Photo by Sarah Whiting
The title of New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch De Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656 makes it clear that this night at the theater is not going to be an easy one. David Ives’s play depicts the expulsion of Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza from Jewish society and grapples with what it means to speak out and face intellectual persecution.
In death, Spinoza is hailed as a great thinker whose writings presaged the Age of Enlightenment. But in life he was seen as a radical rabble-rouser, a danger. The Jews of Amsterdam were in large part refugees from the Spanish Inquisition. “They had freedom, but only if they behaved and toed the line,” says Kurt Schweickhardt, director of the area premiere from Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. “Ives accurately depicts the pressure of living within a community that provides a sense of identity and stability, but does not permit challenges.”
At first, Schweickhardt wasn’t so sure about the play. “My first response to it was that it was a fascinating philosophical, political, theological treatise—but what makes it theater and not a lecture?” Careful readings made him realize that the answer was in the universality of the relationships: There’s Spinoza’s relationship with his merchant father, who sees his son as his heir; and his relationship with his half-sister, who is an ardent adherent to the Judaism that Spinoza is questioning despite being left out of the inheritance.
And, of course, the imperative of speaking truth to power is still relevant—whether you’re questioning religious dogma or warning people about global warming. “The play dramatizes the fear of ideas that are outside of the safety net,” Schweickhardt says, “and the suspicion of people who speak out.” Oct. 18-Nov. 9.
Hillcrest Center Theater, 1978 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul, 651-647-4315, mnjewishtheatre.org