When art makes light of reality

When I was eight, I read Little Women. As one of four sisters, there was never a chance that I wouldn't fall in love with Louisa May Alcott's dynamic and passionate heroines. But after I'd shivered as Amy survived a near-death experience, felt the heartache when Jo's story went up in flames and cried when Beth died (in the sequel), I went to the encyclopedia. The book, as fans will remember, culminates with the father's return from war. But which war? I'd never heard of the American Civil War, but I was desperate to find out more about why Mr March was fighting far away from his beloved daughters.

In fiction, context is everything. Context makes you believe in what the characters are going through and understand why and how they do things that appear impossible. Characters, however introspective, can't exist in a vacuum, and worlds that are entirely made up are never as convincing as the real one.

Whenever or wherever a book - or film or play - is set, the story should at least reflect the outside world. An element of creative license is one thing; ignoring reality is quite another. So I was disappointed that Travelling Light, a shtetl-set play about the arrival of motion picture, did just that. Over what felt like several hours at the National Theatre, we met a jolly cast of characters who seemed to have taken their cues from a bad school staging of Fiddler on the Roof. To add insult to parody, it even featured a diminutive fiddler.

There were overbearing women, concerned only with a single man's marriage prospects. There was the pompous but poorly educated merchant, who talked with his hands and forced his opinions on everybody else. There was the young creative, who wanted to throw off the shackles of life in the Pale, consequences be damned.

Not every story is about love or shmaltz

But, aside from a few cursory references, the shtetl was an island, impervious to pogroms, poverty and persecution. Except for the accents and the token Jewish stereotypes, it could have been any village, at any time of technological change. What was supposed to be a look at how immigrant dreamers contributed to the early film industry was instead a peek at Russian Jewish life through glasses so rose-tinted I'm surprised anything at all was visible.

Jewish history, from Moses to Tevye, has offered up a veritable banquet of colourful plots. If, as Picasso said, every act of creation is first an act of destruction, it's unsurprising that thousands of years of Jewish suffering have given rise to some great art.

And, as in Travelling Light, it is inevitable that artists view our tragedies and triumphs through the prism of human stories. We cannot care about every individual in the way our heart breaks for those at the centre of films like Schindler's List or Life is Beautiful.

What better way to understand a changing community than through the travails of one family, as Arnold Wesker recognised in Chicken Soup With Barley. We are moved to care about the fight to create Israel by Leon Uris because we already care about Ari Ben Canaan. And we seethe at the actions of the Russian mercenaries because they have interrupted Tzeitel's wedding celebration.

Gloss - a love story, a broiges - is necessary when telling any story, Jewish or otherwise. But not every story is about romance or shmaltz. How can you tell a Jewish story when you only want to show the gloss, when you ignore the context? That is what leads to truth and fiction becoming indistinguishable, and it brings the risk of our Jewish heritage being seen by those not-in-the-know only in terms of romanticised pastiches.

This week saw the film festival debut of Iron Sky, a German-Finnish fantasy about a group of Nazis who fled to the moon coming back to earth to wreak revenge. It's clearly a fiction, obviously a spoof. But the lines between fact and fiction aren't always clear.

Artists must ensure a balance between the communal and the individual, between the world-changing story engulfing one person, and the changing world around them. Otherwise, our colourful and complicated communal history will be reduced to nothing more than a convenient backdrop on set.

Jennifer Lipman is deputy comment editor of the JC

Last updated: 11:14am, February 27 2012