Pinning down the issue

‘Wrestling Jerusalem’ dramatically grapples with intricacies of Mideast peace

The one-man show, newly adapted to film and screening this week in Israel, is a political minefield as it covers an impossible situation from all sides. But is anyone listening?

  • Aaron Davidman filming 'Wrestling Jerusalem.' (Courtesy)
    Aaron Davidman filming 'Wrestling Jerusalem.' (Courtesy)
  • Aaron Davidman in 'Wrestling Jerusalem.' (Courtesy)
    Aaron Davidman in 'Wrestling Jerusalem.' (Courtesy)
  • Aaron Davidman in 'Wrestling Jerusalem.' (Derek Knowles)
    Aaron Davidman in 'Wrestling Jerusalem.' (Derek Knowles)
  • Aaron Davidman in 'Wrestling Jerusalem.' (Courtesy)
    Aaron Davidman in 'Wrestling Jerusalem.' (Courtesy)

NEW YORK — “It’s complicated,” a man alone in a desert says to the voices in his head. It’s the phrase everyone – well, everyone with a lick of sense – has used when discussing Israel’s security situation.

“Security situation?!? You mean occupation!” says the man.

That’s the sort of minefield this is. Almost any word can be yanked from a sentence, turned upside-down, held against a light and be used to convey meaning that the speaker may not have intended.

And those waves of interruption, reprisal, self-doubt and aggrandizement knock down then lift up the arguments raging inside playwright/performer Aaron Davidman in the essential, heartbreaking, invigorating and noble film “Wrestling Jerusalem.”

Right now, as Israel collects itself after the recent incidents on the Gaza border, it’s probably when audiences are least interested in what a left-leaning American Jew has to say about “the situation.” (Our Irish friends had “the Troubles,” perhaps the first step to solving this thing is giving it a name.)

But one of the many things you’ll hear in this film, though positioned rather cynically as a “good PR move,” is that Israel’s acceptance of dissent is one its finer features.

Aaron Davidman in ‘Wrestling Jerusalem.’ (Courtesy)

With so much at stake, the least we can do is watch a movie. Davidman’s one-man piece, adapted from the stage to film by director Dylan Kussman, will definitely mean more to people who bring a previous awareness of Middle Eastern history. The opening sequence isn’t so much a monologue as just an avalanche of half-thoughts, a list of dates (17! 48! 67! 73!) and names and places and organizations.

Next come motivations and reasons and excuses for bad behavior – as if someone took a hundred Times of Israel op-ed headlines and put them in a blender. Finally, exhausted, Davidman, cross-cut between the open desert, the stage and a dressing room, falls back on the old reliable: “it’s complicated.”

For the remainder of the 90-minute film, Davidman assumes the personalities of people he met during his Middle Eastern travels. Though much of the material was clearly written 10 years ago, it is not, unfortunately, dated at all.

Aaron Davidman with crew of ‘Wrestling Jerusalem.’ (Courtesy)

The opinions pop up like an editorial whack-a-mole. There’s the IDF officer proud of his army’s moral standing, there’s the humiliated Palestinian at the border crossing, the liberal MK, the right-wing American Jew, the hippie drop out suffering PTSD after the Second Intifada, the passionate Reform rabbi, the unfazed Arab farmer, the left-wing American Jew, the human rights worker, the Holocaust historian … did I get everybody? Probably not. But here’s what’s key: everyone I mentioned, when they are in the midst of their plea, makes absolute sense.

Davidman is, beyond anything else, a humanist performer, and when he effortlessly slides into each new character (without any sort of costume change) there’s an ache and a yearning and a connection.

In between the arguments (or, sometimes, in the midst of them) there’s Davidman himself, a caring Zionist who first came to Israel to study Torah and who literally loses sleep over the Israel/Palestine stalemate. He doesn’t push it, but the Jacob metaphor alluded to in the title is not coincidental. Yet in addition to biblical allusions, there are also jokes. “It’s like talking to a fucking wall!” a rabbi kvetches about his Western Wall prayers going unanswered.

Aaron Davidman filming ‘Wrestling Jerusalem.’ (Courtesy)

One man’s one-act play put to film isn’t likely to have much impact on global affairs, but like a crinkled-up paper slipped between giant stones, it certainly can’t hurt. I’ve read my share of essays from all points of view, but it’s another thing entirely to see them acted out. Davidman’s performances are remarkable, as is his writing.

I don’t expect any screenings in the West Bank or Gaza any time soon, which is very much a shame, but in the interim there are scheduled screenings in Tel Aviv (May 27), Haifa (May 29) and Jerusalem (June 3). A one-way conversation is better than no conversation at all.

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