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How New Yorker writer Ariel Levy adapted Philip Roth’s filthiest book for the stage

(JTA) — A scruffy, bearded Jewish man in his mid-60s — distressed, disheveled but wickedly self-satisfied — is invited to spend the night at the Manhattan apartment of an old friend and benefactor. Put up in the bedroom of the man’s college-age daughter, he slips a pair of her panties over his head and searches her drawers in hopes of finding nude Polaroids.

That’s a scene from Philip Roth’s 1995 novel “Sabbath’s Theater” and now a stage adaptation by the actor John Turturro and the New Yorker writer Ariel Levy. Turturro also stars as Sabbath, a washed-up artist best known for his transgressive puppet theater in the ’60s — and best known to readers, perhaps, as Roth’s most repellant character. Drenched, sometimes literally, in sex, the play begins with a riotous bout of intercourse and climaxes, as it were, with two old lovers remembering their kinks.

But if the book were only about sex it might not have earned its National Book Award. It is also a tender meditation on mourning: Sabbath’s Croatian mistress, Drenka Balich, is dead, as are his mother, his brother and his career. “And there are other kinds of love and loss: about mourning his family and his health and his youth and his virility,” Levy told me when we spoke earlier this week.

As a journalist, Levy often delves into the way sex and gender shape the lives of both celebrities and people on the margins. Her 2017 memoir, “The Rules Do Not Apply,” began life as an award-winning essay on her miscarriage in a hotel room while on assignment in Mongolia, when she was 19 weeks pregnant, and expanded into a rumination on her dissolving marriage and roads not taken.

The New Group’s adaptation of “Sabbath’s Theater” opened Wednesday night and runs through Dec. 17 at the Pershing Square Signature Center in Manhattan. Turturro (who played another Roth character, the craven Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, in the HBO adaptation of “The Plot Against America”) inhabits Mickey’s filthy, seductive charm. Elizabeth Marvel plays Drenka and other women in his life, and Jason Kravits plays the men. The play is as dirty as Mickey’s torn carpenter’s pants, but also poignant: When Sabbath cradles the belongings of his dead brother, lost in battle during World War II, it’s an echo of the violence and loss that have become overwhelming in recent weeks.

Levy and I spoke about adapting a quintessentially Jewish writer like Roth, the appeal of flawed protagonists and how an Italian actor like Turturro captures the Jewish soul of yet another Roth alter ego.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

With very few exceptions, adaptations of Roth’s work haven’t been all that successful. Do you agree and were thinking about how you might approach the material differently?

Well, I mean, I’d never adapted anything. Adapting Roth properly was like only one of many potentials for crises. Roth is my literary God. I like the way he uses language the most. He might not have liked me saying this because he was obviously very insistent on being an American writer, not a Jewish writer, but nobody captures the rhythm of the language of people whose first language is Yiddish and then move over to English. The way he uses those rhythms, that humor. The cultural familiarity is a powerful addition to my appreciation for his mastery of language and plot, irony and the level of his imagination, the level of his sense of play and his appreciation for what he calls, in ”Sabbath’s Theater,” the “nasty side of existence.”

John Turturro came to you through a recommendation by Hilton Als, a fellow writer at The New Yorker. Tell me about your writing process. What did you both agree on and disagree on — if you disagreed?

Oh, for the first couple of years, we kind of agreed on everything. It was the pandemic so we were going back and forth on Zoom. We had a very, very aligned vision of what the crucial stuff was. You could just tell that certain parts were going to work theatrically and certain parts were not, and then once we started rehearsing, after working on this together for two years and then going on this workshop at the National Theatre in London in January 2023 — once we got through that, we started to have a better sense of what will work theatrically. The unbelievable challenge for John was to be working on his performance and contemplating the script, because every change means a new thing you have to learn [as an actor].

Ariel Levy and John Turturro at the opening night party for The New Group Theater’s new play “Sabbath’s Theater,” at Green Fig Urban Eatery in New York City, Nov. 1, 2023. (Bruce Glikas/Getty Images)

How does a journalist learn to be a playwright? Was there anyone you were taking clues from about how to do this?

I was extremely worried and insecure about it. John knew I’d never written a play. He could have found plenty of playwrights who would have done this, but the way I’ve heard him explain it is that he didn’t want someone who’s gonna come in and say, “I know how to write a play. I’m going to rewrite this.” He wanted to use Roth’s language. We’re barely going to write stage directions, the stage directions are largely lifted from Roth’s writing. The most important thing to John was finding somebody who was Roth-reverent, and then also we just hit it off, we just liked each other. We liked the same parts of the book, and we both felt the book was a love story.

