Israel’s Habimah Theater Finally Arrives Stateside

Two Productions at Symphony Space Showcase Israel’s Most Acclaimed Actress

By Raphael Mostel

Published September 12, 2003, issue of September 12, 2003.
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For its first New York visit in 40 years, the renowned National Theater of Israel, Habimah, will present two fact-based modern dramas involving Jewish children growing up with a parent veering into madness.

The main production comprises four evening performances, from September 18 to September 21, of the big-scale “Kaddish L’Naomi,” Habimah’s theatrical adaptation of Allen Ginsberg’s searing memorial poem for his mother. It will be performed in Hebrew with English subtitles, multimedia and a cast of nine. On September 20 and September 21, there will also be two matinee performances of the small-scale “Summer of Aviyah,” Gila Almagor’s one-woman dramatic adaptation of her famous coming-of-age memoir of her own mother, performed in English.The run is a major showcase for Almagor, Israel’s most acclaimed actress, as she will also star at Naomi in the Ginsberg show.

While “Kaddish” takes place in the United States and “Aviyah” in Israel, both are set in the 1950s. They are coming-of-age stories about people possessed and overwhelmed by the history of their times and distorted by mental illness. Indeed, the juxtaposition of both plays heightens the dilemma in common with so many children of that time, coping with parents whose lives had been wounded, overwhelmed and subsumed by the waves of upheavals of the Great Depression, World War II, the Holocaust and trying to make sense of the world that followed, struggling to learn what is true and how to differentiate what is not. These are both powerful, very personal stories that will likely not leave a dry eye in the house.

Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” is one of the most intensely intimate panegyrics in the English language. Recounting a mother’s descent into madness and the struggle of the family to right itself amid the ever-shifting boundaries of reality, its balance of rage, humor and rue make it impossible to get through without tears. “Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets and eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich village./ downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I’ve been up all night, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues…” begins Ginsberg’s poem, and the play follows its harrowing trajectory — through idealism, madness, drugs, stroke, lobotomy, electro-shock therapy, institutionalization and death: “The enemies approach — what poisons? Tape recorders? FBI? Zhdanov hiding behind the counter? Trotsky mixing rat bacteria in the back of the store? Uncle Sam in Newark, plotting deathly perfumes in the Negro district? Uncle Ephraim, drunk with murder in the politician’s bar, scheming of Hague? Aunt Rose passing water thru the needles of the Spanish Civil War?/… begging my 13-year old mercy —/ ‘Take me home’ — I went alone sometimes looking for the lost Naomi, taking Shock — and I’d say, ‘No, you’re crazy Mama,— Trust the Drs.’ — ” And ending with the shattering mailbox epiphany: “once long-tressed Naomi of Bible —/ or Ruth who wept in America — Rebecca aged in Newark — David remembering his Harp, now lawyer at Yale/ or Svul Avrum — Israel Abraham — myself — to sing in the wilderness toward God — O Elohim! — so to the end — 2 days after her death I got her letter —/ Strange Prophecies anew! She wrote — ‘the key is in the window, the key is in the sunlight at the window — I have the key — Get married Allen don’t take drugs — the key is in the bars, in the sunlight in the window./ Love,/ your mother’/ which is Naomi —

In contrast, the evocatively detailed, moving but more modestly pitched “Summer of Aviyah,” performed as a monologue in English by Almagor, recalls her own childhood as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and single mother who had fought in the forests of Poland as a partisan. Now making a new life in Israel, the mother is subject to periodic spells of mental illness. This is at the beginning of the Jewish state, with all refugees tuning in to the last minutes of radio newscasts when the names of new arrivals would be read, everyone vainly hoping to hear of lost relatives, lovers and friends. Everyone is creating themselves anew and nothing is quite what it seems. The story takes place in a single summer in a rare interval between Almagor’s mother’s hospitalizations.

One of the most influential companies in early-20th-century theater history, Habimah was founded as the first Hebrew theater in the world in Moscow in 1918 by Jewish actors in the rush of new hopes raised for the Jewish people in the incredibly open and productive early revolutionary period, attracting luminaries like Konstantin Stanislavsky and Yevgeny Vachtangov. Habimah left Moscow in 1926 to tour all over Europe with “The Dybbuk,” and never returned. While in the United States in 1927, the company separated, and a handful of its original members went to Palestine in 1928 to establish what is now known also as the National Theater of Israel.

Speaking with the Forward, Isaiah Sheffer, artistic director of Symphony Space, credited the New York-Israel Cultural Cooperation Commission for getting this rare presentation off the ground with a major seed-money grant, which was essential to attract further funding from the Israeli government and from individual donors. He is hoping this will be the first of many such presentations at Symphony Space.

Raphael Mostel is a composer who lives in New York. His most recent CD is “The Travels of Babar.”

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