Stephanie Liss is an award-winning writer whose research has taken her to Bosnia, the Congo, Lebanon, Israel and even to undercover encounters with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Yasser Arafat and Hamas. Her latest play, “On Holy Ground,” a MET Theatre presentation at the complex’s Great Scott Theatre, deals with three strong women and their varying relationships to Israel, both pre- and post-statehood.
In the first act, “Daughter of My People,” Henrietta Szold (Salome Jens), a pioneer Zionist who founded Hadassah, is at the end of her days and living in the nurses’ compound of Hadassah Hospital in Israel. She looks back on significant moments in her history, particularly on her unrequited love for professor and Talmud scholar Louis Ginzberg. In 1909, after he married another woman, her mother took her to what was then Palestine, where she observed Jews suffering from filth, deprivation and disease.
On her return to New York she recruited a few other women and established Hadassah, which went on to fund health services in Palestine that formed the basis of Israel’s current medical system, with its world-renowned research and treatment facilities, available to Jews and Arabs alike.
According to Liss, “Daughter of My People” grew out of her lifelong membership in Hadassah, the 100th anniversary of which is in 2012.
Liss has traveled to Israel more than a dozen times and has studied the archives, read through some of Szold’s diaries, several of which have been published, and visited what would have been Szold’s quarters at the old Hadassah.
“I got to meet so many of the elder women of Hadassah,” Liss said, “and some were old enough to remember her. It painted a picture for me of a woman of tremendous power and strength, but also great vulnerability and great pain, which she really never showed to people, but which was in there. Her diaries are very hard to read. The one thing I wanted to do with Henrietta was to keep the power of what she created, but also to portray her as a woman — a feeling, Jewish woman.”
Liss also learned that Szold had saved tens of thousands of children from the Holocaust.
“She had gone into Berlin in World War II and was begged by the parents there to save their children, and so she created a worldwide movement. These were the people who grew to build Israel; they started the kibbutzim and the moshadim, the farms. People don’t know this story, and Henrietta really became the mother of them all. She always said she had 30,000 children; she was there at the ports and on the land to greet every child who came in. Every child had a hug. It was extraordinary.”
In the course of rehearsing the play, Jens came to the conclusion that she had known one of those children. Years ago, when she first went to New York, a Polish piano instructor named Jan Holcman, who taught Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubenstein, took her on as a pupil.
“Jan committed suicide,” Jens said. “He lived on West End Avenue, on the 18th floor, but he believed one day that the Gestapo was coming after him, and when the police came to try and get to him, he slipped out the window and died. When I thought about it, I recalled, from the stories he told me, that he went to Israel through Europe, and then, from Israel, came to the United States. So I realized that Jan was one of those children.”
Jens said she believes it was the pain of unfulfilled love that led Szold to find her life’s purpose.
Szold died in 1945, just a few years before Israel became a nation. The transformation of that land from what Szold envisioned — a binational state where Jews and Arabs lived in peace — to the conflict-ridden territory of today is depicted in “Jihad,” the second act of Liss’ play. Here we meet Shula (Lisa Richards), an Orthodox Jewish woman living in one of Israel’s settlements, whose teenage daughter has been killed in a suicide bombing, and Reim (Abbè Rowlins), a militant Palestinian mother whose daughter, also a teenager, was the perpetrator.
Despite her loss, Shula affirms life, while Reim reveres death and has raised all of her six children to be martyrs. She says that her people do not belong in this world, but through martyrdom, can find righteousness and glory in the afterlife.
“ ‘Jihad’ came out of my actually being in the last two of the intifadas,” Liss explained. Between 1981 and the early 2000s, she went underground with the PLO and Hamas some four or five times, never revealing that she was Jewish. She even met with Arafat in the early 1980s and said that he treated her very well because he thought she was a writer who might disseminate his point of view.
“That was PLO, and that was the very beginning of Al Fatah. They were just beginning this kind of terror. I was watching it being born, and I saw it morph and change and grow much worse over the decades.
“I knew that I had to create this play, and then there were the last couple of suicide bombings in Jerusalem,” Liss recalled, “and I knew people who were deeply affected by them, deeply. And I said, ‘It’s time. I have to write this. It’s burning inside of me.’ ”
The playwright added that she has been torn up inside by the way the news media maligns Israel.
“I don’t even know what planet they’re on, because what I experienced was so raw and filled with such hatred, and when I watch the news, Israel is always the bad guy. I can’t see it that way. There’s never an excuse for cold-blooded murder. I happened to be at a kibbutz when children were murdered, and body parts were left on their parents’ doorsteps. This was a slaughter.
“It is very important for me,” Liss concluded, “in this play, and in whatever interviews I give, to stress that this is not Islam. This is a specific Jihadist culture that was born out of hatred and rage. Israel makes mistakes; I don’t agree with everything they’ve done, but nothing warrants these kinds of killings and the rockets that are being fired. At a certain point, you have to step back and take responsibility for your own actions.”
“On Holy Ground,” the MET Theatre, downstairs in the Great Scott Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hollywood. (323) 957-1152. Runs Nov. 18 through Dec. 18. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. Parking (fee charged) ½ block east of the venue on Santa Monica Boulevard in the Earl Scheib lot.