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The Downton Abbey Drosh: Jewish Paradigms in Art and Culture

David EvansFilmed at Limmud Conference 2014

Imagine that the paradigms of Rabbinic Judaism were part of secular European culture; that the aggadic tradition of the Talmud were as accessible to artists and writers, to audiences and readers, as Shakespeare or Cervantes - what would that mean for Western secular culture? What would it mean for Jews in the diaspora? Would that state of affairs even be desirable? I am a director of TV drama and a convert to Judaism; two biographical facts that may seem to have little to do with each other. But my job has made me keenly aware of the power of narrative ideas: knots of moral, ethical, psychological doubt and assertion, wound together by the twine of a story. Finding these rare and beautiful intellectual structures is not easy - but my path into Judaism has been strewn with them. I don’t want to keep my discovery to myself, and I believe there is a way to share these Jewish paradigms in a non-Jewish, non-religious arena, to the benefit of all. My motivational talk - with a little help from the cast of 'Downton Abbey' explains how I would go about it.

David Evans is an Emmy-nominated, multi-award winning director of film and television. Over a twenty year career he has made both drama and documentaries, ranging from a profile of writer and activist Andrea Dworkin to several episodes of ‘Downton Abbey’. He has recently completed two very different projects: the opening episodes of ‘Cucumber’, a drama series about the misadventures of a middle-aged gay couple, written by Russell T Davies, to be broadcast soon on C4 – and a documentary about the sons of two senior Nazis, for ‘Storyville’ at the BBC.

About ten years before I converted to Judaism, I did an English degree and that meant that I got a map of my subject. I could see, let’s say, Virginia Woolf and T.S Eliot quite close to me and then a little bit further away Charles Dickens and somewhere over there, Jane Austen or in this direction the Romantic poets and looming on the horizon a mountain range of Shakespeare, unfortunately, it didn’t really mean that I’d read everything they’d written or perhaps not very much, but I left university with an overview and when I did convert to Judaism it was like I went through a little magic portal and I was looking across this alien landscape and I could see that there were giants of intellect and creativity there but I had no idea who any of them were. And now 20 years later on being Jewish is the most important influence on my way of life, but Jewish ideas have become more stimulating and provocative to me than the things I get from novels and films and plays and the other cultural bits and pieces that I consume. And I’ve come to believe that it’s important that these ideas should be more widely known and treasured outside the group of people who lead a committed Jewish life. I’m talking about paradigms, little inter-connecting webs of thought and insight, little clusters of meaning and value that you can transplant from the context in which they originated and carry them over into another more general context in which they have meaning and value. And I think I am quite sensitised to the existence of these paradigms because I use them all the time in my job. I love directing actors, it’s one of the favourite parts of my job but, you just never have any time to rehearse in television so you reach for any kind of shared reference points that you can and the most widely available cultural reference point for any classically trained British actor is Shakespeare. So if an actor says to me, “oh please tell me why I am so upset in this scene, I can’t remember” we’re shooting everything out of order as we always do, if I can say, “well, you’ve done something terrible, you think you’re never going to be able to atone for it, you’re having a meltdown, it’s a Lady Macbeth scene”, then the actor even if it’s a 50 year old man who’s playing a banker in a present day drama, he’ll go, “right, right it’s a Lady Macbeth scene”, so the paradigm still works from one context to another. And I think we all have these actually, that we use lenses to make sense of the world, but I certainly have these work a day catalogue of these paradigms and my catalogue is getting more kosher. The film, The Interview, that one that they recently released and cancelled and released again about Kim Jong-un, it has a joke in it about whether or not Kim Jong-un needs to use the toilet like ordinary people. And when I hear about that joke my mind goes to the story in Exodus, rabbah 9:8 about Pharaoh relieving himself off in the Nile in the mornings the better to delude his subjects that he’s a god and the fact that I make that little connection says to me that the Pharaoh of the Talmud, not the Pharaoh of the Christian Bible I grew up with, but the actual character of the Pharaoh in the Talmud, is becoming one of those paradigms for me. And this really is my point. Because, when I think about that paradigm, I don’t only enjoy the intellectual stimulation of thinking about it, I really want somebody to run with it. I want somebody to understand it properly, understand it in its original context and then I want them to make it into a fantastic play. A scabrous political satire about an autocratic dictator and his toilet habits and I want that play to go on at the Donmar or the Royal Court and I want it to be this great success and I want everyone to know that it’s based on Exodus rabbah 9:8.

These paradigms aren’t only characters, I’ve talked about two characters but they’re not only characters and I can give you an example of a narrative paradigm by showing you a short extract from a scene that I directed from Downton Abbey, it’s partly the reason why I had this idea for this talk, because of directing this scene but I need to give you a little bit of background. Lady Mary is grieving; she has recently been bereaved as a result of the decision of the actor who plays her husband to pursue a career in Hollywood. And as she sits bereft in her private chamber, the Dowager, Lady Violet comes to comfort her and when she comforts her she uses the following dialogue:


Lady Violet: “The fact is, you have a straight forward choice before you, you must choose either death or life.

Lady Mary: “And you think I should choose life?”

