathom, he killed himself.
I joined the Demeter Theater in its efforts to write and mount a "docu-theater" play, based on diary entries, letters and official reports. I am the only Jew in the company, and was not recruited as a rabbi but as an actress. I was cast through an open audition, which I learned about through the actors' weekly trade publication, Backstage West.
People sometimes question how a rabbi can also be an actress (or vice versa). Performed honorably, these two professions seem, to me, to have significant elements in common. Both are devoted to storytelling as legacy, art and inspiration. Both are oral-based traditions centered around ritual and performance -- not fakery, but dramatic re-enactment that becomes real and present in the moment it is performed.
Acting and religion, in the interpretations I advocate, ask practitioners to be profoundly truthful in their readings of text, without being literal. The virtue of Genesis and Hamlet -- without equating the sacredness of the two -- is not the technical reliability of their chronologies. These texts speak timeless truths about universe and family, natural and spiritual law.
Religion and theater, in different ways and on different levels, hold the present moment sacred. Blessings and acting exercises are both designed to wake us up to what is happening right now. The words of a play and of our liturgy remain the same, but every "performance" is unique because we pay attention differently and, over time, we hope, better.
Part of what makes a spiritual experience spiritual is the fact of being fully in it. If you recall your great moments of spiritual connection, the times when you were in the "zone" as a listener, a parent, a friend or simply a human spirit, one thing is virtually certain: You were not mentally making out a grocery list at the time. You were there! Or rather, you were here, now!
One more thing acting and the rabbinate have in common: I have felt called to both since I was a young girl. As an actor, I have found joy and purpose in embodying diverse characters, from a skeptical cop to a demented therapist to, now, a Nazi.
"Speaking of Evil" offers a very concrete connection between acting and Judaism. The play has been an education for the cast, as well as the audience. Actor-writers came in, saying, "The average German couldn't really have known." By the end, they were mourning the loss of their own innocence in this matter. A friend who saw the play, commented on the dialogue in a scene that takes place in Belzec concentration camp. While she praised the acting, she felt that the words were exaggeratedly cold and cruel. In fact, all the words in that scene were taken from a transcript Gerstein wrote out on the day the events took place. Similarly, it may seem un-theatrical that the nuncio should say only four words to Gerstein and his report: "Go away. Get out." Yet that was all he said. So that is all we choose to perform.
It is hard to stay in the moment playing a Nazi, or an interrogator, or a concentration camp victim. It is hard to dwell in any of these perspectives. Sandford Meisner advised actors to "live truthfully under imaginary circumstances." "Speaking of Evil" attempts to face the truth of what we might have done or failed to do under circumstances we can only wish were imaginary.
"Speaking of Evil" runs through June 13 at the Culver West Park Center at the end of Wade Street, two blocks south of Washington Blvd., in Culver City. Performances are free, but reservations are required. Call (310) 815-9235.
Debra Orenstein is a spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom and co-editor of "Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life" (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1997).