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Across the Jordan

Across the Jordan tells two stories, one ancient, one modern. Daphna, a young Israeli lawyer, is assigned her first political case: to defend Najah, a Palestinian student accused of a terrorist bombing. Simultaneous with her professional challenge, Daphna is studying the Biblical story of Sarah, Abraham and Hagar. The mythic women come to life, playing out their ancient rivalry and bitterness, while Daphna and Najah grapple with their respective legacies of political hatred and mistrust, tentatively exploring possibilities of a common future.

If considering the play for production or presentation, contact the author for permission and consultation. The play can also be used powerfully in the context of informal adult ed settings and can be studied as well in academic courses on theatre, literature, midrash, peace studies, Middle East politics, gender studies.

Professor Alicia Ostriker enthusiastically reports: “I've taught Across the Jordan in a graduate course on The Bible and Feminist Imagination at Rutgers University, and in an undergraduate course at Brandeis on the same theme. It's an explosive eye-opening play for students just beginning to discover how Biblical stories reverberate in their own lives and in the political life of their time.”

Production history for Across the Jordan
Across the Jordan was produced by Virginia Commonwealth University, 2003 and by Theatre Intime, Princeton University, 1994. The play has had numerous staged readings.

Artistic Honors for Across the Jordan
Winner, Seattle Public Theatre Playwriting Festival, 1993
New Jersey Council on the Arts playwriting fellowship, 1992
Participant, Zora Neale Hurston Writers Workshop/Women Playwrigh at Reading Series at New Federal Theatre, 1993
Recipient, playwright's travel grants from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture and from the Dorot Foundation

Excerpts – Across the Jordan

[When we first meet Sarah she is a powerful figure, intrigued to explore a path of faith no one has traveled before, with a mind of her own about motherhood.]

SARAH. (To the offstage Chorus of Women.) I hear your taunts, your laughter, (mimicking) “Sarah is barren, she has no child.” (Alternately to Abraham, to the women) Sarah is barren, she has no child. The truth is, I’ve never wanted a child. I was never eager to see my body distorted like the others. You were all in a great hurry for husbands, for babies, as if to fill up some emptiness within. A great lack of imagination. I never needed someone to fill me up. I always felt apart and quite content to be so. As a girl, I’d dance with the other girls, but in the midst of the movement, the swaying bodies, my rhythm was my own. At marriage time, why were you the one I chose? You also were solitary, a solitary man with a deep voice, a solitary man with piercing eyes, caressing eyes. (Abraham exits, continuing the journey.) You knew enough to respect me… Then, married, again the expectation – to sit with the others, to gossip with the others. I found them silly, their words bored me. When Abraham was called by God, I rejoiced to break away, to begin a new journey. I did not hesitate to leave behind the old ways, the old home. A new way, I thought, a new sort of home…
ABRAHAM. (Calling to her from offstage) Sarah!
SARAH. Together now we move, our rhythm as one, seeking a new way, leaving behind the old home. (She exits to follow him. Lights down.)

[Sarah and Abraham travel to Egypt where he easily sacrifices her safety for his, passing her off as “sister” and thus available as a concubine to Pharoah. Here I saw Sarah experiencing a crisis of faith: for the first time she feels alienated from Abraham, her proud solitude becomes loneliness, and that impels a longing for progeny.]

SARAH. I don’t know myself anymore. My body has begun to betray me. I feel an ache, a longing. Some time ago, a while ago, I began to feel small. A hollow inside me was calling out, and a great dark emptiness echoed back. I turned round and round and round, quickly, quickly, and saw – I was connected to no one, no thing. What was I doing when all the time passed? I can’t remember. I only know one day I saw it all piled up behind me. There were little lines around my eyes, two thin hairs sprouted from under my chin, and I began to feel small and alone in the universe. Now when someone comes to visit with her baby, my breasts tingle and harden. I watch his baby hand carelessly caressing her as she suckles him, and suddenly a hollow inside me is calling out and a great dark emptiness echoes back.

[Though eventually Sarah becomes pregnant, I couldn’t stop thinking about the chasm of thirteen years between the birth of Ishmael and the annunciation of Isaac. We know there will be an Isaac, but the Biblical characters don’t know it, thirteen years for them to experience Ishmael as the only son, the sole heir. Once I noticed that empty space, I began to experience the entire emotional power of the story as flowing from it. I could feel the daily grinding agony unfold for Sarah as she watches them from afar, could imagine how it torments her, unhinges her.]

SARAH. So very strange, a moment in time, a moment like any other. You make a choice, the choice seems small, but in that moment, that small choice, your life is changed forever… I wanted a child, needed a child. I thought, God prevents me from bearing, but I could get a son from this young Egyptian. It seemed… easy… Before my eyes, they act out the love of mother and son, a love I will never know. The way he slips his hand into hers, the way his face shines, like a new lover, when he looks up to laugh with her. She has stolen from me the shining looks. He was meant to be my delight, instead he is the instrument of my torture. Whatever burden I lay on her – to show her the strength of my hand – whatever I give her to do – she shares with the boy. Together, they make of it a game. And the child, he is rough with everyone, but to her, to her he gives the softest embrace. The sweeter he is with her, the harder I become. They have made me so. I work to destroy her, but she is not destroyed – I am the one who is being destroyed – I am becoming something terrible but I cannot stop. I am imprisoned in this hatred, torturer and tortured both… Abraham is perfectly in love with his little family. He worships the boy, he sits at the feet of my servant. He is in awe of the simplicity of their joy… Yes, he comes to me still, the requisite times, but he mounts me, he rides me, as if hard at work, concentrating on his obligation. I imagine he thinks of her when he is riding me. Did I ever want him so much when he was mine?

© Merle Feld, Across the Jordan, published in Making a Scene, An Anthology of Contemporary Drama by Jewish-American Women (Syracuse University Press, 1997)