“A Pillar of Marble” Asks Questions of Paradise and Identity

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Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

At Sunday’s staged reading of “A Pillar of Marble,” an Honors Dramaturgy Thesis crafted by Amelia Dornbush ‘15 and directed by Rebecca Wright, a friend took rapid notes in Hebrew on her program. I asked what she had written, and she told me: Ani ha’acher. Mah zeh tov. Aich anachnu yodim. I am the other. What is good. How do we know.

Dornbush’s play, which she adapted using her own translations of multiple Talmudic texts, tells the story of four people (Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher, and Rabbi Akiva) who enter Pardes, or Paradise, to meet wildly different fates. Dornbush sees herself in each of them but is most frightened and disturbed to identify with Acher, the heretic (or the other). One of the most heightened moments of the play occurs when Rachel, a character previously quiet and unassuming, begins to speak directly to the audience as the playwright. Rachel, channeling Dornbush, describes her feelings of opposition and isolation during her study abroad in Occupied Jerusalem. “I had coughed up the nationalism pill in a trance-like state of illness,” she says, “and from that point on would always be acher.”

Dornbush has always wrestled with questions of faith, especially during the process of her conversion to Judaism and more recently in Israel/Palestine, when “I saw my religion splayed out across a landscape as a form of oppression,” she told The Daily Gazette. In her research for “A Pillar of Marble,” Dornbush studied the Talmud, which contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis over many generations. (She focused on the Babylonian Talmud in her research, but also consulted the Palestinian Talmud). The text is not linear and instead puts people into conversation who are hundreds of years removed from each other. It has been read in endlessly different ways over the Jewish diaspora.

What Dornbush sees as the heart of the play is the question of what to take and what to leave of our sacred texts. How can we identify what is rotten within our traditions and within ourselves, and what do we do with such a convoluted whole? What happens when one part of our identity is meaningful and another is harmful? “Should we burn it all to the ground?” Dornbush asks.

I think of black feminist writer and activist Audre Lorde’s similar thoughts about identity in her article “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference”: “I find I am constantly being encouraged to pluck out some one aspect of myself and present this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self. But this is a destructive and fragmenting way to live. My fullest concentration of energy is available to me only when I integrate all the parts of who I am….”

Dornbush’s solution to this eternal problem is to integrate by acknowledging the infinite complexity inherent in herself and the texts she considers sacred. She does this by making the brave choice to tell the story of Pardes in her own voice, filtered through her brain and unique perspective. The result became “quite possibly the most personal play I’ve ever written, even though ostensibly it has nothing to do with me.”

Perhaps, Dornbush thinks, the texts we adhere to are not meaningful because of their singularity but because of their very malleability and multitudes. Dornbush first encountered Talmud in the traditional yeshiva style of learning with a partner, a method that emphasizes the inherent subjectivity of approaching this material (much like the interplay between a text and its playwright, directors, actors, and audience). Perhaps that initial experience helped her embrace both the fact of “multiple subjectivities,” as she puts it, but also of selecting and standing by her own.

One of the hardest parts of the creation process for Dornbush was making room for her own interpretation. She learned to manage feelings of self-doubt and realize that making the story her own meant that it would be relevant and resonant with others. As a translator, she had to be more than a passive conduit. Once she allowed herself to actively shape the contours of the tale, to add her own commentary to the generations before, she was able to take the contradictions and layers of her own self and let them speak.

As Rachel says during her convention-breaking monologue, “I want to be Akiva or Acher or Ben Azzai or Ben Zoma. Just one of them. Not all of them. I can’t deal with being all of them. But really, in the end, I can’t be any of them. And that isn’t forgivable either. So I’ll go back. To being me.”

Featured image by Natasha Chak/The Daily Gazette.

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