Last night, in the new and beautiful Calabasas Civic Center outdoor amphitheater, we watched the brilliant one man play, Conviction. It was a poignant production made all the more moving by the powerful performance of Ami Dayan (the play’s director, sole performer and co-translator).
Conviction is based on a true story of a beautiful love affair doomed by religious persecution in Inquisition Spain. In present day Madrid, an Israeli scholar is detained and questioned by a Spanish official for stealing a confidential Inquisition file. Together, interrogator and interrogated, are drawn by the files, wrinkled yellow pages into the torrid love affair of the converted Spanish priest Andres Gonzalez, and his Jewish wife, Isabel.
We who grew up in the Holocaust generation consider that horror to be the yardstick by which to measure man’s inhumanity to man. Though the Nazi Holocaust has significant roots in Christian anti-semitism (and though the Church was more than complicit in the Nazi’s work), nonetheless, the Nazis practiced a more secular form of genocide. With Conviction, we are reminded that history is littered with the inhumane misuse of religion as an instrument of death and destruction. The Inquisition of the 15th century, though reflecting significant political machinations between the rulers of Spain, the Pope and surrounding monarchs, nonetheless represented the use of a religious institution – the Church – to carry out (and bless!) the forced conversion, murder and exile of a people. Modern Islamic extremists seem to take a page from the dark story of the Inquisition.
I was honored to co-lead a talk-back with Ami Dayan and a Christian Deacon, following the play. The audience was full of comments: about Mr. Dayan’s amazing performance, about whether religion is inherently an instrument of evil, how the play has affected Mr. Dayan’s Jewish and Israeli identity.
For me, one of the most fascinating elements of the play was the singing of a portion of Kol Nidre. Kol Nidre, the most solemn prayer intoned by the Chazan (Cantor) on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, provides forgiveness to those who have made vows under duress. More than one modern scholar has suggested that the prayer survives in our liturgy only because its music so touches our hearts and souls. What modern Jew would countenance a prayer which forgives us for vows made under duress, when few of us in these modern times make such vows. Yet here, in the play Conviction, we see the words of Kol Nidre spoken more to their purpose: seeking forgiveness for the thousands of conversos (crypto-Jews) who converted to Christianity to save their lives, while still secretly practicing Judaism as children.
Bravo to Mr. Ami Dayan for his performance and his co-writer Mark Williams, to Linda Purl and all of the principals in the Rubicon International Theatre Festival, to the Calabasas City for supporting this production and making it the first cultural presentation in the new Calabasas Civic Center. I hope that one day we can bring Mr. Dayan back to Calabasas so that others may learn from his poignant producction.