Tuvia Tenenbom with Isi Tenenbom, Jadran Sturm & Åsa Lie 19-01-2002 at Theatre de Poche in Brussels, Belgium.
Question 1: The worst U.S ('American') sin is elitism. How has that influenced your work?
TUVIA TENENBOM: First of all: Who told you that?
JS & ÅL: This is a general impression we have after reading different articles over the last years. We also have some U.S. friends who agree this is the case.
TUVIA TENENBOM: I lived in USA for more than 22 years and I know that the popular thinking about USA is that it's anti elitist, but it is not really true. I do not think this is true. I think that elitism is alive and well in every country. In USA too. You can talk about being elite culturally. In USA everything is money, you know. You might from that point of view attack it and say ok USA... they choose elitism to be money. But in general I think that people like the New York Times. It is considered an elitist paper. It is more the elite... not the workers who read it. And if you ask anybody which paper they consider better, the New York Times or the Evening News, even if they never read either one of them, everybody will say the New York Times. That is elitism to some extent. So this is what I think. But in general I would not consider it a tabu or a sin. It might not be looked upon as favourable as in other countries. The elitist element, the intellectual thing. But it exists. In different forms, in different shapes. It does exist. Elitism. In the Ivy schools. When you want to get a job in a computer company, and if you have a degree from Yale or if you have a degree from another college, you will be accepted if you have a Yale degree. Before giving you any tests, before seeing what you really know. That is elitism. Some of the cultural foundations in the United States are VERY elitist. Even to go to the opera. You can not afford to go to the opera if you don’t have a lot of money. The biggest donors of the opera are the biggest artists all of a sudden... They have the money. But why do they donate so much money? Because they want to be part of the elite. Of the cultural elite. People spend millions of dollars to buy a PHD degree... For example. To be part of the elite. If you are a supporter of the opera you will have to spend more than 15 dollars. We are talking about ten thousands of dollars. Millions of dollars to be on the board. That is elitism.
JS & ÅL: For example when people speak about Hollywood they often say that Hollywood is so commercial today.
TUVIA TENENBOM: Yes, that is a cultural element of USA. Big Mac, big dollars, and no taste, but big money. Yeah, that’s part of USA. But still even those who go for it, most people go for the big movies. They are elitist. They like the old movies. And even the elite in the american Hollywood system... If you ask Steven Spielberg what he considers to be the best of his work, most likely he will tell you “Schindlers list”, but not "E.T.". Because “Schindlers list” put him in the elite group. With "E.T." he did not become part of the elite. But gee, all of a sudden, he can do a Holocaust movie! The "best" movie ever done on Holocaust. Hollywood style, I don’t consider it anything, but for him it was more than the fact that he is jewish, and that he works with recent jewish culture or recent jewish history. It was more about becoming part of the elite. It was reported like that in the media - it was seen like that. He was dressed differently for the occasion. Made a foundation after that. I mean, he himself with all his money... one thing he could not buy was to be part of the elite. So he found a way to become that. That is elitism.
JS & ÅL: After that he had a lot of success.
TUVIA TENENBOM: Commercial success. Huge commercial success. Money talks in USA. Money talks in every place, but in USA more than any other place because you need a lot of money to talk in USA. If you go out to the most expensive restaurants in New York city. To the restaurants where it costs you 1000 $ to make a reservation. They are very elitist. You know, where you live like an artist... pictures, paintings in the little rooms. People pay a lot of money to be part of that scene. So yeah, the engine that drives USA is the dollar, but the need to be part of the elite... Why do people support theatre in USA? The government does not support it. Why do the rich people in the united states, who are commercial, who make big money in real estate, in Hollywood, or wherever or in the stock market still support culture? Because they understand something in it? I can tell you most of these people who support culture in USA understand NOTHING in it! They have NO artistic taste! They know how to sell stocks in the market, but they know nothing about culture. Still they pay a lot of money to be a part of it. Why? Because they want to become a part of the elite. Of the cultural elite. How do theatres function in USA? Who pays for them? The government does not pay. Or for any art institution, for the most part. Who pays? The rich people who made it commercially. Who made their names and want to be a part of the cultural elite. That is elitism. It's a different manifestation of elitism. I don't think it is a sin or a tabu in USA. There are tabus in USA. There are many tabus. Sex is a tabu. But elitism is not a tabu.
