When Jonathan Bender first arrived in Boulder, he was your basic, non-practicing, unaffiliated Jewish adult quietly going about his business, studying theater at Naropa University, unaffected and unaware.
I was raised Reform Lite, he joked.
I had a Bar Mitzvah and knew the major holidays, but I had no clue about the others, like Purim, he said. Until he joined a chavurah in Boulder. At first a little uncomfortable, Jonathan started examining his Jewish identity for the second time in his life.
The first time he was challenged with the question, who am I? occurred in 1999 when he was a camp counselor.
I had to attend a diversity workshop, he recalled.
The topic of the workshop was oppression as it related to blacks, Hispanics and women, but not Jews, even though the argument could be made that Jews know a thing or two about oppression and discrimination.
I was only allowed to express myself as a white man, said Jonathan, and that experience started his inquiry into what it meant to him to be Jewish.
I took that experience and created a performance piece about it. Little did he know . . .
Fast forward to Boulder, 2004 as a masters candidate in fine arts at Naropa, and that chavurah group.
After being non-practicing for all of my adult life, I began practicing, but with hesitancy and inner conflict, Jonathan says.
Once again, tasked with the difficulty of defining himself as a Jew, this time to a group of fellow Jews, Jonathan turned back to his earlier performance piece, reworked it, and created a thesis project to help him navigate his own psyche.
It took over two years to complete. But that March, 2006 production was only the start. I then work-shopped it with earlier versions in Chicago and Albuquerque before finally premiering it in January 2008 with a sold-out run in Boulder.
That thesis-turned-career is called In the Belly of the Whale.
Like Jonah who found himself trapped inside a large fish after disobeying G-d and turning his back on his own identity, Benders theatrical project also questions faith and the meaning of Jewish life.
The one-man show features nine characters and 18 opinions.
Bender spent considerable time interviewing Jewish men, women, boys and girls about their own sense of identity and what Judaism means to them.
And then, without changing a single notion or expression culled from his interviews, Bender turned his interviewees into characters, becoming each person on stage.
Every single story is true. Nothing is made up. In fact, he adds, 99% of the dialogue is verbatim from my interviews. The stories are so outrageous, he explains, that he couldnt make this stuff up.
The nine characters include a 60-something social activist-atheist professor; a practicing Conservative 14-year-old girl with intermarried parents; a Holocaust survivor and his grandson; a homosexual professor of Jewish studies who considers himself post-denominational; an Orthodox rebbitzen with nine children and a 10th on the way; a modern Orthodox woman; a Renewal rebbe; and the main character J., who is a spoken word poet based on (and basically) Jonathan.
Bender says his goal is not only to entertain (Whale is part comedy, part dance show), but also to get the audience to re-examine their relationship to being Jewish.
People often feel represented in a way they havent experienced before. We hear so much in Jewish culture about the shoulds, says Bender. We should go to synagogue, should do this and that, but the reality is, even those who do the shoulds still have inner conflict, and that just doesnt get expressed.
Bender credits having theater as a forum to explore his Jewish identity with a deepened awareness of his own Jewishness. Hopefully, my show can help others do this as well, he says.
In the Belly of the Whale is part of the fourth Boulder International Fringe Festival Aug. 16-24.
Information: (720) 563-9950.