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Jerusalem Post: Playwright Eve Ensler Is on a Mission to Raise Consciousness


By Eetta Prince Gibson

'I can't give an interview right now," Eve Ensler apologized as she collapsed in her hotel room last week. "I just had 32 orgasms in public."

Celebrated playwright, acclaimed actress, and feminist activist, Ensler had just returned from Neveh Shalom, the Jewish-Arab village near Latrun, where she performed excerpts from her award-winning play, The Vagina Monologues. Ensler came to the region, together with several prominent US women artists, activists, and philanthropists (including Academy-award winning actress Jane Fonda), to meet with Israeli and Palestinian women in a visit that was sponsored by V-Day, the organization she founded based on the tremendous success of The Vagina Monologues.

Ensler, 49, is wickedly articulate, wildly funny, and deeply wise. Like many of her other plays, The Vagina Monologues is based on interviews with women who told her how they felt about the most intimate parts of their bodies. The results are irreverent, cheeky, and profound.

"Let's just start with the word, 'vagina,'" the play opens. "It sounds like an infection at best, maybe a medical instrument: 'Hurry, Nurse, bring me the vagina.' 'Vagina.' 'Vagina.' Doesn't matter how many times you say it, it never sounds like a word you want to say. It's a totally ridiculous, completely unsexy word. Vaginas. There's so much darkness and secrecy surrounding them - like the Bermuda Triangle. Nobody ever reports back from there."

Audiences, mostly - but not only - women, giggle, laugh, and identify with the stories and with Ensler. And they weep when the monologue, "My Vagina Was My Village," the story of a woman raped in Bosnia, is performed.

"The soldiers put a long thick rifle inside me," the passage reads. "So cold, the steel rod canceling my heart. Don't know whether they're going to fire it or shove it through my spinning brain."

FIRST PERFORMED in 1996, The Vagina Monologues has become an international phenomenon, freeing up women's repressed feelings about their sexuality, their negative body images, and their social and political inferiority. In the US, Ensler has enlisted actresses such as Glenn Close, Whoopi Goldberg, Joanne Woodward, Shirley Knight, and Susan Sarandon to perform the Monologues. Worldwide, the play has been performed in nearly two dozen languages in more than 800 cities (including both an English and Hebrew version in Israel).

For most women, the play is a consciousness-raising experience.

For Ensler, it was a catalyst to political action. She created V-Day - the V stands for Violence, Valentine, and Vagina - an organization dedicated to putting an end to violence against women. Through V-Day, millions of dollars from the hit play are transferred to countries all over the world to help women who are victims of violence. In local V-Day benefits, performers raise money for local services to women. V-Day benefits in Israel last year, produced in cooperation with Habimah and Na'amat, raised over NIS 120,000 for battered women's shelters in Tel Aviv.

In its first five years, V-Day has raised over $14 million and over $7m. in 2002 alone.

For the past three years, V-Day delegations, led by Ensler, have traveled to dozens of locations, including places as far apart as Kenya, Rome, the Philippines, Brussels, and Kosovo, to meet with girls at risk, victims of domestic violence and war, and to provide encouragement and support for local feminist organizations. In Afghanistan, Ensler wore a burqa (the tent-like cover that women have been forced to wear) for days, to understand women's oppression.

For some members of the delegation, the trip to Israel and Palestine was another stop on this program. But for Ensler the trip had additional meanings. In the US, Ensler is actively involved in the organized Jewish community, and has even been awarded a "Lion of Judah" in recognition of her activities and philanthropic donations. Her life-partner, Ariel Jordan, a psychotherapist and filmmaker, was born and raised here, and they have visited several times before.

The delegations take advantage of the women's prominence to bring attention to the cause, yet Ensler, Fonda, and the other V-Day women tried to avoid press and commotion while they were here and gave few interviews.

"We came to listen and learn," explained Ensler. In five hectic days, they met with women MKs and Palestinian political leaders, peace activists, and members of Hadassah. They talked to artists, authors, and playwrights, at-risk teenage girls, and to physicians and professionals who try to help victims of terror and victims of the occupation.