JS & ÅL: Ok, so you disagree with our statement.
TUVIA TENENBOM: This is my experience with these people. I have talked with these people. Who supports art? Artists? No! The big money people. Because they want to be part of it. Because they want it to give them a title. Because that they don’t have in the stock market. Now they can go and sit in one of the most beautiful restaurants and say: "I produced a beautiful play in New York city. In the jewish theatre. I produced it. It’s a wonderful play. About the Holocaust". (laughing.)
JS & ÅL: Of course elitist culture exists everywhere, but compared to earlier there is a mass idea which is more allowed… For me that is more like putting on makeup.
TUVIA TENENBOM: Makeup in USA is everything! (laughing). I’m sorry to tell you, in USA makeup is everything. It’s marketing. It’s how you present yourself. I can present myself as an elitist. That’s not just makeup the way you see makeup. That’s the real thing! USA is the land of Hollywood. It’s how I present myself. How I would love to be. So, it’s a different manifestation of the infatuation of elitism. Totally different than it might be in Belgium or in Europe. But if you take the cover off and look at the inside, it is the same thing. The same thing. If you go to the young places like the East Village where young people dye their hair green and blue… it’s part of I don’t know... of being an artist. I don’t have anything to do, but I can dye my hair.
JS & ÅL: It’s a good start! (laugh)
TUVIA TENENBOM: Of course it’s a good start, we start somewhere. A ring here, a ring there, a ring here and this is blue... (laughing) ...a good start!
Question 2: How can one survive as a marginal human being? Before we had "no mans land" and Holocaust. What do we have today?
TUVIA TENENBOM: Ok, let me think about that, I'm a slow thinker... I'm a slow thinker... This is like 10 questions in one! What is the real question here?
JS & ÅL: How one can survive as a marginal human being.
TUVIA TENENBOM: From what point of view are you talking about?
JS & ÅL: For example the no mans land one could be exiled to earlier in history. There was big areas of land which was “no mans land”. It could be a privilege to be there. It was a punishment, but it could be possible that you wanted to be there because it could mean freedom. In contrast to Holocaust which was a way of descending out of something, but also meant entering suffering and death. That was also an exile.
TUVIA TENENBOM: So you are asking this question in relation to what?
JS & ÅL: In relation to today. If you are marginal. What chanse do you have to survive? To live?
TUVIA TENENBOM: To live as a few on the fringe of society?
JS & ÅL: Yes. It can be as elite or as a total looser.
TUVIA TENENBOM: I think it depends on how you want to view yourself. I mean, if you take it in the jewish experience, context... It depends. Or if you think about the black cultural concept. How does it feel to be black in a land where they do not like blacks and you are a marginal human being? It’s horrible! There is nothing you can do. You are black! Everybody can see it. You can not turn away from it. So, there is a tendency today in black culture to say: "We are black and black is beauty". And you can guard them. Most people don’t. And this is sad comments, but it is reality. Most people don’t like to be marginal. They made a study of children in black families. They gave them two "Barbies". One black and one blond. And all black kids, 95% I think, choose the blonde Barbie. Because it is beautiful just to be blond. Not black. It’s sad. So, how do you deal with being marginal? In the jewish experience for example, some elements took it like: Because everyone is jealous of us, because we are smarter than everybody, because we are better than everybody, let’ be proud of it. The other elements took it like nobody wants to see us. We have a defect. And today... the diaspora so to speak, jews are very afraid to some extent of their jewish identity. Whatever that means. It might be that inside the arts: "I am so proud to be part of the jewish culture." You know!? But being on the fringe, being a minority, they feel like prosecuted. Like; everybody is an anti-semite around me. So, it depends... I think most people don’t like to be marginal. Most people don’t like to be excluded. Being jewish, being black, being puerto rican or being german and living in Zimbabwe. Nobody likes...