So, how did I learn to do it? I figured out that storytelling is storytelling. And also, I had John guiding me, John knows what a play is, and I had [the director] Jo Bonney guiding me through the process once we were in rehearsal.

You talked about your affinity for Roth. Was there something about “Sabbath’s Theater” that particularly connected to the things you’ve always been writing about and thinking about?

I’ve written a fair amount about the fundamental human drives for domesticity and comfort and kinship and security on the one hand, and adventure and novelty and stimulation on the other — those conflicting poles that human beings stretch between. And that’s very much in there in the realm of Sabbath. And John and I both cared a lot about the depiction of grief and the way the dead can become more real for you than the living sometimes and how, as you age, the accretion of missing people in your life just starts to pile up.

And then there is thinking about — not just sex, but the body. “Sabbath’s Theater” has so many amazing meditations on what it is to live inside a human body. I think we’re both really interested in all of that and the kind of animal reality of being a human who’s alive versus dead.

Were you worried at any point that some of Mickey’s transgressions — he has been tossed from a teaching job at a university after a phone-sex scandal with a student, he visits an old friend and rifles the dresser drawers of his host’s teenage daughter — would make him unredeemable in a post-#Me-Too era? And on the flip side, do you feel the play is pushing back against the #MeToo orthodoxy in some way?

I think that, you know, we didn’t put in every transgression from the book, but we put a lot. There’s a beautiful Garth Greenwell essay in The Yale Review about the book where he talks about how he teaches “Sabbath’s Theater” to undergraduates, and it bothers him when the question becomes whether a protagonist should be an example of moral rectitude. That’s not what art is for. This isn’t meant to be propaganda. This is raw. This is art. In some of my favorite literature of the 20th century, the moral compass, the moral core of the whole thing is reminding us that a human being is more than their worst or most repellent urges and behaviors. A human being contains multitudes. This is Mickey in all his humanity, and we certainly didn’t want to sanitize him. I mean, I think the play is still plenty, plenty dirty.

I’m going to quote your own words to you. I was rereading a profile you wrote about the film director Nicole Holofcener, and you say something about her that made me think, “Oh, this is why Levy wrote ‘Sabbath’s Theater.’” You wrote: “This is the kind of creature Nicole Holofcener is drawn to: weirdly alluring, mangled by life, and unable to resist lashing out against her own best interests.” 

That’s so funny. Yeah, that’s it, isn’t it? That’s Mickey Sabbath. That’s eerie. That is Mickey Sabbath.

I have to ask you to weigh in on what I think is the world’s most boring debate, which is whether a non-Jewish actor like John Turturro should be playing a Jewish character like Mickey Sabbath written by a Jewish author like Philip Roth. Do you have any qualms about that?

I feel so culturally connected to John Turturro. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if we had genetic overlap. I mean, it’s like the food’s different, and the accents are different, but it’s the same shit, you know? John in particular to me is very culturally recognizable. And, you know, he’s married to a Jewish person. He’s raising children with a Jewish person. He’s steeped in it. We are not an exotic.

Also, he’s an actor. It’s like a novelist, which I’m not: They can inhabit other realities. That’s what their job is.

I sometimes feel that the readership for Roth is a men’s club. I’ve rarely come across women who idolized him the way I did. Do you feel that?

I mean, until his mature period, [his] women weren’t as interesting. They didn’t come off the page the way the men did. So I can understand, you know, it’s a drag reading a novel where the women aren’t coming off the page. It doesn’t feel great. But then everything changes: When he grows up he becomes this incredibly sophisticated, nuanced writer who realizes that women are half the human race. “Sabbath’s Theater” is the work that preceded the American trilogy [“American Pastoral,” “I Married a Communist” and “The Human Stain”]. That’s when everything starts to become like a masterpiece, and that’s when the women get really interesting. I defy anyone to find a richer, more complicated and fascinating and alluring female lead than Drenka. I mean, she’s unbeatable.

The post How New Yorker writer Ariel Levy adapted Philip Roth’s filthiest book for the stage appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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On Explosive Northern Front, Hezbollah Lurks; IDF Conducts Precise Defense

UN peacekeepers (UNIFIL) patrol in the village of Khiam, near the border with Israel, in southern Lebanon, July 12, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Aziz Taher

JNS.orgAs Israel prepares for the strong possibility of a resumption of war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli Defense Forces is also currently in a heightened state of alert and preparedness along the border with Lebanon, responding to the continuous threats posed by Hezbollah.

