Contentious Israeli Book Finds New Life on Stage – Once the Pandemic Is Over

Dorit Rabinyan's controversial bestseller about an Israeli-Palestinian romance, which was banned from schools by the country's Culture Ministry, was adapted into a new play. That story, actress Avigail Harari says, is 'alive and kicking'

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Cameri Theater actress Avigail Harari, who is playing the female lead in the play "All the Rivers," based on Israeli author Dorit Rabinyan's controversial book "Borderlife," in July 2020
Avigail Harari, the female lead in "All the Rivers." "I assume the Cameri is concerned with what people will say, whether they'll say it’s staging the play to be provocative.”Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Aya Chajut
Aya Chajut
Aya Chajut
Aya Chajut

Last week, in one of the halls of the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv, it seemed as though nothing had changed. As though the actors, the director and the crew members had never left the place. Except for the fact that all those present were wearing masks, during rehearsals for the new production “All the Rivers” – there was no sign of the worldwide pandemic. The crew and the actors returned to work earlier this month and were beginning to feel at home on the stage once again.

“The initial encounter was very disconnected,” says the female lead in the show, Avigail Harari. “Everyone emerged from the coronavirus very disturbed about our security and livelihood. Every return to routine was accompanied by tension and questions. But our initial encounter was very moving. I really missed the people. We couldn’t stop ourselves from embracing; that’s all that’s left. But I didn’t embrace the older people, we protected them.”

For his part director Ilan Ronen paid very close attention to every detail during the rehearsal in the Cameri II auditorium; the actors were attentive, patient when interrupted and ready for any change that was called for. Ronen’s production of “All the Rivers” – based on the book “Gader Haya” by well-known Israeli author Dorit Rabinyan (the book’s title in English is “Borderlife”) – was due to be one of the first new plays to be staged since the closure of Israel’s cultural and other institutions after the pandemic erupted months ago.

The play was supposed to debut last week at the Tel Aviv venue, according to coronavirus social-distancing and other restrictions – with audiences totalling no more than 250 people (in the 430-seat hall), wearing masks, in so-called capsule groupings separated by unoccupied seats. Then the debut was postponed until July 11 after two of the actors in the play were sent into isolation. Now, another blow: After the government decision Monday to impose a renewed, albeit not total lockdown and to shutter all theaters and other entertainment venues for the time being, “All the Rivers” is slated to open only in September, according to the Cameri website.

In any event, about five years ago the book on which the play is based was at the center of a public outcry when the Education Ministry banned it from its list of recommended books for the advanced literature curriculum in the country's high schools. Then-Education Minister Naftali Bennett even claimed that "Borderlife," which deals with a romantic relationship between a Jewish woman and a Palestinian Muslim, encourages assimilation.

Cameri Theater actors Avigail Harari and Amir Khoury, in the new play "All the Rivers," based on Israeli author Dorit Rabinyan's controversial book "Borderlife," in July 2020
Cameri Theater actors Avigail Harari and Amir Khoury, in "All the Rivers." 'People are going to be surprised to see how little the play has to do with politics," she says.Credit: Kfir Boloton

“Of course many people will say: ‘We’re going to see the book rejected by Bennett,’ or, 'It will be interesting to see what this is,’ or, ‘It’s probably political,’ or ‘It will probably make me angry,’” says Harari. “But they’re going to be surprised to see how little it has to do with politics. There are one or two scenes dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I want people to leave the play in love, acting much gentler with one another, with far less violence. I’m not living in la-la land," the 31-year-old actress continues. "There are conflicts, but it’s hard to see so much violence and hatred. The story is presented in a nonviolent and non-critical manner. The characters are very human and you quickly stop looking at them as a Muslim man and a Jewish woman, and you see them as your son or daughter.”

Director Ilan Ronen paid very close attention to every detail during the rehearsal in the Cameri II hall; the actors were attentive, patient when interrupted and ready for every change that was called for. The play was supposed to debut last week, according to the coronavirus social-distancing and other restrictions – with audience members totalling no more than 250 people, wearing masks, in so-called capsule groupings separated by unoccupied seats – but its debut was postponed after two of its actors were sent into isolation.

A similar fate befell the Cameri's new musical, "Life is a Cabaret," whose premiere was delayed until early August, when one member of the cast tested positive for Covid-19 and everyone was sent into quarantine.

“I’m not worried that we’ll go from one postponement to another,” says Harari. “It’s a bummer, it’s hard for everyone, everyone is forced to deal with it, but I believe that on July 11 we’ll get started.”

She adds: “If there’s anything the public needs at the moment it’s escapism, and that’s something that theater provides. People want to connect and to enjoy a shared viewing experience, it’s an aftereffect of all the isolation. In the theater there’s a kind of communication and a dynamic connecting everyone.”

Yoga and challahs

Harari previously acted in the Be’er Sheva Theater and switched to the Cameri three years ago. Since then she has performed in “Othello,” “Fatso” and “The Grandson.” She has also appeared in the TV medical series “Temporarily Dead,” in Avi Nesher’s film “The Other Story,” and she stars in “Honeymoon” – the new film by Talya Lavie (called “Ehad Balev” in Hebrew), whose release has been postponed due to the coronavirus crisis.

In March Harari was preparing for the staging of “All the Rivers” and the premiere of “Honeymoon,” whose screening at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York she was supposed to attend.