JS & ÅL: What about those who like to be marginal? Who choose to be different? And in a way have that as a statement, but at the same time demand respect and tolerance?
TUVIA TENENBOM: It depends. If they want to be marginal and they are not against everybody, they can ask for respect, but it depends on how they view their marginality. If they view it as superiority. We are better than you, thats why we want to be marginal, then they do not deserve much respect. If they don't choose it as superiority they deserve respect as everybody else. No question about it!
JS & ÅL: It’s also possible that someone who chooses to be marginal, can be interpreted as seeing themselves as superior without actually seeing themselves as superior. Then you are stuck, right?
TUVIA TENENBOM: True! Yeah, then you are stuck! It depends why you are marginal. Have you been expelled like in the black trade, slavetrade, and you become marginal because they just bought you as a slave. Are you marginal because you are jewish and you have been expelled from Europe, and then you find yourself somewhere, god knows where, in the middle east and you are marginal. Not because you want it. Or if you are marginal because you want it. If you are marginal because you want it and you have no superior feelings about it you deserve all the respect you can get. But I think that people who want to be marginal for the sake of being marginal, they have a problem. They need a psychiatrist. That's stupid! If you ARE marginal, and you want to effect society to be like you, it’s different. That’s not marginal. I believe in truths that nobody else believes in. And I am going to champion for that truth. I give a lot of respect for doing that! Even if society decided that you are marginal. But if YOU want to be marginal because you want to be better than everybody else, then you are fucked up!
JS & ÅL: I mean when you are naturally different, because of what you want and what you believe in and you are not hurting anyone, except you might be irritating someone.
TUVIA TENENBOM: Then you deserve all the respect! Because this is who you are. This is the manifestation of yourself. And nobody can take away from you what you want to be. It is our choice. That is the essence of democracy. The essence of humanity. As it should be. Not always as it is, but as it should be. I totally agree with that! That’s it? All the questions?
JS & ÅL: Today it’s not so popular to be critical.
TUVIA TENENBOM: No, it’s not so popular to be critical. No. I live it in my own way. In the theater that I do in New York city. Always... I want to make a change. And I have so many enemies. Just because... I don’t even know them. They call me nazi, they call me anti-semite. They call me every name in the book. They call for my death. Or whatever. They have never met me! And they already hate me with passion. I think it’s stupid, but at the same time I think they have a right to say what they want to say. I give them the right, even if they call for my death on internet. I'll give them the right. I am not closed on internet. They are allowed to have their opinion. But for the people to make a decision just because I personally want to make a change... And happen to be a marginal element... or on the side, the fringe or whatever. And then call me names and try to stop me from everything I do. I think that’s stupid! More than anything else and that is elitism to an extent. To say only I have the right approach to life. You can not come up with something new. That’s elitism at it’s worst!
Question 3: The concept of freedom is very popular. Do you think the only freedom we have is to be or not to be mediocre?
TUVIA TENENBOM: In todays society certainly yes! The answer is yes. If you move away from the accepted mediocrity you are being called names. They will call you any names they want. Usually ugly names. And today it should not be like that, but it is.
JS & ÅL: Why is it like that?
TUVIA TENENBOM: I think this is part of, eh... you better ask a psychologist or psychiatrist about it. I don’t think it has to do with anything political. I think it has more to do with psychotics. A social element. As humans by nature we are afraid. We are scared little animals. We are social animals who want all people to be like us. And every new idea that challenges us makes us scared. Don’t show me I’m wrong! Don’t confuse me with facts! I know what’s true. Don’t confuse me with facts! That kind of mentality. And I think at the root of it is not a political thing, but a human fear. A fear of that if I’m wrong, my mediocrity is wrong, then I’m challenged, maybe I will not succeed in that challenge... and I will not feel protected. And every human being, even the strongest, we need the protection of the people around us. They say that some of the biggest dictators in history, in their own little life in their world... even Hitler, he needed a woman to love him in a very passionate way. Because in this little world he was very scared. He was the animal, the powerful man who could move all, the whole world around him, but he could not move this little cousin that he had to love him and that hurt him most of anything. So, even if you go to the biggest... Napoleon, or whoever you know. We all have the fears, we don’t always project the fears we have. The biggest leaders. But humans... We are born with a certain kind of fear and we need approval, and we need support. And what is the approval? The approval is protection. Because we are always cared. At some level. At the roots of all political thoughts is human needs. We never should move away from that. As much as we criticise some kind of political thought, some kind of political superiority, or supremacy that you and I hate... We have to know if we want to fight it, an elitism, to fight it is to know what is underneath it. And the need for elitism or for lack of elitism sometimes starts at the human condition. We should never ignore that element. We are basically however much we like to think of ourselves that we are god knows what... we are human beings and none of us are the same. We have our little fears. The professor Octavius had the same fears as the guy who collects the garbage on the street. We are all the same.
