Queen Lear: Deconstructing the Great Jewish Mother on Stage

In the Habima production of 'Miraleh Efrat,’ even the most skeptical viewer will hiss the bride Shaindel and pity the mother-in-law, played with strength and restraint by Gila Almagor.

Jacob Gordin’s “Miraleh Efrat” is unquestionably the representative play of Yiddish theater. Gordin himself subtitled his deconstruction of the great Jewish mother “Queen Lear.” If in the Shakespearean tragedy, two of King Lear’s daughters turn on the old man and throw him out of their homes, a situation that eventuates in his madness and death, in “Miraleh Efrat” the sons (with the encouragement and active aid of the wife of one of them) turn on their mother. And if “King Lear” is the heart’s desire of actors of the right age, “Miraleh Efrat” is the default of female actors of the right status. In previous Habima Theater productions, the role was played by Hannah Rovina (1939 and 1957), Lea Koenig and Miriam Zohar (1986). Yona Elian played the part in a Beit Lessin production (2004) and is currently starring in a Yiddish production of the play in the Yiddishpiel Theater (“Mirele Efros”).

Miraleh Efrat is a rich widow from Grodno who has everything she needs and lords it over others accordingly. Finding her prospective in-laws from Slutsk not to her liking (and they really are unlikable), she is ready to forgo the match. In the end, though, her warm Jewish heart prompts her to change her mind. The result is that Miraleh finds herself at home with a daughter-in-law from hell, who turns both her newly married son (well-intentioned but weak) and his flighty brother against her. After a series of confrontations, the mother cedes her property, including the house, to the power-hungry young people.

It’s not surprising that this is a popular play, because at its center is the time-honored dilemma of inter-generational relations in the family and a situation in which one mother can provide for several children, but they, upon growing up, find it difficult to provide for – and especially to honor – one mother. The period in which the play was written (the end of the 19th century) and Gordin’s warm heart prevented him from taking the plot to its logical conclusion. Instead, he ends the play on a happy note of constrained reconciliation between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, amid emotional manipulation by the grandson (not unlike real life).

In the past, the play’s literary qualities were denigrated, but one must admit that it is an amazingly effective work – the scenes of the brutal clashes between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law cast a tense, stunned silence over the audience. Under the direction of Hanan Snir, the play is tilted in Miraleh’s favor. Hila Feldman, in the role of the bride, Shaindel, dares to be vulgar, raucous and crass, almost without restraint (and I say this to her credit), but this largely undercuts her credibility in the scene of the attempted reconciliation (she actually puts forward an interesting argument, but it is not supported by her character’s behavior in the first act).

Still, the most interesting aspect of a production of “Miraleh Efrat” is always the actor who plays the lead role. Gila Almagor of course possesses the requisite status. Her Miraleh is very restrained, almost dry, and therefore projects strength both in her rise and in her fall. The entire production is void of Yiddish trappings (apart from the live music) and, as usual with Snir productions, is businesslike, sensitive and well acted. Sandra Sadeh plays Machle, the faithful servant, who also acts as a kind of narrator-liaison with the audience; Michael Koresh and Ruth Landau are the in-laws, Yoav Donat and Nir Zlichovsky are the sons, and Shmil Ben Ari is Shalmon (a part played in past Habima productions by two of the icons of the Israeli theater, Aharon Meskin and Shmuel Rodensky). Ilay Eldar played the grandson, Shloimeleh, in the performance I saw, and of course he stole the show (and broke his stage grandmother’s heart).

I have to admit that I did not come with high expectations, but found myself wiping away a tear from the corner of my eye. Ah, that warm Jewish heart.

‘Mireleh Efrat’ is playing this week at Kiryat Motzkin Theater in the north.

Gerard Alon
Gerard Alon