Sunday, 13 July 2008

Facing ourselves

A one-man show brings down barricades of prejudices, walls of silence and tears of laughter. It also reminds us that we are all brothers under the skin. Ori Golan.

Meet Shlomo Zalman Deutch, an aged and slightly deaf ultra-Orthodox from Mea Shearim. He spits when he talks and speaks more Yiddish than English. His traditional Hassidic garb has seen many – and better – days and on his laceless shoes belonged to his grandfather. He has many children. "Their names? Ich veyss? Who remembers their names: Reuven, Yehuda, Yisroel, Zvulun, Dam, Tsfardea, Kinim…I know them and they know me, kain ain hora." Deutch doesn’t see why he has to stand to attention on memorial day, and is concerned about people driving through his neighbourhood with a ‘machinke ("you know, a car") on Shabbes. His children, decided to do something about it. They took a few stones and threw them at the passing cars. But isn’t it forbidden to throw stones on Shabbat? "Azoy, yo, but vi prepare der stones before shabbes."

Now meet Motti Cohen, an Egged bus driver from Zichron Yaakov. Wearing dark glasses and sporting an unbuttoned shirt, he strides in, cigarette boxes bulging from his pockets,. He speaks Heblish fluently. "I am workinng very very hardly in Egged and I am married with my wife." Motti is a reservist in a combat unit who has fought in all of Israel’s wars and he can show you his scars. His wife, Aliza is from a leftist kibbutz ("she didn’t left this kibbutz, but this kibbutz is left") and they have four boys, one of whom even had a bar-Mitzvah.
"I ev nussing against religious you know: they can be living their lives and I can be living mine.
On Friday I am very tiring; I like to listen to Sarit Hadad. She’s mashehu mashehu." And what about values? "Values? Eizo she’ela? We have Reebock, Adidas, values… anything you want". Motti is a through-and-through Israeli, proud of the Zionist utopia. "Of course; in Israel we have Russians, Americans, Utopians. It’s sababa, everybody is living togezer here."

Enter Jean-Paul Simon, a French Jew who has taken residence in Safed with his adorable wife, Christina and their equally adorable son Noël. Jean-Paul is a spiritual artist who still hasn’t worked out which way up his painting should hang. How does he relate to his Judaism? "Oui oui, I listen to Ofra Haza and Yehoram Gaon, and, I have a cassette of Hatikvah. Naturellement, I am very spiritual" But Jean-Paul is also a true pluralist. "Everybody should do what they want, you know? When I am young, I was very inspired by Monet, know? Bah oui, non?"

Finally, Harry Abelson. Abe is a wealthy businessman and a true Zionist, living in Noo York. This is his 625th visit this year (and the year’s not over yet). An avowed supporter of Israel, Abe can even say ‘Am Yisroyel Hai" like a born-and-bred sabre. He doesn’t want the whole world to know that he has given to Israel $4.5m this year – not to mention what he gave last year. If he wanted, he would have told everyone that he has given to Israel $4.5m this year – not to mention what he gave last year. He’s awesome. The Abelsons have three kids, one of whom is missing, but basically they are good kids. Abe recently bought real estate in Har Hazeitim. "I heard everyone was dying to get a piece of that land, so I bought some too." The Arab Fentiada ("that’s the Arab violence, y’know?") has had no effect on him; he keeps coming back because he’s worried about the Jewish people. After much soul searching he has concluded that the rise of intermarriage in America is due to an increase in Jews marrying non-Jews.

Zalman, Motti, Jean-Paul and Abe are all Rabbi Benji Levene, associate director of Gesher and producer of this one-man parody of Israel’s disparate (read: desperate) demographic make-up. Off-stage, Benji is a fifth face: one of tolerance and compromise; open-mindedness and acceptance. The four faces he portrays are caricatures of some Jewish faces in Israel we have come to identify with, steer clear of, love or loath.

But laughter aside (and Levene’s performance is hilarious in parts although many of the Hebrew puns are lost in the English version), Four Faces of Israel, has a very serious message to impart.
Israeli society is at a crossroads, says Levene. The vast differences in convictions and culture between religious and secular Israelis have led to mounting tensions between the two camps, creating a polarised environment of alienation and animosity. Many on the religious side see secular Israelis as heretics, hedonists, leading a life without purpose or value. Secular Israelis, on the other hand, see the religious as draft–dodgers, social parasites, or rabid extremists with whom no dialogue can be achieved. Gesher’s mission is to step into this widening breach.

Since 1970, Gesher has been working to bridge between the secular Jew who’s wary of being coerced by a religious public and the religious Jew worried by the threat of modernity on tradition; the right-wing Jew, committed to redemption and the left-wing Jew who fears for Israel’s democracy. From its base in Jerusalem Gesher launches educational programs and seminars, reaching out to schools, community centres and absorption centres.
"Israeli youth grow up in two entirely separate school systems for the secular and religious communities," explains Levene. "We try to bring the two together. At first each side wants teach the other side. Then, slowly, they start listening to each other."

In a remarkable initiative, Gesher now provides training in Jewish identity to some 3,500 IDF soldiers training to become officers. The program consists of 5-day intensive workshops and is designed to affect the way these officers relate to their troops, making them more effective leaders for the conscripts under their command who come from different walks of life and are a product of diverse ideological up-bringing.

Rabbi Levene was born and educated in the USA. His grandfather, Reb Arye Levin, was known as a Tzaddik in Jerusalem and was widely respected by secular and religious Jews alike. Levene himself has dedicated his life to uniting Jews of all persuasions. He has performed the Four Faces of Israel more than 1000 times, around the country and beyond its borders. He recently appeared in London, in conjunction with Spiro Ark, an organization promoting Jewish culture and education.

After portraying the four Jewish characters, Levene returns to the stage as himself, opening up the forum to debate. Religious members of the audience chastise him for poking fun at the Orthodox; secular Israelis chastise him for portraying them as uncouth and ignorant; others say he’s being ungrateful to Israel’s donors… opinions abound, suggestions are made, and protestations are registered. It is loud, robust and lively – in true Jewish style.

"The whole idea of the show," says Levene is to make people think: if I am hurt by the way people look at me, maybe those people are sometimes hurt by the way I look at them. My aim is to break down stereotypes and to engage people in discussion. It’s not bad for people to argue: we don’t have to agree with one another, but we do have to respect one another. We must realise that we are all part of one family."

The Four Faces of Israel is funny, fast and witty. But more than anything, it’s a chance to look at ourselves in the mirror. An opportunity to discover our prejudices, fears and ignorance. It is also a stark reminder that Israel is a house of visions and divisions; that before we can mend fences with our neighbours, we should insure that our own house is in order.

Gesher, 10 King David Street, Jerusalem /Tel 02 624 1015

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