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Psychic Scars and Something Wild: A Conversation with Dramatist, Filmmaker, and Holocaust Survivor Jack Garfein

Written by Eli F. on March 20, 2017 

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So, you accept the idea that set groundwork rules of existence were laid out, and then allowed to take on a life of their own?

Yes, but I believe it’s all mysterious. And the last thing [scientists] came up with, where this was the one thing they’re sure of, is that nobody will ever discover what happened before the Big Bang. You have to live with that; there’s no clue, no way to go back and see it. You have to accept the mystery.

I, of course, I believe in the existence of God; there’s no question about it. And I know what Jesus said: “Ask, and it shall be given.” There’s a French short story writer who said, “Look at the wind. Can you see it? You can feel it, but you can’t see it. Do you know what the wind is capable of? Making things roll; destroying things; breaking things!”

Meaning, there is something, not like our lives are, a power that is there. Something that exists, and is aware of its creation of you, like it is of the planets, of the sun, of all that. But it’s something inconceivable, in terms of giving it any kind of concrete vision or anything like that.

I mean, look at Michelangelo’s God with Adam.. I’ve always been against it, only for one reason: because in the Bible, it says “God created Man and Woman. In His image He created them.” Not “Man” – meaning, God is both male and female. Without body, but there it is, the idea of it, the principle of it.

Right – hence, for example, the idea in Judaism (and Islam) that God should never be visualized. The closest we could ever come is a burning bush.

Yes, that’s right. But what’s so amazing though, to me, in terms of Judaism is Moses. What an astonishing human being.  First of all, I believe, no question – he was not Jewish. He was an Egyptian prince. Imagine the story – the Jews have to throw their kids in the water; the princess found this little boy. In the court, they would see a little boy and say, “Where’d you get him? What happened? How did he get to talk to Pharaoh?” So really, for much of his life he was not a Jew, in the sense of what Jewishness is supposed to be. And yet, look at his grasp of the freedom of humanity; look what he did. He saw people enslaved for 300 years – the longest enslavement in history. And he knew that this was against the laws of the universe. Did you know that only 20% of the Jews went with Moses?

I had not heard that.

80% did not go with him; they stayed in Egypt. Only 20% went. And they never said that Moses did anything. And before dying, you know what he did? He walked away. He didn’t want anyone to worship him, or to set up statues or sculptures or anything. He said, “It’s not me. It’s the universe. God. You’re entitled to freedom; I’m just a messenger. That’s all I am.”

He went alone to the mountain.

But, look how brilliant he was. When the Hebrews worshipped the Golden Calf, he destroyed the Ten Commandments. His brother Aaron said to him, “Great! Wonderful! What do we do now, we go back to Egypt? You’d better come up with something!” Because these people did it out of a certain need.

So Moses came up with this idea: you melt the Golden Calf down. You take the ashes and you mix them with water. Whoever worshipped the Golden Calf, all they have to do is drink a bit of the ashes in the water, and all is forgiven. But now, there were people who didn’t worship the Golden Calf. So he said, the people who didn’t worship the Golden Calf, if they drink the water and the ashes, that’s a sin. Meaning, what he was saying is that if you’re enlightened, and you see things, you don’t do just the ceremonial things. And that’s what I understand, in religion.

Human beings are fragile. [Take the subject of Heaven.] They want to know – “I’m dying, what’s gonna happen?” You live here, you have food, you have virgins like the Muslims – all that is there for you, don’t worry. Not that we don’t know – like Hamlet says, we have no idea, so we stay with what we know. “Conscience doth make cowards of us all.” Right? But the point being that we don’t know. We live with that. And it’s not like the extreme Orthodox Jews thinking we’re going to have a feast up there, with food, with a banquet – because they want to think that everything is going to be like it is just now.

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Who wants that?

Yeah! That means I have my dinner with my wife, my kids, I’m gonna see my grandmother, my great-grandfather, I mean, [but]… I always think of the animals. So what happens to the elephants, and the mice? Do they all have their own..?

That was my concern as a child. Do the dogs go with us? And then, if heaven is happy for everyone, then how can people who like dogs and people who don’t like dogs both exist in heaven?

I love Voltaire. When he was dying, they brought a priest in, and he said, “No thank you, I can handle it myself.”

So do you go to shul?

Yes. I keep the High Holidays, I keep Shabbat – only because it gives me something, not because you’re supposed to do it. I always learn, I get something out of it. For example, I didn’t understand why the women light candles, you know. And when I found out, I said to Henry Miller – he wanted to know, he was not Jewish – I said, “Well, women bring life into the world. They’re supposed to look up, and when the first star comes out, they’re supposed to light the candles.” Henry loved the story so much that he would light the candles on Friday night! He would look out and light the candles.

