A cyclist travels towards a bridge on the corner of Reguliersgracht and Keizersgracht in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Bloomberg

When a Jewish Woman in Amsterdam Got a Gas Bill From 1944

The play 'Amsterdam' by Israeli playwright Maya Arad-Yasur is about a violinist who lives along a canal and receives an unexpected letter in the mail



On New Year’s Eve in 2012, playwright Maya Arad-Yasur attended a party at the home of a work acquaintance of her Dutch partner. “In Amsterdam it’s a wild holiday. It’s impossible to avoid, certainly if you live in the city center, so it’s already preferable to join in the madness,” she explains.

At the party, the host and his children lit fireworks on the roof. “I looked at them, and it was very clear to me that this was their equivalent of riding a bicycle on Yom Kippur. He did it with his parents when he was a child, and now he was doing it with his own children, and his children will do it with theirs.

"I will always view this as a semi-anthropological experience, cool and exciting but not related to me. I have no trouble joining in, but it has no emotional component for me. And apparently it was somehow clear to me that I would want this connection with the children that I would have. I don’t want my children to have an immigrant mother, an outsider. I don’t want always to just be joining in, with the family doing its thing and me joining in.”

Liron Weisman

That was the moment — one of many — that led Arad-Yasur to leave the city where she had lived for seven years, leave her Dutch partner and even the joint theater project that she was involved in with successful artist Ilay Den Boer to return to Israel.

“There’s no single reason for my return,” she muses. “There are so many reasons and subterranean currents, and emotional and social whirlpools, inside and outside myself, and politics — everything that has happened in Israel and the Netherlands — came together to a point at which I confronted the question ‘What now?’ I didn’t return out of some kind of romanticizing or longing. I returned out of an understanding that these are my childhood landscapes, literally and metaphorically, and that I want to share these landscapes with my children.”

Yossi Tzabkar

It has now been about five years since Arad-Yasur returned to Israel. She is the mother of two Israeli children. The theatrical production program for younger people at the Haifa Theater is staging the world premiere of “Amsterdam,” directed by Mor Frank. It is a play that Arad-Yasur wrote with inspiration from her experiences as an Israeli expatriate in the Netherlands. This is Arad-Yasur’s fourth play to be produced and her third in Israel, and in many respects, it’s her most personal. She recently won an award for it from the prestigious Theatertreffen festival in Berlin. A production in Munich is in the planning stages.

The play centers around a female Israeli violinist living along an Amsterdam canal who receives an inflated Holocaust-era gas bill that hadn’t been paid since 1944. The bill becomes intertwined with the drama of events during World War II that took place in the apartment.

“Somehow the Netherlands avoided being categorized as a Holocaust country,” says Arad-Yasur, speaking about her preoccupation with the subject. “That has been the policy from the war to this day, reinforcing the story of the hiding of Anne Frank and completely ignoring the fact that she was turned over to the authorities, the fact that 75 percent of Dutch Jews were exterminated and the fact that the return of the survivors to Amsterdam was a very difficult experience. It’s something that’s completely repressed. As an immigrant, from the beginning I walked around the city, and there’s the Jewish museum and the Anne Frank House, where people line up as if it were Disneyland, and you can’t experience anything more authentic than that. But occasionally there is signage — an assembly point here, a ghetto there. And then, like many Israelis — unfortunately, because it doesn’t make life easier — I can suddenly see the city in black and white.”

That realization — that Israeliness and Jewishness are with you everywhere, particularly where the Holocaust is also always present to some extent — is evident throughout the play. In one of the scenes, the violinist is standing in line at a supermarket cash register. She imagines what the Dutch man behind her and the Arab woman in front of her are thinking of her, trying to decide which language to speak. Her Dutch is still poor and she has to practice it, but she is clearly an immigrant. The man behind her probably thinks she’s Muslim. Maybe she would do better speaking English, she says to herself. They might think she is a tourist, but at least they would know that she is educated.

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This polyphonic style, which doesn’t merge into a single point of view, is typical of the 42-year-old playwright and of her life. She moved to the Netherlands but then decided to return to Israel. She writes plays about Israel, which are successful abroad. She deals with the most gaping wounds of Israeli society but doesn’t inject political messages into the mix. She finds it difficult to accept what has become of the country, but argues with BDS activists who want to boycott it. She describes life in the Netherlands as total freedom on the one hand, and as a constant internal and external dialogue that provides no respite on the other.

