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July 21, 2017 8:38 pm

New Musical in New York Recalls Masada

avatar by Judy Kuriansky

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A scene from Temple of the Souls. Photo: John Quilty.

In the 1500s, the Spaniards invaded Puerto Rico, enslaving and slaughtering the native Taíno people — some of whom chose to escape persecution by leaping to their death from the top of their sacred mountain in the El Yunque rainforest.

This tragic story is the backdrop for a brilliant new play, Temple of the Souls, which is being performed this week in New York City as part of the prestigious New York Musical Festival.

Despite the dark story, the play is a musical — in the tradition of the wildly popular West Side Story (which was itself based on Romeo and Juliet). In Temple of the Soul’s modern version, the lovers — a Taíno boy and the daughter of the Spanish conquistador — are forced to make a comparable tragic choice when faced with the wrath of her disapproving father.

Why is this play important to the Jewish people?

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First, the links between this story and Jewish history are powerful.  The Spanish treatment of the Taínos is referred to as genocide. The foreign conquerors reportedly cut up Taínos into pieces for entertainment, raped women, threw babies against rocks and strung the native people up alive 13 at a time (this was done in religious protest, to invoke Jesus and his 12 apostles).

Self-sacrifice became preferable to submission, and many Taínos escaped persecution by suicide, much like the Jews at Masada, who killed themselves rather than be captured and enslaved by the pursuing Roman army.

Most important of all, the play’s implied message for tolerance and peace is a powerful one in today’s times — when tensions, torture and prejudice against races and ethnicities persist in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in Syria and even in the United States.

The connection between Puerto Rico and Judaism is also at the heart of the play’s production. Two sisters responsible for the show — Lorca Peress and Anika Paris, the director and the composer — are half Puerto Rican and half Jewish. On the Jewish side, members of their family lost their lives in the Holocaust, and on the Puerto Rican side, their family was persecuted in the Taíno struggle. The sisters are the granddaughters of the play’s originator — Anita Velez Mitchell, a noted poet, actress and performer — who recently died in New York at age 99.

My first viewing of an early production of the play several years ago evoked laughter and tears, triggered by the heart-warming love story, enthralling dances and colorful costumes, clashing with the murder and heart-wrenching tragedy. It also stimulated powerful reflections of my time in the Middle East and my examination of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which I documented in two books — Terror in the Holy Land: Inside the Anguish of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and Beyond Bullets and Bombs: Grassroots Peacebuilding between Israelis and Palestinians.

The musical also re-sparked my commitment to replacing current power struggles, xenophobia and racism with peaceful co-existence.

The play’s powerful message and engaging production inspired me to become the Executive Producer. In the theatre world, that means putting your money where your heart is. And I am so proud to have done so.

Jewish audiences will be moved by this musical. Please go see it. Performances are this week in New York City. For more details click here.

Dr. Judy Kuriansky is an internationally-known clinical psychologist, professor at Columbia University Teachers College, author, humanitarian, and NGO representative at the United Nations. Her grandparents are Jewish immigrants to America with roots from Russia, Poland, Germany and Austria. 

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