Culture Fop / Broadway Shines a Spotlight on Israel’s Racism Problem

In a stroke-of-genius casting, Hairspray's African-American characters are played by Ethiopian-Israelis; and when Sarah-Sarah met Abraham-Abraham.

Good morning, Jerusalem!

In 1960s Baltimore, a zesty and zaftig young teen named Tracy Turnblad had a dream. It was that one day she would be judged not by the shape of her figure but by the groovyness of her dancing.

When she finally gets the chance, she stumbles into a world of racism and segregation that requires her to bust a move and take a stand.

Tracy was first introduced to audiences in John Waters’ campy 1988 film “Hairspray,” starring a young Ricki Lake. In 2002, it hit Broadway and cleaned up at the Tony Awards, grabbing the top prize of Best New Musical and going on to perform over 2,500 times until closing in 2009. In 2007, it got a flashy Hollywood remake, with John Travolta in the famous cross-dressing role of Tracy’s mom, and now, finally, it comes to Jerusalem…with a twist.

Performed in English by the junior ensemble of the Encore Educational Theatre Company, this production of “Hairspray” takes the original story’s cute and clever handling of U.S. race relations and adapts them to contemporary Israel.

In a stroke-of-genius casting, the African-American characters are played by Ethiopian-Israelis. Suddenly, the story hits home like a slap in the face.

Ethiopians in Israel have struggled to fully integrate into society following the dramatic airlifts in Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991, among others, that brought tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the 1980s and 1990s. In the decades since, they have faced poverty and often overt racism.

In the last few weeks, a major scandal was exposed in which Israel admitted to giving Ethiopian women birth control shots without their knowledge while in transit camps. On the brighter side, however, last week the country also crowned its first Ethiopian Miss Israel, Yityish Aynaw.

“We see these issues in the show, which is why it’s exciting and vital,” says director Eli Kaplan-Wildmann, calling the themes of segregation and integration “super relevant to Jerusalem.”

“It’s something people don’t talk about,” he says. “The melting pot still needing to melt is an issue in the city.”

To cast these characters, the production team collaborated with Malkat Shva Ethiopian Cultural Center, a Jerusalem-based non-profit established in 2005 that focuses on Ethiopian culture.

Zawde Bainasay, 27, works at Malkat Shva and is making her musical theater debut in Encore’s production of “Hairspray.” She says the experience has been eye-opening.

“I was surprised by the similarities between the Ethiopian community and the American community [in Israel],” she says, pointing out that both are immigrants and struggle with language and integration. “We’re not very different.”

During the four-month rehearsal process, obstacles were faced and conquered. Bainasay said one the biggest challenges for her and her fellow Ethiopian-Israeli actors was getting the English down and building the confidence to perform with it.

Kaplan-Wildmann says the creative team was keen to integrate Ethiopian moves into the choreography but ran up against the problem that, rhythmically, they simply didn’t jive with the '60s-inspired tunes. “But we made it work,” he says.

Off stage, the cast and crew took a cue from Tracy’s fearless curiosity. One of the highlights, according to both Bainasay and Kaplan-Wildmann, was an Ethiopian night with homemade Ethiopian food, music and dancing.

“Hairspray” has seven performances from March 5-21. For tickets, times and locations, visit their site here.

Rolling up the prayers rugs, dismantling the Torah arks

The Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron is so named because it’s believed to be the place where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are buried and is thus valued by both Jews and Muslims. In 1994, it was also the site of the infamous massacre where 29 worshipping Muslims were gunned down by an extremist Jew.

Now the synagogue/mosque is divided between the religions and heavily guarded. But 10 times a year, each faith gets the whole place to itself and the other side has two-hours to pack up and get out for 24 hours. This transformation – in which prayer rugs are rolled up and temporary Torah arks are dismantled – piqued the interest of artist Nira Pereg.

A new solo exhibition at the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv features her video diptych “Abraham Abraham,” the documentation of Jews clearing away their artifacts to make way for the Muslims, and “Sarah Sarah,” the documentation of Muslims doing the same to make way for Jews. The projections face each other at opposite ends of a long, dark room. When the short films are complete, they swap sides. Soon, the two become basically interchangeable.

“Art is a way to look without being ashamed,” Pereg said at an event last week held with the CCA in collaboration with the Tel Aviv Arts Council. “The camera gives me courage.  It allows me to go places that I otherwise wouldn’t go.”

Following the conversation with Pereg, CCA curator Chen Tamir took the guests (100+ in the standing-room-only hall, and 200 more who didn’t make it off the waiting list) on a “super lightning speed survey of Israeli contemporary art” or what she also called a “meta-narrative.”

Tamir’s presentation spanned more than 100 years in about an hour. Repeatedly, she reminded us how much was being left out. Nevertheless, she managed to drive home a few important points for novice Israeli art enthusiasts:

“You can’t talk about Israeli art without talking about Zionism,” she said. “Zionism gave birth to Israeli art and changed as Zionism changed.” She also points to Israel’s mid-century birth, which corresponded with a very particular aesthetic period: “Creating Israel was a thoroughly modernist endeavor,” she said.  

With each subsequent war, a new generation was scarred, and the development of film and photo technology allowed artists to document and critique Israel’s slide from collective consciousness to the individual search for identity, which contemporary artists like Sigalit Landau, Guy Ben Ner, Gilad Ratman and Pereg dissect with often painful precision.

“Artists today are at the forefront of defining Israeli identity,” Tamir said. And the Tel Aviv Arts Council, the organization that sponsored the event, is committed to exploring just what those artists are saying about the country today.

The group, founded by Jay Shultz, an American-born entrepreneur with a degree in art history, claims 25,000 on its mailing list, about half young Anglo immigrants and half young Israelis. Shultz believes art and culture, like high-tech, is one of Israel’s strongest international calling cards.

So just as art helped forge a national identity well before a nation even existed, it continues to drive the conversation about what Israel is today for a new wave of Diaspora Jews who want to be a apart of it.

The Center for Contemporary Art is located on 5 Kalisher Street, near the bottom of the Carmel Market. Nira Pereg’s exhibition, “All This Can Be Reconstructed Elsewhere,” runs through April 10.

Elle Jones
Eli Kaplan-Wildmann