She was born and raised in Ramat Gan, and studied theater at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She lived with her Dutch partner in Israel before they decided to move to his homeland. She says that the reason for the move was mainly her sense of not belonging — politically, personally or professionally. In Amsterdam, she completed a master’s degree with distinction in dramatic writing, lived in an apartment opposite a market, and worked with several of the most outstanding young theater people in the Netherlands, including Den Boer and Sanja Mitrovic. With them she delved into questions of identity through the theater.

At the same time, she started to write seriously. Her first major play, “Suspended,” is about two refugees from an unidentified country who clean windows on the 45th floor of a skyscraper and settle past scores while peering at the people in the offices inside. In 2011, she received a UNESCO prize for the play, and in 2016, it had its world premiere in the United States. It will soon be staged in Germany as well. Although it depicts the experience of being a refugee that is typical of those fleeing disaster-affected countries in Africa, Arad-Yasur explains that even in this play, she couldn’t avoid questions relating to her own life as an Israeli living abroad.

“Originally I wanted to write it about a Palestinian and an Israeli, but I stayed away from that. I wasn’t ready for it,” she acknowledges. “But what was personal is their feeling as refugees. It makes no difference that according to the Geneva Convention, I am not really a refugee, but the feeling of refugeehood, and that window between you and the host culture, which is the visual metaphor on which the play is based, is something that I drew upon from myself. There was no distance there at all.”

Under attack

In her next play, “God Waits at the Station,” which was staged at the Habima National Theater in Tel Aviv in 2014 under the direction of Shai Pitovsky after the playwright’s return to Israel, she dared to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ilan Ronen, who was then artistic director of Habima and president of the Union of European Theaters, invited her to take part in a play-writing project about terrorism.

Yossi Tzabkar

“God Waits at the Station” brings together the stories of a female soldier at a checkpoint, a frightened Palestinian taxi driver and, most prominently, a female suicide bomber who is on her way to carry out an attack. It got favorable reviews. She was awarded a prize by Habima and was nominated as playwright of the year. Production of the play was also arranged for Vienna and Germany.

And yet, this play also required that Arad-Yasur confront the difficult aspect of writing political theater in Israel. On the one hand, despite its critical success, the play closed in Israel after fewer than 30 performances. (“Today, in my opinion, it wouldn’t have been staged at all,” she says). On the other hand, when the play was featured at events in Europe, it generated opposition from BDS activists, making it too left–wing in Israel, and too Israeli abroad.

“They closed it quite quickly [in Israel.] It’s not clear why, but I can guess,” she says. “And then you travel to Europe, and it’s of no interest what it’s about, because it’s subsidized by Israel, and that’s enough to boycott it. After that, we went to Reims in France, and I was interviewed by a local reporter who asked me: ‘Why don’t you write a play about the 551 dead children?’” a reference to Palestinian children killed in the war between Israel and Hamas and its allies in Gaza in 2014. “That’s a line that also went into ‘Amsterdam.’ It took me time to understand what she was talking about. I felt under attack,” the playwright said.

Such confrontations on one hand and the difficulty involved in dealing with these subjects at home on the other haven’t prevented Arad-Yasur from continuing to delve into difficult subjects. Her subsequent play, “Ten Minutes From Home,” examined the 1994 murder of the Israeli soldier Nachshon Wachsman from the point of view of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The play that she’s writing now, “Ra’ad Kal Bakanaf” (which would translate as “A Slight Tremor of the Wing”) deals with aerial bombardments and the unseen connection between the person carrying out the bombing and the people on the ground. And yet, she insists, none of these plays express a political opinion.

“That could also be criticism of what I write. I don’t take a stand. One of the reactions to ‘God Waits at the Station’ was how politically balanced it is. I never try to convey a message in my plays,” she says. “When I write, I work with a research question, and instead of data and facts, I collect stories and present characters and situations. That’s what I would also like the audience to experience — to come with some opinion, more or less consolidated, and start to swim inside it, not to stick with it or get upset because I have said the opposite. That’s not interesting. That’s already a useless political debate that we’re very accustomed to.”

And yet, as this reporter put it to Arad-Yasur, she has discovered that in Israel, dealing with such explosive subjects can provoke anger.

“I returned from the Netherlands with a kind of naivete,” she replied. “I didn’t even know that it was explosive. I knew from Holland that the theater is the place in which to deal with these things. That’s what I learned at university, at work. That was our job, as far as I understood. And when I arrived in Israel, I was sure that it was like that here too, and that I had an obligation to deal with those issues, and I did it without fear.

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