But then I never understood the fire. Why candles? Which the Jews came up with, all the other religions adopted it – candles, lights, all that. I said, why do this? Why the candles? Why light something, you know? I didn’t understand it until a few months ago, which is when my bride Natalya lit the candles. After that, I said, “My God, I understand it!” She said, “What do you understand?”  I said, “Why did you light the candles?”  She said, “Well, you know, I’m a woman, I bring life into the world, and so on.” But I said, “Why candles?” And then I said, “Fire. Fire is the instrument of God. Everything is done with fire. All the suns, the planets, everything. The Earth, inside, full of fire. And that’s the thing, it’s relating to that. It’s wonderful.”

And then, look what my acting class did for me. One thing I never understood about Jesus was the fact that he talked about bringing humanity together, uniting them. And I felt, “Come on! He’s a brilliant teacher, but is an American Indian going to feel the same way as a Japanese or a Chinese person?” I mean, how could he conceive of something like that?

So, last year I was teaching a class in London. I had Chinese, Japanese, South American, European students. And when they work on something from their own lives, I always tell them, “Don’t translate, do it in your own language. Don’t worry about us understanding it or not.” So, a Japanese girl did these scenes, and suddenly it came to me – I realized what Jesus saw. Emotionally… feelings are the same in everybody. It’s only the articulation, the language, that changes – the thing that defines it. But the feelings, the relationships that happen? Exactly the same. So I thought, that’s what he saw, that’s what he felt. On the basis of that, there could be a unity of humanity. I got it from my acting class!

That’s what I mean. When you work on anything, in the sense that you want to discover the meaning – not even think about it – subconsciously, you pick it up. And if it’s based on something real, and if it’s based on the truth – not, you know, some arbitrary rule and circumstance… you sense it.

I know I’ve definitely had moments of clarity like that. I’ve loved for many years various works of art, or fiction, or even religion or mythology, which have certain mysterious elements that defy systematic explanation. And at certain crucial moments in my life, I’ll just suddenly be hit with this sort of gut realization of, “Oh, that’s why this character did that in this scene.” I can’t really fully articulate it, but I identify very much with that experience.

Well, look at one of my favorite characters, who’s influenced my life: St. Joan. Here was a girl who couldn’t read or write. What did she do? She listened to her inner voices. She gave them names: St. Catherine, St. Bernard. But when the Church came, and she said they were the words of God, they said: “What!? The words of God, from this ignorant little girl? No, we decide the voice of God!” And of course, she wouldn’t give up this truth of what was happening inside. And it was a big lesson to me, because I realized so many times in my life, I didn’t listen to that – and then there are consequences. Henry Miller once asked me, “What is the difference between destiny and fate, Jack?” What do you think is the difference?

Well, as I understand it the difference is mostly semantic.

I couldn’t explain it. And Henry said, “Destiny is that which every human being must fulfill. If they don’t, fate is that which kicks them in the ass for it!” So, I felt with St. Joan, that’s what happened – you don’t listen to your inner voice, you’re gonna get kicked in the ass! Fine. You pay a price for it, if you go just with your head.

So do you think, then, that we command our destiny, or that we merely listen to it?

We fulfill our destiny. Meaning, you have to always discover it. Look at me, in a crazy way… [It’s 1946,] I come to the United States, I’m totally alone. I was a kid, I was fifteen years old, I came to New York totally alone. My uncle put me into a foster home, I couldn’t even speak English, and I felt completely isolated. My entertainment was, I would ride buses in New York, just to ride buses, to see the city. I said to my uncle I wanted to be an actor, and he said, “What? Half of America want to be actors! You don’t even speak the language!” And he thought I would forget it.

I wouldn’t. I kept looking – where could I go? And I also wanted to write – I said, “No, I can’t, they would make fun of my writing.” But that didn’t make me give it up; it made me even go further. So finally when I was in a foster home, and I kept at it, I got a scholarship, got to the Dramatic Workshop with Ben Gazzara, Tony Curtis, Eli Wallach, all these actors who were in the Dramatic Workshop at the Piscator school, before the Actor’s Studio. But still, I was totally alone, isolated. Even when I got into the Actor’s Studio and worked with the actors, I worked as a package boy in the Beacon Hotel to support myself. And then, when I did one of my first productions, End as a Man – first time, they invited me for Passover dinner.

What I’m saying is, I didn’t know [consciously]… there was just something inside that said, this is what I have to do. I knew if I didn’t do it I’d feel terrible. And I rehearsed with all these actors for the first time – James Dean, Pat Hingle, all of them. So many times I didn’t listen, particularly in relation to love, in relation to families… and I realized it was the war, that was the effect that the war had on me, which I only got through a few years ago. It took that long for me to look at women a certain way. To relate to them as human beings, what they are able to offer and give.

Alright. Well, for as much as I could spend hours and hours talking about God, religion and art…

Yes, we’ve got to talk about Something Wild. Yes, yes.

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