“I was at a private showing of it at Talya’s house on Purim, before the coronavirus restrictions came into effect,” she recalls. “I left the screening and went to the Cameri Purim party, and everyone still thought that it was only the flu and that it wasn’t really happening. The next day there was an announcement that they were stopping everything, that we weren’t going back, there would be no Tribeca, no rehearsals of the play. At first I sort of repressed everything, without any awareness of what was really happening. I didn’t listen to the news, I was totally involved in working in the theater. Then it hit me.

Cameri Theater actress Avigail Harari, who is playing the female lead in the play "All the Rivers," based on Israeli author Dorit Rabinyan's controversial book "Borderlife," in July 2020
Cameri Theater actress Avigail Harari. “If there’s anything the public needs at the moment it’s escapism, and that’s something that theater provides," she says.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“I did yoga, I studied Italian, I cleaned the house, I did hafrashat challah (a religious ritual performed when baking challah), like all Jewish girls, I bought all kinds of things that I sent back later because I had no money. I was bored and worried about what would happen,” she says with some degree of humor, describing the lockdown.

“There were fears that it would be with us forever and we wouldn’t go back to work. The fears were both personal and financial. I was afraid of a drastic change that would affect my entire life, that we wouldn’t remember that once you didn’t need to have your temperature checked with a gun-like thing aimed at your face.”

Are you worried about the future of the theater, because of the pandemic?

“The coronavirus has caused instability in every profession. Theater is an art that has always revived itself and has never died. If we look back, acting is one of the oldest professions in the world. Which in a way makes it a very stable profession that never disappears – even if you have to reinvent it. Maybe they’ll have to make adjustments in terms of the audience. Maybe there will be a switch to small auditoriums or we’ll have to create content that is better suited to people at the moment. But I think that people will continue to come to the theater."

In “All the Rivers” Harari plays Liat, a young Jewish Israeli woman, the daughter of immigrants from Iran, who falls in love with a Palestinian man named Hilmi, who is played by Israeli Arab actor Amir Khoury. (Khoury is married to actress Alona Sa’ar, daughter of Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar). The love story between Liat and Hilmi takes place in New York shortly after 9/11, a period when people with Middle Eastern features were regarded suspiciously.

Cameri Theater employees protesting the lockdown of the theaters, in Tel Aviv, in May 2020.
Cameri employees protesting the lockdown of theaters, in May. "Acting is one of the oldest professions," says Harari. "One that never disappears." Credit: Moti Milrod

'Delicacy and masculinity'

Harari: “This is a story that is so relevant to all times, even now. Mixed couples can only fulfill their love abroad – in Berlin or Manhattan. They can’t really do it in Israel, and if they do they have to be very brave and know what they’re getting into. When there are children involved they also must take into account that the child may be the subject of criticism due to their parents’ choice.

“I wouldn’t avoid such a situation [i.e., being part of a mixed couple], because I really love people. But I assume that afterward – when I understood what was involved – there would be a question as to whether I would really be able to do it. I don’t think I could.”

But are there places where find yourself in the character of Liat?

“Yes, I had a relationship with a Christian Arab, but it was short and I didn’t even reach the stage of telling people about it. But abroad I had a love affair that was possible only there and wasn’t possible when I returned to my real life. I believe that this sort of love is possible only when you’re on vacation from reality and from work.”

Harari has trouble answering the question of what Khoury brings from his own life story to the character he plays, but stresses that “work with Amir is comfortable and pleasant. He brings a great deal of authenticity to the character and to the love story. He’s a charismatic, talented, charming and very attentive guy. That made it much easier for me to give myself up to him and to fall in love with him. He’s a very modest and refined actor who’s concerned about the good of the scene. Regarding his personal past and his own relationships, you need to ask him in order to get the full picture. I can only say that he brings much warmth to this story, a lot of delicacy and a lot of masculinity.”

During the lockdown, Harari says, she was confined together with her female roommate, but still managed to have a short romantic relationship. At present she isn't involved with anyone but says that she feels ready for children and will have to find the balance between career and family.

Is the decision to stage "All the Rivers" an act of protest?

“Just doing this embodies a dimension of protest. Both because the play does that in an intelligent way that draws you in, and because in effect it’s saying – did you really forbid it [Rabinyan's book]? You wanted to shelve it, hide it away from our awareness and from Israeli society? Well, that didn’t happen. It’s alive and kicking and we have to deal with it. This is the first time I’m seeing a conflict of this kind [staged] at the Cameri and I assume they’re concerned with what people will say – whether they'll say it’s only staging the play to be provocative.”

It is quite rare to see political plays about the (Israeli-Palestinian) conflict in Israeli repertory theater. Would you like there to be more of them?

“There should be, and there’s theater like that on the fringe and it’s a shame people don’t know that. In the movies they deal with it, and it can even be mainstream. In repertory theater I haven’t encountered such daring. There are a lot of plays that mention the conflict or have echoes of it but don’t relate to the subject specifically.

"We need good plays that deal with good material and with drama. I don’t think that we need protest manifestos per se; we hear that at demonstrations. In the theater people want to see a story, but we do have to deal with subjects that we don’t always want to talk about. We must break taboos and provide a platform to all the voices in Israeli society.”

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