New York playwright Nathaniel Sam Shapiro never understood the big fascination with Masada. After all, what’s there to glorify in an act of mass suicide?
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So he resolved to take on a challenge. “I wanted to explore an alternative Masada story,” he recounts, “one that didn’t disappoint me or cause me confusion and shame.”
Masada wasn’t the only event in Jewish history to leave Shapiro in this state of mind. The 28-year-old New Yorker has long taken issue with what he describes as the “one-sided and simplistic” way the story of modern Israel is presented to Jewish Americans of his generation. And this tendency to gloss over some of the not-so-pleasant facts, he says, is nowhere more evident than in what has become a rite of passage for young Jewish Americans in the 21st century: the free Birthright trip to Israel.
In his new play “Diaspora,” which opens off Broadway on November 17, Birthright meets Masada – literally – allowing Shapiro to take on his two pet peeves.
He describes “Diaspora” as a comedy, but that doesn’t mean it avoids heavy topics. “What is the essence of the Jewish spirit? Who are our heroes? And how do we of the Diaspora connect with Israel and our past?” Shapiro asks. “I felt that Masada, with its link through the heritage trips of today, was the perfect place to examine these issues and advance the discussion.”
On the stage, two dramas, separated by almost 2,000 years, play out simultaneously. One story takes place in the year 73 at the Masada fortress overlooking the Dead Sea, where 960 Jewish rebels decide to kill one another rather than surrender to the enemy. The other happens in the here and now, as three young Jewish-American women join their Birthright group on a trip to the site of the mass suicide – today one of Israel’s most popular tourist attractions.
The heroes of Shapiro’s Masada story aren’t the obvious characters – the men, women and children who sacrificed their lives rather than give themselves up to the Romans. Instead, they’re the two women who fled with their children and later lived to tell the story. These two women, largely overlooked by history, are believed to have been the source of Josephus’ famous account of Masada.
“If there is anything heroic in this story, it is their act of survival,” Shapiro says.
Shapiro’s modern-day heroes are three young women from Westchester County, New York – Hannah, Rachel and Olivia. Once very close friends, they’ve grown apart since high school, but the Birthright trip gives them an opportunity to reconnect – and much more.
On their trip to Masada, the three New Yorkers feel themselves pulled in different directions. On the one hand, they’re drawn to the classic narrative that sees Masada as the ultimate symbol of Jewish heroism and sacrifice. On the other, they find themselves identifying with the two women who defied orders and survived.
Shapiro, who grew up in New York and attended Brown University, never participated in a Birthright trip but has enough friends who did to consider himself a semi-expert on the subject. “And on my last trip to Israel, I followed a few Birthright trips around, including one to Masada,” he says. “I was the guy in the back pretending to be on the trip.”
(A promotional brochure notes that “Diaspora is not associated with or endorsed by Birthright Israel.”)
This will be Shapiro’s second off-Broadway production. “The Erklings,” a drama inspired by the 1999 Columbine killings, played three years ago at Theater Row. Saheem Ali, who directed the previous play, is also directing “Diaspora,” which will preview for a week at the Gym at Judson theater near Washington Square Park beginning on November 10. The official opening is November 17, and the play will run through December 23.
Shapiro hopes to get some laughs out of the audience, but more importantly, he says he’d like his latest effort to spark a conversation in the American-Jewish community.
“I expect some people will have a difficult time with this play because it will show how differently people of my generation deal with issues like their Jewishness, religion, the Holocaust, Israel and Palestine, than their parents and grandparents did,” he says. “But I hope these shocking realizations spawn some sort of dialogue.”