Most of the audience was Jewish. Most of the performers were Russian. And while the dialogue was in Russian, it was liberally sprinkled with Yiddish phrases, and nearly all of the songs were sung in Hebrew.
The place was Moscow’s Hermitage Theater. The play, staged there two weeks ago, was “Benjamin III’s Trip to the Holy Land,” based on a humorous tale by Mendele Mocher Sforim, the famed Jewish storyteller of 19th and early 20th century Russia.
According to Mikhail Levitin, chief director of the Hermitage Theater, and others, the performance was a breakthrough. It was the first time a Soviet theater was allowed to stage a play that symbolizes Jewish aspirations to go to Israel.
The theater was not under pressure by the authorities to renounce the play, though it contains a very strong Jewish national element, Levitin told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
The critics, in fact, hailed the performance as superb, and praised the actors and director alike for their excellent work.
“Today, in the age of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), you cannot deal with Soviet culture but disregard Jewish culture,”Levitin said.
“And Jewish culture inevitably implies dealing with the land of Israel and the people of Israel,” he added.
HEBREW WORDS AND SONGS
Some of the Hebrew songs contained unabashed calls to go to Israel. The enthusiastic audience of several hundred was brought to tears when Russian actors uttered such Hebrew words as “Eretz Yisrael,” “Har Zion,” “Kever Rachel Imenu,” “Ribono Shel Olam” and many more.
When the audience demanded an encore, the cast burst into a rousing “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem,” joined by virtually everybody in the house.
Evgeny Gerchakov, the Russian-Jewish actor who played the title role of Benjamin, told the visiting Americans: “You don’t believe it? Well it is true. This is perestroika. Each people has a homeland, and this piece tells us something about the homeland of the Jewish people.”
For the first time in the history of the Hermitage, the theater program was printed in both Russian and Hebrew.
Most of the audience, obviously Jewish, had heard about it, either in the synagogue, by word of mouth or by accident.
Members of a group of United Jewish Appeal activists from Boston who happened to be in Moscow heard of the play from Jewish activists.
But Levitin and director Sergei Korovin said they planned to show the play to the general public.
“We believe its message is important for non-Jews too,” they said.
A guest of honor at the Hermitage performance was Meron Gordon, head of an Israeli consular delegation that came to Moscow this summer, the first Israeli diplomatic mission at any level to visit the Soviet Union in 21 years.
Said Gordon: “Lately we have known so many ‘firsts’ in Soviet-Israeli relations. This has been another first, and certainly a very special one.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.