“I want to share a secret with you,” said Rabbi Grynspan.
“It’s more of a professional than a personal confidence. The truth is – and please don’t laugh too hard - I’m a closet thespian manqué who fantasises about appearing at the Olivier Theatre in a one-man show. The thought – even of giving a sermon there – fairly invades my dreams.”
The guests seated around the table with Michael Grynspan for their customary Passover seder meal were more amazed than amused.
But before anyone could respond, he explained: “Some of you know I’m – Heaven forbid – an almost idolatrous Shakespearian. Yet none of you is aware that when my beloved Maisie was alive, we teasingly called one another ‘Benedick and Beatrice’ and would quote huge quantities of favourite texts at each other, especially when performing onerous household tasks.”
“Like washing-up or cleaning the house for Passover?” suggested Maureen Lipman.
“But what’s brought this on now?” asked Sir Arnold Wesker.
“Everyone here sincerely appreciates the time and effort you devote each year to sharing your love of Judaism, Israel - indeed Passover with professionals in The Arts. But I’m sure I speak for us all when I say I had no idea you had a hankering to join us.”
“Yes, why the revelation tonight?” demanded Steven Berkoff.
“I’ll tell you. The current, most unedifying row about Israel’s Habimah Theatre participating in the forthcoming ‘Globe to Globe’ Shakespeare Festival is the last straw.
“I feel I must write – say - something important without confining myself to a Sabbath morning homily in synagogue.”
“Please go on,” urged Simon Callow, who while non-Jewish had accepted the open-house invitation to the seder to express his support for the beleaguered Israeli company.
“I blush to tell you, but as I have stage-managed an open confidence I suppose I mustn’t bring the curtain down too soon.
“It began when I read a most perceptive comment on The Times of Israel website posted by a former Mancunian living in The Galilee.”
“Who was it?”, asked Howard Jacobson, now acutely interested.
“Oh,” chuckled the rabbi, “you’ll like this. He signed himself as ‘Berel Fink’ and I wondered if his family name had somehow inspired your book.”
“Yes, I do remember a Fink family in North Manchester. Their matriarch, Sophie, was the sort of character you couldn’t invent – only describe. Tell you what, Jenny,” added Jacobson turning to his wife. “Next time we visit Mum I’ll show you Sophie’s old shop which now sells Asian women’s wear.”
“Anyway, continued the rabbi, “Mr Fink noted that the festival will showcase the plays in Turkish, Russian, Chinese, Farsi and Arabic despite the many human rights abuses in the countries where those languages are spoken. Indeed, he ended by asking: ‘Is it a case of 'if it isn't Jewish, then it doesn't count?’
“This stirred my own creative juices and I began to write something to read aloud tonight while we digest our dinner and before we began the second half of the evening.”
“What changed your mind?,” asked Sir Arnold.
“You did! I’d penned barely a phrase in the manner of Shylock’s ‘Hath not a Jew?’ soliloquy when I reflected first, how well you’ve twice handled that marvellous if disquieting work and second that of course The Merchant of Venice is the very play which Habimah intends to perform in Hebrew.
“So, if you’ll allow me the floor to orate rather than to daven (lead the prayers), I would like to read Howard’s moving, erudite exposition of the matter which appeared in The Observer on Sunday.
The rabbi cleared his throat and began:
“If there is one justification for art – for its creation and its performance – it is that art proceeds from and addresses our unaligned humanity. Whoever would go to art with a mind already made up, on any subject, misses what art is for. So to censor it in the name of a political or religious conviction, no matter how sincerely held, is to tear out its very heart.
“For artists themselves to do such a thing to art is not only treasonable; it is an act of self-harm. One could almost laugh about it, so Kafkaesque is the reasoning: The Merchant of Venice, acted in Hebrew, a troubling work of great moral complexity (and therefore one that we should welcome every new interpretation of), to be banned not by virtue of itself, but because of where the theatre company performing it had also performed.
But the laughter dies in our throats. With last week's letter to the Guardian, McCarthyism came to Britain. You could hear the minds of people in whom we vest our sense of creative freedom snapping shut. And now we might all be guilty by association: of being in the wrong place or talking to the wrong people or reading the wrong book. Thus does an idée fixe make dangerous fools of the best of us.”
“A fine ‘actorly’ performance, more than worthy of the surprise we have for you,” said Lipman as he concluded. Then kissing his cheek, she handed him a square, flat package.
“Not more matza, please!” quipped the rabbi as he struggled with the wrapping. But as he saw the contents his eyes glazed with tears.
Inside was a framed certificate marking an honorary membership of the actors’ union, Equity.
“Exeunt omnes?” asked Callow.
“Not yet,” rejoined the rabbi. “Berkoff is clutching the afikomen – the symbolic dessert – and we’ve got a lot of singing to do.”
(Copyright, Natalie Irene Wood – 08 April 2012)