When flowers aren’t enough
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Naomi Ackerman has been performing her one-woman show about domestic violence for more than two decades. Unfortunately, she said, she doesn’t see an end in sight.
“Sadly, it is still relevant,” she told NJJN in a telephone interview from her home in Los Angeles. “A lot has changed, and nothing has changed. While there’s more awareness and it’s talked about more, it still happens and there’s still a sensation that in Jewish families, it doesn’t happen. There’s still resistance in the Jewish community about airing this issue out in public.”
She will perform her 50-minute show, “Flowers Aren’t Enough,” at the Morris Museum’s Bickford Theater in Morristown on May 8 to benefit the Rachel Coalition.
In the monologue, Ackerman becomes a strong but nervous Michal, a former sergeant in the Israel Defense Forces, who finds herself in a relationship that slowly becomes abusive and violent.
The show is not about the brutality or the power dynamics; rather, it is about Michal’s interior conversation with herself: the way she feels about feeling loved and falling in love; the strangeness of the early comments from her new love that signal his creeping desire to control her; the way she dismisses the remarks as they grow uglier; her shock at the first blow; disbelief in her situation as it cycles into violence; and her silence as she nearly succumbs.
The power of the piece, besides its intensity, is its ability to embrace the audience — because it reveals just how short the distance is between Michal and the rest of us. Who hasn’t had an incident involving lapsed judgment? Who hasn’t at some point kept silent about some nagging problem because you feel, as Michal articulates, “What you do not talk about does not happen”? Who has never ignored a red flag?
Ackerman helps the audience identify with Michal, who cannot believe this could be happening to her:
“As the violence escalated, I became silent. I couldn’t fight back. I couldn’t answer back, and for the life of me I couldn’t understand. How could this be happening to me?” Michal asks. “This doesn’t happen to people like us.
“We’re the good guys. We went to private schools. We went to summer camps,” she continues. “He’s going to law school. A nice Jewish boy going to law school doesn’t beat up on his wife for no reason. This must be my fault. I’m not cooking enough. I’m not cleaning enough. I’m definitely not smart enough…desperately, I wanted to figure out what am I doing wrong, because if I could just change it, then he would stop.”
Ackerman herself is not a victim of domestic violence, so to prepare the monologue, she said, she interviewed women in a battered woman’s shelter in Jerusalem, gathering their stories. “I became their voice. It’s been extraordinary.”
She wrote the piece in Hebrew, as she was living in Israel, where she was born and raised. It was commissioned by Israel’s Ministry of Welfare for a conference on understanding the mindset of battered women. Originally 20 minutes long, after the conference she spent two years expanding it until it reached its current length. Since she translated it into English, it hasn’t changed much, she said, although she acknowledged that when performing for non-Jewish crowds she does tweak some of the language. For example, if the character is discussing getting married, she replaces the line about “standing under the chuppah” with “walking down the aisle.” As she said, “In India, ‘chuppah’ sounds like clearing the throat!” But the character is always Michal, a Jewish Israeli woman.
Since the initial performance at the conference, she’s taken her show around the world, performing more than 1,700 times. And in the meantime, she married, had three children, moved to California, and started Advot (“ripples” in Hebrew), serving as an umbrella organization for initiatives that focus on using the arts as an agent for change.
Even though the show, whether in rural India or Beverly Hills, is the same for each performance — aside from some of the cultural language — the discussion after the play can vary widely. “If a survivor is in the audience, it deepens the conversation,” said Ackerman. But the reaction is also affected by the resources available to women like Michal in their respective communities. Some have shelters and hotlines, while others have little more than the ability to recognize the problem, she said.
Ackerman is realistic about where the Jewish community stands regarding domestic violence.
“This is the beginning. People are talking about it. It’s not a dark secret anymore. But it’s still happening.” Even in communities that are taking action, she worries that it’s not enough. “I think in a lot of communities it’s a geyser that comes up and goes away. When it goes away, no one talks about it. But it’s a constant problem that doesn’t come up once a year. It happens all the time and it needs to be addressed all the time.”
She adds that, particularly in a Jewish context, we ought to be teaching teens the values essential to a healthy relationship, and she believes it can be found in “what our ancestors and our texts teach us.”
What is the impact of the #MeToo movement?
“We’re not seeing the avalanche enough in the Jewish community,” she said. “I want the Jewish community to be transparent and [for] the idea that it doesn’t happen in the Jewish community to go away. I believe there are a lot of Jewish educators, camp directors, and rabbis being protected.”
With regard to the recent allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior by USY’s former longtime director Jules Gutin and, closer to home, NJY Camps former executive director Len Robinson, she said, “I think there is more to come out.”
Even if she alone cannot bring an end to domestic violence, or if the audience isn’t able to identify with Michal, she hopes the show will help them have compassion for the main character and others like her.
“You read a horrible story about domestic violence and you think, ‘Why didn’t she…’ But if you see the show, you understand, ‘Oh, that’s why she stayed; oh, that’s why she tolerated him,” Ackerman said. Next time they read a story about a victim of domestic violence, “I hope they have rachmones [compassion] for her, not judgment.”