Few Israeli playwrights developed as international a reputation as the prolific writer Hanoch Levin, whose controversial works are staged regularly not just in his own country, but in France, Russia and Eastern Europe. Yet Levin, who died in 1999 at the age of 56, is less well known in the United States.
Now, New York audiences have a rare opportunity to see two of his nearly two dozen plays, “The Labor of Life” and “The Whore from Ohio,” which the New Yiddish Rep is producing in repertory, with each one being performed in repertory. Each one will be performed in separate Hebrew and Yiddish versions. “Hanoch Levin Squared: 2 Plays x 2 Languages” begins this week and runs through the end of the month in the West Village; supertitles in English will be provided.
Levin was born to Polish immigrants to Palestine in 1943; his older brother, David, was an assistant director of the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv. After graduating from Tel Aviv University in 1967, the younger Levin started publishing poetry and short stories; he scored an immediate success with his poem, “Birkot ha-Shahar” (Morning Blessings). Shortly thereafter, he began to pen satirical plays that spoofed the Israeli political and military establishments for what he viewed as their sanctimony and hypocrisy. In his 1970 play, “Queen of a Bathtub,” for example, he lampooned then-Prime Minister Golda Meir; the play included a character called “Lord Keeper of the Enema.”
His plays darkened over time, becoming increasingly preoccupied with death. His 1997 play “Murder” centers on the violence that erupted in 1996 after Israel opened an archeological tunnel near the Al-Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem; it takes both sides to task for the unrest.
The two plays running here are less overtly political. “The Labor of Life” (1989), directed by Ronit Muszkatblit, focuses on an unhappy, three decades-long marriage in which the self-pitying, sadistic husband tries, but fails, to leave his loyal wife every night. As the two trade recriminations, they realize how deeply connected they are to one another. And in “The Whore from Ohio” (1997), directed by Michael Leibenluft, an elderly beggar decides to buy himself the gift of a visit to a prostitute. However, he becomes impotent in her presence, making it difficult both to have sex with her or to continue to cherish his fantasy about a high-class brothel in Ohio. As the sex worker wheedles increasing sums from her gullible client, the man’s son, who sleeps with her in his father’s place, is denuded of his inheritance.
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Muszkatblit, who runs LABA, the Arts and Culture program at the 14th Street Y, said that Levin “exposes the bare truth of our existence. Some people might see it as being cynical, but I see it as hopeful and empowering.” She said that “The Labor of Life” is about “two philosophies living under the same roof. All that the wife can do is to try to make the best of this mud puddle that is her life.” In Muszkatblit’s staging, the furniture moves rather than the actors; the bed and night tables rotate for each new scene. “You can see it from many different angles but it’s always the same story,” she explained. She sees her work, both at the Y and elsewhere, as about “making Jewish culture really good culture so that it’s relevant, not just Judaica or nostalgia.”
For “The Whore from Ohio,” by contrast, Leibenluft is trying to summon up the sense of life on the outskirts of a declining, industrial, Rust Belt American city. (The actual setting is not identified in the play.) In an interview, he said that he views the play as situated in a “state of yearning, both on an individual and diasporic level. It is less about sex per se than about the father “trying to eke out the most vital sense of life, and to pass it on his son.”
Indeed, according to Eli Rosen, who plays the son in both the Hebrew and Yiddish productions of “The Whore from Ohio” (and also appears in “The Labor of Life”), the scenes with the prostitute are “businesslike and transactional — there is nothing erotic.” The actor, who is also the New Yiddish Rep’s managing director, noted that the whore was intended by Levin to symbolize the Israeli government. He says Levin, whom he characterized as “Marxist and anti-materialist,” is saying that “now that we’ve realized our dream, we’re no better off than we were previously. We’re left with the physicality of statehood but we’ve lost our soul.”
Rosen, who grew up in a chasidic family in Borough Park, also translated the plays into Yiddish. He pointed out that even though Levin, who had a traditional Jewish education, was fond of paraphrasing the Bible and Talmud in his plays, the Yiddish versions heighten the “existentialist, postmodern sense of angst” that pervade his oeuvre. But in whatever language one sees them, he said, they contain a “spiritual yearning to rise above one’s low primal condition and aspire to something more, while never quite reaching it.”
David Mandelbaum, the artistic director of the New Yiddish Rep, said, “It’s a shame that Levin is not known here. He’s on the level of Beckett and Pinter.” While Mandelbaum conceded that most Yiddish companies do not produce plays in Hebrew, he noted that doing them in both languages underscores the “very fragile relationship” between Hebrew and Yiddish. As a first-generation child of Holocaust survivors, Mandelbaum is still perplexed that Hebrew was chosen instead of Yiddish as the official language of the State of Israel. “Levin realized that we’re all in diaspora; even Hebrew has become one of the languages of the Jewish diaspora, whether spoken in New York, Berlin or Warsaw.”
Mandelbaum hopes that audience members will attend the performances in both languages. Israelis, who are already fond of Levin, “might see him in Hebrew and then give Yiddish a shot and perhaps change their attitude about the importance of Yiddish to Jewish history and culture.” On the other hand, he hopes that “Yiddishists will come to see the plays in Hebrew and be a little more forgiving about what the Jewish state did to Yiddish.”
“Hanoch Levin Squared” runs through March 29 at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place, just west of Seventh Avenue between 11th and Perry streets. Visit NewYiddishRep.org or call OvationTix ( 811-4111). $25 ($45 for two shows, $65 for three shows and $75 for all four).