Since Oct. 7, the IDF has deployed significant military resources, including artillery, tanks and engineering corps, along the Lebanese border, striking Hezbollah anti-tank missile squads and other terrorists whenever they are detected, either after an attack or preparing for one.

This low-intensity conflict when compared to Gaza has resulted in some 90 casualties for Hezbollah and nine Israeli casualties—six military personnel and three civilians.

Several Israeli homes and military bases have sustained heavy damage from Hezbollah strikes since Oct. 7, and tens of thousands of Israeli residents from areas near the border with Lebanon remain evacuated, displaced from their homes by the threat of the Radwan Hezbollah elite terrorist unit.

In response, the IDF has employed a defensive-responsive posture aimed at protecting Israeli territory from Hezbollah’s aggression but not escalating the situation into a full-scale war front at this time.

Its approach is characterized by a reactive rather than proactive stance. Operations are tailored to respond to specific threats and attacks from Hezbollah, avoiding initiating aggression. This goal remains to protect civilian lives and property, as well as to make sure that Hezbollah cannot surprise the north as Hamas did the south. Still, the decision of any expanded war efforts in Lebanon remains up to the war cabinet.

Hezbollah’s tactics, meanwhile, involve embedding its operations within Lebanese civilian areas; using southern Shi’ite villages as bases of attack; firing anti-tank missiles at Israeli northern homes and military positions; and continuing to pose a serious and persistent threat.

The question of whether the Radwan unit, which has murder and kidnap squads much like Hamas’s Nukhba unit, could breach the Israeli border and conduct attacks has no clear answer at this time, although the IDF is present at the border in large numbers and has proven effective at detecting Radwan unit movements in real-time.

Hezbollah’s terror tactics not only endanger Lebanese civilians but are designed to complicate the IDF’s response—a familiar use of human shielding that Hamas employs as well in Gaza.

In this explosive situation, the IDF currently exercises restraint in its counterstrikes, relying on precise intelligence to target terrorist threats while minimizing civilian casualties and collateral damage.

UNIFIL ineffective in curbing provocation

The role of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in challenging Hezbollah’s flagrant violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which bans Hezbollah from operating in Southern Lebanon, is nonexistent.

Worse yet, Hezbollah has been actively using UNIFIL as human shields, launching attacks on Israel in some cases from tens of meters from UNIFIL positions.

UNIFIL’s ineffectiveness in curbing Hezbollah’s activities is self-evident, highlighting the limitations of international peacekeeping forces in such scenarios.

Despite this, the IDF continues to remain in contact with UNIFIL and has been transmitting its concern over Hezbollah’s destabilizing activities with no tangible results.

So far, Israel’s policy on the Lebanon border is a delicate balance between essential defense and cautious restraint. But it remains unclear how long this can continue since northern residents will not return to a persistent Hezbollah threat to their lives in the new, post-Oct. 7 reality, and the IDF cannot remain fully deployed in the north indefinitely.

The result is a paradox that appears to suggest difficult decisions in the future by the Israeli war cabinet if the north is to be sustainable and its residents granted a new sense of security.

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The Determination of Israel’s Reservists

IDF soldiers are seen at rest stop near the border with Gaza. Photo: Reuters/Jim Hollander

JNS.orgWho is the Israel soldier? They can be of any age and profession. It may have been a long time since they held a weapon. Many of them are at Tze’elim, one of the IDF’s largest bases, just across the border from Gaza on yellow sand.

When I meet them, they are waiting, as the brief ceasefire between Israel and Hamas was still holding. A short time later, Hamas broke the truce, attacked Israel with rockets, and the fighting began again.

These soldiers are older and more emotional than you would imagine. Their intentions are clear: “Never Again.” The Oct. 7 massacre will never be permitted to reoccur. Israel must be freed from the nightmare of Hamas.

In Tze’elim, rows of barracks and numerous disorderly tents house thousands of soldiers of all kinds. We meet with a group of them from Brigade 252. They are soldiers from the miluim—the reserves. They have completed their three-year military service—or two years, if they are women—but they all keep their “miluim bag” under the bed. If the phone rings, as happened on Oct. 7, they rush to the front, whether they are in Tel Aviv or traveling in Japan, whether they are left-wing or right-wing, professors or taxi drivers. They tear themselves away from the operating room and the shop, the lawyer’s office and the bus they drive.

