In December 2008, during my senior year in college, I went to Israel with the Taglit-Birthright program. David Lawson’s experience of this free trip for Jews from across the world to Israel is the focus of Birthright at the Brooklyn Launchpad; a one man show written and performed by Lawson.
The strongest portions of the show dramatically actually precede the Birthright experience: Lawson recalls working in Times Square in 2010 when a fertilizer bomb was discovered in a car there, and as a child being fascinated with anti-Semitic graffiti on the side of his synagogue. His terror of being so close to death and his morbid curiosity at the hateful defacement are movingly relayed, and imply questions about Lawson’s relationship to acts of terrorism and his Jewish identity that are not explicitly readdressed.
Although anecdotal, much of the show has the attitude of a journalistic exposé. Lawson went into Birthright anticipating the trip to be a sort of propaganda, and he left with his attitude affirmed; most of what he shared was pointing out where the intentionality of the Birthright organization leaked through. His first encounter with an Israeli consisted of a conversation about the rock band the Pixies. Shortly after, a lecturing Rabbi referenced Public Enemy. Immediately Lawson imagined the memo from conspiring officials about connecting to the Americans by discussing rock music and hip-hop. Lawson’s work in this sense demonstrates how expectations can create outcomes. That action from the Israeli can be interpreted equally as a genuine gesture of connection or a political move to further ties between the US and Israel.
Possibly Lawson’s tangible anger through the production largely has to do with this pull group identity, specifically the challenge American-Jewish identity. Lawson remembers USY (United Synagogue Youth), where facilitators turned the other way at teens running off to make-out. He connects Birthright as similarly desiring the participants to 'be fruitful and multiply.'
He did not mention much about others on the trip other than his friend Ari who attended with him, which I found surprising since social engagement was a large part of my own experience.
He seemed to identify Israel as feebly craving to be Western and modern, denying that it is war torn and Middle Eastern. This surprised me, since the fact that Israel is war torn in the Middle East is no distinct revelation. He came across a bullet hole ridden wall as though he was seeing something they were trying to cover up, when really that’s the truth of the country. He mentioned group discussions neglecting to mention Palestinians, but avoided making any political statements himself on the matter.
It is brave of Lawson to stand bare before the audience with no theatrical components such as lighting, visuals, or physical action. I was surprised at how apolitical his reflections were in such a politically contentious context.
He ends back working in Times Square, where one day there are protests on both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and imagines saying something to the protestors. He asks himself, 'what would I say?' The lack of answer is more about identity than political viewpoint, but the two really can't be divided. And that is the crux of the conflict for the Birthright participant.
Can I be a Jew without Judaism, and without Israel?