Tel Aviv Revival of 'Fleischer' Plays on Emotions With secular-Ashkenazi Jewish Tale

Michael Handelzalts
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Sandra Sadeh as Holocaust survivor Berta in 'Fleischer.'
Sandra Sadeh as Holocaust survivor Berta in 'Fleischer.'Credit: Gerard Allon
Michael Handelzalts

It’s easiest to start with the good news, which I knew even before the curtain went up on the revival of Yigal Even-Or’s “Fleischer” at the Habima Theater. Rivka Gur, Natan Datner, Nati Ravitz, Dov Reiser, Yigal Sadeh and Sandra Sadeh are a starting lineup that could wow any audience, in any play, and there’s a good supporting cast too. In this case, each of the six leading characters has a meaty role, laced with humor and rough-edged melodrama, in which to sink their talented teeth.

When the play was first staged at the Cameri Theater in 1993 (directed by Amit Gazit), I was equally impressed by the acting. Mainly, though, I saw the blatant emotional manipulation as it recounts a secular-Ashkenazi Jewish tale to a 
secular Israeli audience.

What’s not in this play, directed by Moshe Kaftan? The eponymous Fleischer (Natan Datner, hurting and restrained) is a Holocaust survivor, a partisan who refused to accept compensation from the Germans and therefore barely makes a living from his nonkosher butcher shop, after outstanding combat service in Israel’s War of Independence and building his house with his own two hands. Alongside him is his beloved wife Berta (Sandra Sadeh, who knows full well how to feel pain and inflict it with a kind of dry emotion), a survivor of the camps. They live in a neighborhood being inundated by ultra-Orthodox Jews, or Haredim, who are taking it over with ruthless cunning.

The couple has a developmentally challenged son (Nir Zelichowski) in an institution, but financial difficulties force them to bring this child in a man’s body back home. In order to prevent the butcher shop from being boycotted, the Fleischers make it kosher
and even pretend to be 
religious. But that doesn’t help, since their secular friend – a wheeler-dealer in city hall (Dov Reiser) – helps the religious community start a rival butcher shop. And, in any case, the new rabbi operates his own kashrut supervision.

In case a religious-cultural war, mental retardation and the Holocaust are not enough, there is also bereavement (the son of the veteran Hebrew teacher Aunt Rosa – Rivka Gur makes the most of this juicy role – fell in the Six-Day War, while her husband, committed suicide on their son’s grave), rape and arson. And a play that begins with a funeral (an excellent 
depiction of macabre humor) ends with a further two.

The secular Jews who were victims during the Holocaust are victims once again in Israel, this time from the aggressive Haredim, who are spared from being depicted as complete scoundrels because the Fleischers’ son rapes the rabbi’s daughter. The Diaspora mentality – as Even-Or saw it 30 years ago (he wrote the play in 1985) – is repeated in the Jewish state, where the ultra-Orthodox Jew is the new Polish nobleman, the secular person is once again fawning and defeated, and there’s a Jewish macher – Nati Ravitz, with deadly charm – who makes a living from all of that.

From a present-day perspective, I can say that the play hasn’t improved but the situation has deteriorated – although not necessarily in the way foreseen by Even-Or. Not because there aren’t plenty of actual examples of Haredi corruption and opacity, but because we know today that Even-Or’s gloomy vision at the time (a country run according to Jewish religious law and the end of secular Israel) did not materialize. Instead, the danger to a sane and enlightened Israel that believes in “live and let live” is coming mainly from the religious-Zionist community with its politics of victimized messianism, along with a vulgarization of identity politics. Oh yes, and the Palestinians and the occupation too.

True, reality manipulates our emotions, but the difference is that it doesn’t owe us anything. By contrast, a play whose emotional manipulation is so deliberately imposed on the audience cannot be so didactic and overloaded with elements of Ashkenazi-Jewish-Israeliness, or be so one-dimensional, explicit or threadbare. It’s to the credit of the actors that they manage, now and then, to imbue this plot and these characters with credibility and emotion.

It’s also to director Kaftan’s credit that he recognized that this didactic melodrama was in need of a more refined style, and so enlisted the services of musician Yossi Ben-Nun: He has created a musical tapestry from Jewish liturgical texts (a pleasure in itself) and made it possible to bring onstage a quintet of musicians-singers-klezmers in shades of white, who try to extricate the play from its coarse realism.

For example, the scene of the rape of the rabbi’s daughter (Nelly Tagar) becomes an actual dance (movement design by Sharon Gal), in which the outstretched fist of the musicians-singers is a phallic symbol, and the rabbi’s daughter runs around among them while the Fleischers’ son, with a red flower peeking out from his pants, hops along behind her. But in the climactic moment Kaftan doesn’t trust himself and his audience, and Tagar crawls on the floor in the center of the stage, facing the audience, while behind her Zelichowski, as the son Shloimele, pulls down his pants and we return to harsh realism.

It’s the actors, as noted, who make this production, and they are all skilled at maneuvering between dry humor and rising emotions, and possess the rare ability to avoid exaggeration. This is somewhat to the detriment of Yigal Sadeh as the rabbi, who – I suspect – in an attempt not to deviate from this acting tone, suppresses his inherent ability to project more emotional power (something Yossi Yadin succeeded in doing amazingly well in the original version at the Cameri).

The revival of this Israeli realism play is a reminder of how we saw our situation at the time onstage. And there really is an element of truth to many of the plot details, perhaps even more so today. Nevertheless – more so now than when I first saw it – I’m still hoping for theater that knows how to handle reality in a manner that is more complex and sophisticated, less predictable, blatant and one-dimensional.

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