JS & ÅL: At the same time we have very individual features all of us, so everyone is unique.
TUVIA TENENBOM: Exactly. And that is the reason why usually people follow the leaders. Why most of us a herd mentality. We follow the leader. Because they think for us.
JS & ÅL: Like when you put yourself in prison, into a ghetto situation. And just speak with the people you know think the same as yourself, who are reflections of yourself. That is very dangerous. That produces terror and dictatorship.
TUVIA TENENBOM: Yes, of course. I know. There is no question about it. It produces dictatorship. But the best way to fight it is to go down to it’s human level. To the psychotherapeutical.
JS & ÅL: Make people feel safe first?
TUVIA TENENBOM: Yes. That’s what they need. If we want to solve all these political upheavals that we have in the world. Even social issues like elitism or dictatorship or... we have to first of all go down like a doctor. If I am a doctor I can not cure your disease if I don’t know what caused it. If you are coughing because something is in your lungs or are coughing because of something which is in your thoughts or whatever, I have to diagnose it to find out what is it’s roots and only then I can cure you. If at all! I think that applies also to political elements.
JS & ÅL: Now that you have seen all these questions, you see...
TUVIA TENENBOM: I see where you are going. Yes.
JS & ÅL: That the topics are connected. In our time many say we are maybe more than ever in a period of mediocrity. Under the dominance of the middle class culture, theories, lifestyle. Everything! That must have an influence on the elite and also on the marginal, and I think maybe this is making those two groups more different and special and smaller, and I’m wondering is that good... or?
TUVIA TENENBOM: To some extent yes. I mean the internet, intranet, the television age, the electronic age... If you look at literature today and at literature 50 years ago or 100 years ago, what we produce now is usually garbage. The more modern the book, usually the more stupid it is. It is almost like... we should be more advanced and what really happens is that we become more and more shallow and handicapped. That is a reality. We must agree. Take the best selling books today and the best selling books 100 years ago, you can not even compare them. People used to know how to write. Today they don’t know. Part of it is the influence of television on the cultural elements. Part of it is american influence of the mediocre big mac, coca-cola... That’s reality. But part of it is... we get used to the tv scene. In USA you have a commercial after every 15 minutes, so our attention span is like: Oh-oh! Stop there! I have to go and get my chocolate from the kitchen before you go on! And part of it is because the internet and the television took away from us as humans the most precious thing we had. The relationship. The atmosphere as it happens when people talk to each other. TV can not replace this. TV replicates images. Not the human condition. That’s vibes that come from people who talk to each other. If I record you I can record every sound you make, except this metaphysical element of what happens in the human condition. The feelings that are moving from here to there are not replicated on the TV.
Tuvia Tenenbom is a theater director, playwright, author, journalist, essayist and founding artistic director of the Jewish Theater of New York. When we met him, he was in Brussels to set up his play "Le Pére des Anges" at Theatre de Poche.
"Le Pére des Anges" ("Father of the Angels") is based on the writings and lives of Jacob Israel de Haan, Avraham Tehomi, the Talmud, David Ben-Gurion, Joel Teitelbaum and Amrom and Ruth Bloi. Adaptation and direction by Tuvia Tenenbom. Review by D.J.R. Bruckner