They visited Neveh Shalom where, under a bubble-tent, led by singer Amal Murkus, they sang "We Shall Overcome" together with the enthusiastic audience. They went to see the wall erected in the middle of the neighborhood of Abu Dis, meant to prevent terrorists from infiltrating into Jerusalem. On a rainy Friday afternoon, they stood with Women in Black to protest the occupation.

At Hadassah Hospital, they met with a young man who suffered brain damage after two suicide bombers blew themselves up in Jerusalem on December 1, 2001. Lying flat on his stomach on a hospital bed, he began speaking again only three months ago.

They crossed the Kalandia checkpoint to see a physical rehabilitation center and meet with Palestinian women in Ramallah. They talked with a woman who lost two sons, both shot by Israeli soldiers.

ENSLER LISTENS intently and actively. Her whole body is engaged. She leans forward, she smiles, she sighs, she exclaims, and she cries. She reacts, giving each woman the feeling that she has been deeply heard. By the end of the trip, she had begun to tentatively articulate her impressions. Ensler has a striking ability to empathize without siding with either side, grasping complexities without resorting to zero-sum analyses.

"Israelis have the power, and the suffering of the powerful is different than the suffering of the weak. Israelis have to accept that the occupation is wrong - and that it's not working. But that must never mean that suicide bombing is acceptable, either," she says.

Extrapolating from the success of her play, Ensler talks about vaginas, monologues, and narratives. To her, these are both concrete images and metaphors for life and change. By taking "the V-word" out of the closest, putting it in front of people, she hopes to release them to deal with other secrets - like violence and rape, fear, and death.

She hopes for creative, vagina-like atmospheres and "vagina-friendly leaders who will reflects the best in us, instead of the leaders we have, who pander to our fears."

"Women must come into power," she continues. Not women who are male-identified, but women who are female-identified, who are in touch with their vaginas." She believes that by listening to others' narratives, we can begin to understand and to stop treating each other as enemies and as "others."

"I was profoundly sad when I stood by the checkpoints," she says. "Those walls, the checkpoints and the blockades - they are all signs of failure.

"Something fundamental isn't being addressed. Everyone is afraid, and so they look for false promises of security. Those walls can't provide security, and they can't ease your fear. Only resolving the conflict can do that."

The violence, she believes, is a desperate substitute for the grief and fear that people truly feel.

"It is terrifying to grieve. People here think that if they let themselves cry, they will forever, that they will never stop crying. Instead of grief, male leaders provide violence, filled with testosterone. Testosterone does not effective policy make."

SHE USES her own experiences to reach incisive political conclusions, fluidly - she might say vaginally - connecting between personal experience and political implications.

As a child, Ensler was physically, sexually, and emotionally abused by her father. Her activities today, she says, are motivated by her desire to stop being the poor little girl, victimized by her father.

"I was violated and betrayed. But there comes a moment in life when you have to make a fundamental decision if you're going to let your identity coalesce around yourself as victim, and live your life filled with bitterness, suspicion and distrust, or ask if you want to be someone else.

"You come to realize that the wrong will never be made right, what was done can never be undone. You have to decide if you can move on from there, so that something bigger can be born."

In the Middle East, she says, "everyone has been victimized. You have to move beyond that, or continue to die."

Ensler knows that she met only with representatives of the Israeli left and with Palestinian moderates, and that the bubble tent of Neveh Shalom doesn't hold the whole reality of the conflict. Yet she trusts her ability to listen to women's stories.

"I know that there's so much more to hear. The challenge is to find the language that will allow us to listen to each other, and to give everyone here the space to finally feel and to tell their narratives."

Although she says that the details have not been worked out, V-Day is planning to become actively involved in the region. A V-Day benefit is being planned in Ramallah, and another in Israel as well. And while she would not give details, Ensler revealed that they are beginning work on a "large project that will enable women on both sides to tell their narratives."

She describes herself as both sad and hopeful for the region.

"Every woman I talked to in Israel and in Palestine wanted to figure out a way to make things work and stop the suffering. They were all like mothers, who try to support her children and her loved ones, and still support her own integrity, too."

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