The Theater As ‘Alternative Synagogue’


When Yigal Even-Or’s incendiary play, “Fleischer,” opened in Israel in 1993, it was one of the first times that the Israeli stage had confronted the gap between the religious and secular in Israel. The play, which is about a married non-Orthodox couple whose butcher shop is boycotted by ultra-Orthodox Jews, became a flashpoint of controversy, prompting secular Jews in the audience to vent their hatred against what they viewed as ultra-Orthodox domination of the Israeli government and society.
Fast forward 20 years, and plays about contact between Jews on different ends of the religious spectrum have become commonplace. Indeed, as Israeli society becomes ever more diverse, the country’s stage plays an increasing role in bridging the gap between religious and secular Jews.

Joshua Sobol, who is one of the leading dramatists in Israel, is best known in this country for “Ghetto,” a 1984 play about a doomed theater troupe in the Vilna Ghetto that has been performed all over the world. Sobol, who has been guest teaching this spring at the University of Washington in Seattle, told The Jewish Week that while the message of “Fleisher” was the “incompatibility between chasidic and secular Jews — the impossibility of their coexistence” — numerous other plays have taken a more complex view of the fraught relationships between different types of Jews in Israel.

Especially popular in recent years, Sobol said, are plays about the chasidic lifestyle. For example, Amnon Levy and Rami Danon’s “Sheindele,” first produced in 1994 at the Cameri Theater, is about the granddaughter of a deceased chasidic rebbe, whose marriage pits two chasidic sects against one another in a bitter succession struggle. By showing that the haredi world is “full of conflicts and passions just like secular society,” Sobol noted, the play became a “peep show into the haredi world.”

“Sheindele” was especially notable for bringing the experience of ultra-Orthodox women to the fore. Some dramatists, like the British-born Hadar Galron, have taken an explicitly feminist approach. Galron’s award-winning, all-female “Mikveh,” which premiered at the Beit Lessin Theater in Tel Aviv in 2004, attracted a wide range of Israeli audiences to its tale of eight Orthodox women who meet in the mikveh and share with each other their terrible vulnerability, including the pain of forced marriage, forced childbirth and domestic violence. When it was restaged in 2010 by Theater J in Washington, D.C., critic Lisa Traiger lauded it in the Washington Jewish Week for “giving voice to an often silent subset of Jewish women.”

Despite the presence of ultra-Orthodox Jewish characters on stage, it is still rare to see ultra-Orthodox Jews in the audience, because the rabbinical authorities frown on theatergoing as a form of secular amusement. But Sobol said that sometimes ultra-Orthodox Jews do show up at the theater. Sobol’s 2005 satire, “Kol Nidrei,” about yeshiva students in B’nai Brak who sneak off at night to the bars in Tel Aviv, lured four or five haredi couples to each performance at the Herzliya Theater. One such audience member quoted (with his name changed, at his request) in the Jerusalem Post said that he was struggling with his own commitment to ultra-Orthodoxy. “If the time ever comes to ‘come out’ (as secular),” he said, “it could be that this play was the trigger.”

Reminiscent of Samson Raphaelson’s “The Jazz Singer” was Shmuel Hasfari’s “Kiddush,” which was performed at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv in 1984, and revived two seasons ago by the Cameri. In that play, a 13-year-old boy rebels against his father’s Orthodoxy, uncovering the deep fissures between those of different levels of religious observance — or non-observance. Not one to shy away from controversy, Hasfari followed it two years later with “The Last Secular Jew,” a set of songs and sketches about an Israel that has eliminated its populations of both non-observant Jews and Arabs; when the script was cut by a government censorship board, more than 300 artists, writers and other intellectuals staged a protest.

Hasfari told The Jewish Week that his plays have brought home to Israelis the fact that ultra-Orthodox Jews were their neighbors, not just characters from “Fiddler on the Roof.” His work, he said, reflects the changes in Israeli society over the last three decades, during which a “socialist secular society that idolized kibbutzniks changed to one that is made up of many tribes and many different beliefs.” As Israeli society becomes less monolithic, he remarked, the Israeli stage becomes more pluralistic.

“At every Passover seder in Israel there are secular Jews, settlers, lefties, and chasidim,” he said. “So in every second or third play nowadays, you find characters who are religious.”

Ilan Ronen is the director of the Habima, the national theater in Israel. In an interview, he told The Jewish Week that his company’s mission is to present “all the identities of Israel, some of which are in conflict and contradiction with each other.” He pointed out that Israelis go to the theater more frequently than the people of any other developed nation, beginning in kindergarten, and even through their military service. He noted that there are more than a hundred theaters in Israel, and that the Habima also tours all over the country.

Since theater is such an integral part of Israeli culture, Ronen said, it plays a major role in provoking public debate about all kinds of questions, including those related to the internal conflict between Israelis of different political, religious and economic views.

Ronen summed up the theater as a kind of “alternative synagogue,” in which Israelis of all stripes grapple with fundamental questions of identity. “It’s a good meeting place between different Israelis, including both the religious and non-religious,” he said. “It may not always be easy to have a dialogue, but that dialogue is essential to the existence of Israeli society.”

As Even-Or, the author of “Fleischer,” was quoted when tensions were running high over his play, “The haredim must not steal the country from us and the secular … should not reach the point of terrible hatred for them. It can happen that soon the war with the Arab countries and the Palestinians will come to an end and then what? Then we’ll wake up to a war of the Jews.”

Ted Merwin is The Jewish Week’s theater critic.