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A Playwright's Global Dialogue on Domestic Violence

Originally published in:
The Forward

By Lisa Keys

To say that playwright and activist Eve Ensler has a unique way of looking at the world would be an understatement.

"I used to see the world in terms of races, classes, cities and countries," said Ensler, dressed, as she nearly always is, in all-black clothes with fire-engine red lipstick. "Now I see it as having vaginas and not having vaginas; vagina-friendly or not vagina-friendly."

From Ensler's perspective -- which, today, is from a box above Manhattan's Hammerstein Ballroom -- the world has been "vagina-friendly" indeed. Her award-winning play, "The Vagina Monologues" -- created from interviews with dozens of women about their most intimate organ -- has enjoyed a wildly successful, star-studded, six-year run off-Broadway.

Perhaps even more remarkable, however, is the global success of the charity that grew out of the play: "V-Day," which raises money and awareness to combat domestic violence. Since the first celebrity-laden V-Day benefit in 1998, the organization has raised $14 million, $7 million in 2002 alone. Ensler allows any group to perform "Monologues," eschewing royalties as long as the profits are donated to domestic violence groups. This year, more than 1,000 V-Day performances will be held around the world, more than half of them on American college campuses.

Nevertheless, Ensler, 49, didn't have global charity in mind when she wrote "Monologues" in 1996. "I had surviving as a downtown playwright in mind," she quipped as she enjoyed a breakfast of yogurt and cherries.

"The journey has been surprising," she said. "In a way, the vagina is mysterious; this whole process has been similar. The same way the vagina unfolds on its own, my job keeps unfolding on its own."

That's typical Ensler, who has been called the "Best Feminist in America" by Time magazine but deflects praise to someone -- or something -- other than herself.

To her critics, Ensler has been called grandiose, dogmatic, naive. "People might think it's naive to think you can end violence," she responds. "So what. I believe it's possible to end the violence, the raping, the mutilation, the beating. I'm going to hold that vision."

In her mission to end domestic violence, Ensler has traveled everywhere from Croatia to Sudan to the Lakota reservations in the Plains states. This fall, she organized a "V-World Summit" in Rome, meeting with activists from across the globe. Most recently, along with Jane Fonda, Ensler visited Israel and, among other events, met with activists in the Israeli and Palestinian peace camps. "Women on both sides have an incredible hunger for peace," Ensler said.

This year, V-Day performances will be held in Jerusalem, East Jerusalem and Ramallah. While Israel has held V-Days during the last few years -- in Hebrew and in English -- this year marks the first time that the production will be translated into Arabic. Is there a leap from promoting domestic violence awareness to promoting peace in the Middle East? "It's hard to advocate the dropping of bombs if you're advocating to end violence against women," Ensler said. "If you're against violence, you're against violence."

Closer to home, the UJA-Federation of New York will host a V-Day benefit at Town Hall in Manhattan on February 12. The performance will feature, among others, Broadway producer Daryl Roth, writer Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Ensler herself. The event will benefit FEGS-Long Island Family Violence Program, the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services Family Violence Center, Jerusalem Shelter for Battered Women and the New Start Loan Fund of the Women's Executive Circle.

"Domestic violence is an issue for all women," said Andrea Barchas, executive director for women's philanthropy at UJA-Federation of New York. "It cuts across religious beliefs, age, income levels. People recognize this is really a problem in the Jewish community, for all communities."

"I'm very pleased that UJA is doing a production," said Ensler, who herself is involved with the federation. "Sometimes we don't like to look at domestic violence in the Jewish community. We think, 'It doesn't happen to us.'"

According to statistics provided by the federation, 15-20% of Jewish households experience domestic violence -- something that Ensler knows from firsthand experience. Growing up in Scarsdale, N.Y., Ensler said she was abused and beaten by her Jewish father, who was an executive at a food company.

"Through writing, I was able to survive," Ensler said. "It saved me."

Like many things about Ensler, her Jewish identity, she said, "is complicated." Although raised Unitarian, "my whole cultural experience was Jewish," she said. "I always identified deeply with Judaism. I felt Jewish, but I wasn't. When I really understood that I was Jewish, I became a Buddhist."

Nonetheless, she said, "my thinking, my social activism, my humor, are all rooted in my Judaism and my Jewishness."

Ensler lives in Manhattan with her longtime partner, Israeli-born psychotherapist Ariel Jordan. When she is not traveling on behalf of V-Day, she enjoys spending time with her son, actor Dylan McDermott -- whom, seven years her junior, she adopted 25 years ago, when she was married to his father -- his wife, Shiva Rose, and her granddaughter, Colette, 5.

Looking ahead, Ensler is in the process of creating a new series of monologues, "The Good Body," based on interviews with women around the world about the ways they alter their bodies to be considered beautiful. She is also launching what she calls the "One Percent Campaign," urging that 1% of the military budget be set aside to end domestic violence. "We now have a Department of Homeland Security," she said. "Why not protect women in their own homes?"

"I'm here until the violence stops," Ensler said. "In 10 years, we're going to end violence. Before, I gave it five years -- now I'm giving it five more."

Her meeting with a reporter is cut short as a few dozen people gather for a planning meeting for a V-Day Benefit at the ballroom February 13, where actresses Marisa Tomei and Claire Danes will take part.

Ensler motions to the long conference tables, arranged in the shape of a giant "U."

"Why are we sitting like that?" she asks her publicist.

Perhaps a "V" shape would have been more appropriate.