End of clip

So there we have it, choose life, so that you and your children may live. I am cheating a little bit. It’s not from rabbinic Judaism, it’s from the Torah, Deuteronomy 30:19, but it is a Jewish idea and it’s just sitting there quite comfortably in a piece of popular culture. It doesn’t have a hechsher on it, it’s not quote on quote, a Jewish idea. I don’t think Violet’s quoting from the Bible when she says that and although I don’t know, I’ve tried to find out but I don’t know for sure, I don’t believe Julian Fellows was actually quoting from the Bible when he wrote the scene, it’s just one of the paradigms that’s in the back of his mind. It’s more than just a quotation in a more interesting way. Of course you could have any kind of scene of Violet comforting Mary but that Jewish paradigm, the choose life paradigm, is what gives the scene its unique meaning. So I’m not talking about a generalised sense of wanting people to be more aware of the Jewishness of popular culture, I’m not talking about Woody Allen or Leonard Cohen or Matisyahu or the rising popularity of Klezmer or wanting people to have a deeper understanding of Fiddler on the Roof, I am specifically saying that I want peoples field of cultural reference to be widened to include the insights of rabbinic Judaism. And I think this is important because I think we, by which I mean we Westerners not we Jews, I think we badly need new ideas. Deeply thought through, deeply felt, rigorous, moral, ethical ideas are what underlie the greatest works of art, as well as Downton Abbey. Just think how productive the friction has been between religious ideas and drama, if Hamlet hadn’t believed the Almighty had fixed his canon against self-slaughter he could have killed himself at the end of act one scene two. Religious ideas are like the fertiliser in the soil of society and if you get a nicely composted, rich cultural soil you get a better civic life, you get better politics and you get better art. But I also think it’s unhealthy, the extent to which people are ignorant of Jewish thought. I was at a dinner party recently where the conversation was ranging between topics of films and books and plays and exhibitions and things, really people were talking about sex, I happened to drop into the mix a reference to the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife from tractate Sotah, this was a mistake. Silence fell. It really wasn’t an unintelligent remark, it sounds like I’m telling a story against myself here but no it’s their fault! It was an intelligent remark but it was embarrassing that I mentioned the Talmud in any way because I was breaking a social contract. Don’t we all agree how lucky we are to have moved beyond the influence of such primitive hocus pocus? Some of the people around that table were Jews, but they look around the cultural field in which they take such an engaged and active interest and they don’t see any Jewish presence there among all the requiems and the madonnas and I find it personally frustrating that after 1500 years of the Jewish diaspora in Europe, pretty much the only thing that people want to talk to me about, about my Jewish identity is what I think of the government of the State of Israel? So yeah, I’d like it, selfishly, if I could name-drop Nachmanov Bratslav around my dinner table, without worrying that my guests were going to ask for the name of the local cab company. But really I just think there’s this goldmine of beautiful thoughts that have gone missing from society at large because they have an unfamiliar appearance and I think back to when I did go through that journey through the magic portal, of course I didn’t see anything I recognise, there aren’t really any operas you know you don’t see novels, there are poems but poems aren’t where the goldmine is, the goldmine is exactly that opaque, densely compacted record of all those thousands and millions of hours of creative conversation. I’m not, by the way, proselytising by the back door, and although this may sound flippant I don’t mean it to be flippant, I’d actually like in the end to end up with a kind of state of equilibrium between the world at large and this rabbinic Jewish culture rather similar to the way we currently think about Yoga. Just because you go and do the occasional down dog, it doesn’t mean to say you are about to devote your life to a path of ascetic spirituality. But nevertheless, by the same token the fact that you do do that once a week, that is your exercise class, means that you do know that there is a halachah there behind it, there is something you can respect, there’s something of which you are not completely ignorant. And I know there’s a risk to all this and I don’t want to expose thousands of years of basically sacred texts to the insatiable appetite of an exploding global media just on the hunt for the next new bit of material. I don’t want the Jewish tradition to be pillaged by people who don’t know what they’re doing in which group I would certainly include myself. So what I’d like to see in the first instance is a set of creative collaborations in which sensitive, curious and hopefully talented artists, writers, whatever, would get together with properly, scholarly, knowledgeable guardians of the Talmudic tradition and if I could play shidduch tomorrow I would put Aviva Zornberg together with Carol Ann Duffy or indeed Dame Carol Ann Duffy as she now is as of this morning and I would like that meeting of minds, that marriage of minds to happen over the text of the Song of Songs, not only the text, the context, the history and also the way those texts were digested, passed forward within the Jewish tradition and then when Carol Ann Duffy, in my fantasy has properly immersed herself in these Jewish paradigms, when she knows what she’s talking about then she can go on and write this spectacular cadenza of poems, how could it be anything else? Which wouldn’t necessarily be a translation of the Song of Songs but it would rest on her knowledge of the Song of Songs, it couldn’t exist without it. And if I could have a series of these fantasy marriages then I think we’d get to the state of affairs that I’d really like to see, where people in general understand that just as Christians were building Cathedrals Jews were building beautiful, ethical and moral structures. Just like Cathedrals, people in general are able and welcome to come and visit them, even if all they get from that experience is the urge to say, “wow”.

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