NEPONSIT, N.Y. – There was no more fitting place for a star-studded dramatic reading of the Book of Job than a synagogue that still lies in tatters a year after Hurricane Sandy’s waters rose up and decimated the Rockaway Peninsula, ruining the sanctuary and rendering most of West End Temple’s building unusable. Sitting on a low stage fashioned from plywood balanced on cinder blocks, in the floorless sanctuary, television and theater stars Eric Bogosian, Adam Driver and Tate Donovan gave voice to Job - the man who loses everything in a great wind that annihilates his home, livestock and kills his children - God and supporting players in the Biblical book.
Bogosian, who is known for his play and then film “Talk Radio,” about a Jewish radio talk-show host, as well as a starring role on the television series Law & Order, played Job, articulating the high pitch, as well as abject acceptance, of Job’s uncomprehending grief and suffering. Driver, whose moody character Adam is the sexy male lead in HBO’s “Girls,” played God, by turns calmly omniscient and tempestuously impatient. Donovan, who has had roles on everything from “Ally McBeal” and “Friends” to “Damages” and “Deception,” served as the narrator, as well as one of Job’s three friends who keep him company in his suffering, but also tell him that he must be deserving of his fate.
Neponsit, the town where West End Temple is located, is a Native American term meaning “between the waters.” The synagogue’s back sits against Jamaica Bay and faces, a couple of short blocks away, the Atlantic Ocean. As they rose last October 28, the waters washed over all the homes and other buildings on this narrow peninsula.
The goal of having the reading in this town where people are still rebuilding their homes was to use the text as a way “to discuss and acknowledge the immense losses,” said Bryan Doerries, artistic director of the theater company Outside the Wire, in an interview with Haaretz. Doerries created Outside the Wire as a what he calls a “social impact company” that uses drama to address public health issues; from the psychological toll in areas hit by disaster, like the Rockaway and Joplin, Missouri, which in 2011 was devastated by the deadliest tornado in U.S. history, to combat-related psychological injuries, and to address issues of prison reform, political violence and torture. His company and cast of performers — who work pro bono — will be taking Job to a church in the Rockaways Tuesday night and next month to a synagogue in a Long Island community hit hard by the hurricane.
Doerries, who also played roles in the dramatic reading, said, “I have no religious or spiritual agenda,” but noted that the Book of Job begins and ends with a whirlwind, from which the voice of God emerges. “The core scenes I’m interested in are the human scenes, the seemingly indiscriminate scenes of natural disaster and suffering, the isolation of suffering, and the humanity-affirming behavior of neighbors and friends,” he told Haaretz.
After the reading Doerries led a discussion among the 160 or so people who filled the sanctuary to capacity, posing questions like what they recognized of their own experience in Job’s. Seated between stacks of sheetrock, congregants and community members seemed eager to share their thoughts. Some told stories of really connecting with their neighbors for the first time in the days after the flood. Others spoke of relating to Job, who seemed to them to be the victim of a capricious God rather than a sinner.
“I got a little sick of Job and his self-pity,” said Lori Musumeci, a West End congregant. When confronted by disaster “you’ve got to get up, do what needs to be done and don’t look back.”
West End Temple’s rabbi, Marjorie Slome, said her goal was to get her congregants re-connected with their sanctuary, which has been unusable since it was engulfed in floodwaters last October 28th, leaving siddurim (prayer books) and chumashim (Torah books), as well as the space itself, ruined. “This was a way to get them back into the sanctuary in a way that was both jarring and healing,” said Slome in an interview after the Job reading.
The sanctuary, which has plywood covering the floors, wall interiors removed to about 6 feet high, where the flood waters rose, an empty ark (the Torah scrolls are being kept in the trailer serving as Slome’s office parked outside the building) and an eternal light that is, for now, dark, has “really been off-limits to people for safety reasons,” Slome said. “It’s still a work zone. It’s certainly not a tefillah [prayer] zone.”
With just $1 million in insurance coverage and a rehabilitation job that will cost much more and take an indefinite amount of time, Slome put her congregation’s struggles in the context of another book of the Bible. “As Kohelet said, there’s nothing new under the sun. Even if the content of the suffering is different, it’s still a human emotion people have to manage,” she told Haaretz. “Ancient or post-modern, we’re still struggling with the same questions that Job did.”