Commander A. is thin, with gray hair and a kind smile. He is religious. On the morning of Oct. 7, he was in synagogue without a telephone. Someone told him “something never seen before is happening.” A. rushed to his collection point in the south and has yet to return home.

On Oct. 7, the reserves were immediately thrown into the battle to retake the kibbutzim that had been attacked and massacred by Hamas terrorists. They hunted down the Hamas men who remained and collected the wounded and dead Israelis in the fields and on the roads. A. closes his eyes. He has seen hell.

The 252 was then sent into the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, home to 50,000 inhabitants who serve as human shields for what is essentially a massive rocket launching pad. The reservists were trained in a mock-up of a Gaza city. They practiced how to enter, shoot, exit, climb, attack and go through tunnels full of TNT. They trained against ambushes, snipers and RPGs.

A. says that, when they went into Beit Hanoun itself, “We had to quickly learn a lesson: Beit Hanoun’s ambush is in his heart, not its outer circles. The terrorists let you enter easily. There’s a row of houses, two or three more, and that’s where Hamas is waiting for you—where you don’t expect it, in civilian structures.”

A. explains, “If we decide to destroy a structure and there are civilians inside, we warn the civilian population. … There are precise rules for evaluating whether we have to act, whether it’s essential because if we don’t act, the lives of soldiers or Israeli civilians are in danger. We try to stop Hamas’s continuous use of human shields by moving the civilians out completely.”

A. is happy to say, “Of civilians killed in Ben Hanoun, the number is zero.”

Israeli soldiers, however, were killed. Maj. Moshe, a 50-year-old engineer who works in high-tech, explained, “An army generally advances on a territory that, once occupied, is the starting point of your next step. But here, through the tunnels under the ground, suddenly you find the enemy shooting at you from behind.”

Thus, great efforts were made to locate the tunnels. “With the use of sophisticated instruments, and also sometimes suffering unexpected explosions given that Hamas’s specialty is to mine everything with large quantities of explosives, we quickly understood that the tunnels were a very sophisticated network, not holes of various sizes dug here and there, but an enormous spider web that converged on the urban center.”

“The structures used by Hamas, which they protected with human shields, included a mosque, a school, a hospital, a public swimming pool, civilian homes, children’s rooms, even their beds. There were weapons everywhere,” he says.

As a result of the truce, Moshe states, some of the evacuated civilians have begun to return. “We can block them,” he says, “but not attack them or approach them. There is a truce.”

Nonetheless, I point out, three soldiers were wounded two days ago in an attack. “True,” Moshe replies, “and we returned fire. If we are in danger we respond.” He notes that some of the returnees are Hamas terrorists, “but we are in a truce, we act according to the rules of defense.”

“We have two ways of being at war: offensive and defensive,” he continues. “The offensive is much easier: You face the enemy. You can move. Defense is unnerving, even dangerous, especially when there are civilians around.”

However, he says, there is much to do, even during a truce. “For example, we had completely dismantled the explosive systems inside a building, and then we realized that everything had been mined again.”

Hamas, he says, is “easier to deal with than endure while you can’t move. So, we wait for orders. The mission is to destroy Hamas and bring the kidnapped people home. That and nothing else.”

Now that the soldiers are back at war, the humanitarian issue is certainly important to them; not because of what the Biden administration tells them, but because that is what an Israeli soldier is.

First and foremost, however, they are Jews who know exactly what was done to their people on Oct. 7 and will continue their war of justice and survival. One of them tells me, “Yes, I feel when we fight, feel it physically, that our kidnapped citizens are not far away, and I fight for them too with all my heart. This is the most just war of all time.”

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The Moral Bankruptcy of IfNotNow

IfNotNow supporters at a rally in New York City. Photo: IfNotNow via Facebook.

JNS.orgA few days ago, I attended a webinar entitled “Jews for Ceasefire,” presented by the young Jewish anti-Zionists of IfNotNow. It was hosted by an earnest young woman named Gen (IfNotNow activists often don’t use their surnames), who began by reaffirming what the group calls its main goal: to “end American support for Israeli apartheid.” She went on to emphasize that all the positions taken by IfNotNow are “deeply grounded in Jewish tradition.” To prove the point, she called on Rabbi Monica Gomery, who led a prayer and enthusiastically praised the group’s work.

