Israeli storyteller to share personal sides of conflict

Noa Baum was born and raised in Jerusalem, yet it wasn't until she lived half a world away that she really began to discover Israel.

A trained actress with degrees from both Tel Aviv and New York universities, Baum found her way into storytelling more than a decade ago, mesmerizing young audiences with folk tales from Israel and the rest of the world.

Yet while living in Davis in the 1990s, Baum decided she'd like to tell stories to a grown-up audience about a more serious matter — the Six-Day War. However, the recollections wouldn't just be those of an Israeli grade-schooler but of a Palestinian family living just a few miles away physically, yet light years away emotionally.

Baum had become close with a Palestinian woman who also lived in U.C. Davis student housing. (Baum's husband, now a patent inspector, was a graduate student at the time.) While their children played, the women chatted about "kid stuff, maybe a little bit of politics," but never the big issues. Finally, Baum asked her friend to talk about her experiences in 1967.

"It was very powerful for both of us. For me, it was a very deep experience in compassion, learning to really listen to the other. And it was a confrontation with a lot of hard things; a lot of hard things for an Israeli," said Baum, who moved from Davis to Washington, D.C., several months ago.

"As an Israeli, I think I'm pretty dovish. I worked with Palestinians for peace when I was at university, but I never had a Palestinian friend. I've read the papers and know about it from books, but it's a totally different experience to meet someone you like, even love, and all of a sudden hear their experience of living under occupation. It's all she knows. For me, it's a hard thing because my people are the occupiers. Maybe people say this is the only way Israel can survive, but I have a very hard time with it."

The product of Baum's years of discussions with her friend — who chooses to remain anonymous — is "A Land Twice Promised," a spoken word presentation Baum will deliver Thursday at the Marin Jewish Community Center and Friday, March 15 at the Davis Public Library.

And, while Baum had difficulty viewing Israel's treatment of the Palestinians through her friend's eyes, her friend had an equally hard time experiencing the pain of an Israeli family decimated by war and terror.

"My mother lost her brother in the 1948 war. My brother is emotionally scarred from the Lebanon War. There is a lot of pain in my family. For her, it was also difficult when she heard stories about my mother," said Baum. "Everything [in the story] takes place in Jerusalem. We both grew up there, but we grew up on two very different sides of Jerusalem."

Baum refers to "A Land Twice Promised" as a work in progress. She's only delivered it in front of audiences twice, and running time varies from 70 to 90 minutes depending upon how things play out. Since the monologue is still in its nascent stage, she invites audience feedback and will hold a rap session after her Thursday performance.

Baum doesn't see her performance as being inherently political, instead referring to storytelling as her "art." But she does say that "Twice Promised" is "something I believe in. I want these stories to be heard."

Her dream "is that the more we hear the stories of the other on a very personal, nonjudgmental, visceral level, we can really listen to the other person with empathy," she said. "We can acknowledge there is another narrative there. History is not just one thing. It is perceived in different ways by different people. Until that is acknowledged, I don't think there will ever be peace there."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.