Debórah Eliezer plays a multitude of characters in "(dis)Place[d]." (Photo/Wendy Yalom)
Debórah Eliezer plays a multitude of characters in "(dis)Place[d]." (Photo/Wendy Yalom)

‘(dis)Place[d]’: One-woman show is a journey through generations of Iraqi Jews

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When the late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen dubbed the city he covered  “Baghdad-by-the-Bay” in 1951, he was not referring to Iraqi immigration, but to the tolerance for vice and pleasure he imagined the two cities shared. Some 70 years later, the presence of an Iraqi diaspora (including Jews) in the Bay Area remains off the radar of most residents.

Local theater artist Debórah Eliezer hopes to change that with a performance of her play, “(dis)Place[d],” Oct. 8 at the JCC of San Francisco.

Built around the story of her family, the one-woman show focuses on her father, Edward Ben Eliezer. Born in Baghdad in 1930, he was a member of the Zionist underground after World War II before becoming a refugee to Israel and an Israeli spy, then immigrating to the U.S.

But as far as the members of Walnut Creek’s (now defunct) Congregation Beth Am knew, he was just their lay rabbi who chanted in a uniquely Iraqi mode.

”He never talked about his past until he went into the Jewish Home in San Francisco,” Eliezer told J. “Then the national Holocaust organization asked to do an interview with him, and I was like, why?”

Eliezer, then artistic director of the San Francisco-based theater ensemble foolsFURY, held on to the videotape of that interview for eight years before she watched it. “I knew that once I did, I would have to make something out of it,” she said. “I had so many questions, and that’s what I do when I have questions: I make a play.”

Through shifting monologues, songs and movement, Eliezer — who studied music, voice and movement healing therapies at the California Institute of Integral Studies — embodies about a dozen characters, including her great-grandmother, her father at three ages, their Iraqi neighbors, herself as the daughter of Ben Eliezer and the land where he was born.

In one scene, The Land speaks to Ben Eliezer. “You left the Tigris and Euphrates,” it says, “but we both know that before you were Israel’s, before you were America’s, you were mine. You chose to forget…forgetting was the price you paid to survive. You and I both know you paid a price to disregard, dis-member, dis-place yourself.”

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“This play is about how humans are tied to place, in so many ways,” Eliezer explained.

She said she wanted to focus most of the story on Iraq “because most Jews don’t understand the history of what happened [in Iraq] when Israel became a nation, how that ruptured the Jewish sense of belonging in the Middle East.”

Stephanie Singer, director of the Arts and Ideas program at JCCSF, saw a version of the production in 2018, and said she was “blown away” by it, adding, “It’s such a powerful piece and it connects to all people,” beyond and including Iraqi Jews in the diaspora.

The production is being co-sponsored by JIMENA, a San Francisco-based nonprofit supporting Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. The organization is doing much of the work of gathering and representing disparate Jews from those regions, Eliezer said.

Born in San Francisco and raised mostly in the East Bay, Eliezer, 53, ventured into the exploration of her Middle Eastern heritage later in life. Her mother, a fourth-generation Finnish American who converted to Judaism to marry her father, was active in the local Conservative Jewish community. Despite her father’s Iraqi heritage, the lifestyle the family followed was, according to Eliezer, strongly “Ashke-normative,” that is, rooted in Ashkenazi Jewish culture and historic support for Israel.

“We didn’t even eat Middle Eastern food,” she said. “I didn’t have a Middle Eastern identity. I am a total hybrid.”

After earning her degree in drama from San Francisco State University, however, she was drawn to work with innovative theater groups such as foolsFURY and the Middle East-focused Golden Thread Productions, which seeks to create plays with multicultural perspectives.

Eliezer began developing “(dis)Place[d]” in 2016, after the election of Donald Trump as president, which prompted a shift in her theater group, foolsFURY, to telling personal stories.

It is my own awakening, and it is happening on stage in front of you.

“For me, that is what building bridges means: to start with ‘this is how it is for me,’ and to share that vulnerability,” she explained. “It disarms the audience.”

Part of why Eliezer chose to tell her father’s story was to try to “reconcile what I found out about my dad very late in life,” she said. She had learned from the video interview that her father was 11 when he witnessed the 1941 Iraqi pogrom known as the Farhud. The violence compromised the sense of security of the Jewish community in Iraq, which had lived there since the sixth century BCE.

“It was my dad’s pivotal moment of becoming an underground resister in Iraq, eventually joining the Haganah and later becoming a spy for Israel,” she said. ”It’s very complicated; not all of it is pretty.”

Ben Eliezer migrated to the nascent State of Israel around 1951, as did thousands of Iraqi Jews at that time, and lived there for 15 years. Health problems prompted him to visit family in the Bay Area, where he remained.

But “(dis)Place[d]” is also, inevitably, about its author and performer. The creative process of developing the play and performing it at a few venues before the pandemic has persuaded Eliezer to “claim my identity as an Arab Jew,” she said. (The term is understood to mean a Jew with roots in a predominantly Arab country, who may speak the language and share cultural customs of that country or region.)

As she writes in the voice of the Land speaking to her father, “That piece of the map you swallowed is as much hers as it is yours. You can’t keep her from me.”

“I realized … my difference,” Eliezer said. “This missingness that I talk about in the play is an example of the greater issues of whiteness and race and the nuances of difference that we are negotiating in American culture right now.”

She added, “It is my own awakening, and it is happening on stage in front of you.”


3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 8 at JCCSF, 3200 California St. $25. A 30-minute Iraqi-style tea salon with audience discussion follows the show.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull was J.'s culture editor from 2018 to 2021.