Next up was Noa, a young woman who said, “I’m going to root us in the moment.” “The moment,” however, did not include Hamas’s Oct. 7 genocidal attack on Israeli civilians. Noa said nothing whatsoever about it. Instead, she presented a litany of alleged Israeli abuses inflicted on Palestinians. Her omission appeared to be deliberate, as it helped portray the IDF’s defensive military operations in Gaza as an unprovoked act of aggression.

Following Noa, there was a testimonial from a young man named Boaz. He made what appeared to him to be a confession that his grandfather helped perpetrate the “nakba.” What he meant was that his grandfather was a soldier in Israel’s War of Independence. For Boaz, his father’s participation in Israel’s successful effort to prevent a second Holocaust was a source of shame, not pride. As he explained, he was trying to work through his guilt. A poster behind him bore the slogan, “Palestine will be free,” a popular euphemism for that second Holocaust.

After Boaz’s self-flagellation came the highlight of the webinar—an appearance by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). Tlaib has been an ally of IfNotNow for some time. In fact, the group’s leadership began collaborating with Tlaib before she was elected to Congress. During her presentation, Tlaib referred to them as her “siblings.”

Sporting a t-shirt that said, “Justice from Detroit to Gaza”—a slogan that falsely connects Israel to police brutality controversies in the U.S.—Tlaib declared that Congress must demand a ceasefire in Israel’s war against Hamas and “stop funding war crimes.” Like her IfNotNow supporters, Tlaib conveniently made no mention of the Oct. 7 attack or the hostages held by Hamas.

It apparently did not bother the leaders of IfNotNow that the House of Representatives had just censured Tlaib for her genocidal call to free “Palestine from the river to the sea.” Indeed, IfNotNow leaders repeat the same call in their training sessions. That training also endorses the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to economically strangle Israel, as well as the so-called “right of return,” which aims to demographically eliminate the Jewish state.

It seems that IfNotNow leaders are unperturbed that Tlaib has characterized Hamas’s rampage of crimes against humanity as justified “resistance” to an “apartheid state.” These Jews, it appears, are perfectly happy to align themselves with someone who supports murdering large numbers of Jews. They are also unbothered by the fact that Tlaib posted a video on social media that says, “Joe Biden supported the genocide of the Palestinian people”—a genocide that is not happening. One of IfNotNow’s campaigns calling for a ceasefire is entitled, “No Genocide in Our Name.” Having erased Hamas’s genocidal attack, IfNotNow appears to have fabricated one.

In addition, IfNotNow has officially endorsed Tlaib’s statement, “You cannot claim to hold progressive values yet back Israel’s apartheid government.” To them and other young Jews who clasp hands with Tlaib and her compatriots, condemnation of Israel is the sine qua non of being a progressive, and a policy of racist exclusion must be imposed on any Jew who doesn’t get with the program. IfNotNow looks to Tlaib to lead the way, even though, like antisemites throughout history, she is happy to exploit them and eventually discard them once they have outlived their usefulness.

Most tellingly, IfNotNow has been unfazed by Tlaib’s open antisemitism, such as her claim that American supporters of Israel “forgot what country they represent,” clearly invoking the “dual loyalty” libel. She has also engaged in antisemitic conspiracy theories, talking about the “people behind the curtain” who are exploiting victims “from Gaza to Detroit.”

Worst of all, Tlaib is the only member of Congress to call for an end to the Jewish state. It should not be surprising that IfNotNow is fine with that, as they proudly state that they take no position on Israel’s right to exist.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has perfectly and accurately described such people as “Hamas’s useful idiots.”

The origins of IfNotNow’s ideology are obvious. Like Tlaib and many other “social justice” ideologues, IfNotNow divides people into two groups: Oppressors and the oppressed. Depending on your racial or ethnic identity, you by definition belong to one or the other. There are no gradations, no nuance and only one permissible narrative. Thus, decades of genocidal Arab violence go unmentioned, including the Oct. 7 massacre. There is only Israeli oppression and Palestinian “resistance.”

It would be a mistake to believe that IfNotNow is an inconsequential outlier. They have nine chapters across the United States and an office on K Street in Washington, D.C. The webinar I attended had more than 1,600 attendees.

They also have powerful friends and an enormous amount of money. According to NGO Monitor, IfNotNow has received grants from the wealthy Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Tides Foundation, the New Israel Fund’s Progressive Jewish Fund and the Foundation for Middle East Peace.

All that, plus support from a member of Congress. It seems that racism, hate and support for genocide pay off.

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