Theatronetto Festival Portrays Varied and Tragic Faces of Israeli Society

Each side of the coin called 'life in Israel,' the Jewish-Israeli side and the Arab-Israeli side, takes great care to present the 'correct' version of its narrative.

Salim Dau in 'Salim Aleikum.'
Gerard Allon

Since the Hasimta Theater in Old Jaffa is not handicapped-accessible, I only saw two of the nine solo performances at this year’s Theatronetto festival. Luckily for me, one of the two I saw at the Arab-Hebrew Theater in Jaffa won first prize: “Post-war Testimony,” written and performed by Snait Ben-Gaash. The second play was “Salim Aleikum,” written and performed by Salim Dau. This coincidental combination gave me an opportunity to observe, in one evening, two sides of this coin called “life in Israel.” Each side, the Jewish-Israeli side and the Arab-Israeli side, deserves close scrutiny, and each side always takes great care to present the “correct” version of its narrative. Usually we only see one side of a coin, as it is passed to a merchant, or else we see its narrow rim when it rolls. But we can’t get a full picture unless we truly grasp that the world has two sides, and we keep tossing it in the air to make it spin there forever, without falling and favoring one side over the other.

Snait Ben-Gaash is a new name, for me at least. Beyond its aesthetic qualities, her play deals with a painful topic in Israeli society: bereavement. Her father was killed in the early days of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and the play clearly has a therapeutic dimension for her – as could be seen from her emotional thank-yous as the audience applauded with great emotion as well.

I will be so bold as to say that bereavement in Israeli society is on a par with the Holocaust in Jewish society (I will never understand why one isn’t supposed to draw comparisons, since comparison is one of the most important ways of learning). Bereavement is a word, a concept, a subject that is a dark and terrible void, a jumble of bleak, desperate and sometimes ugly feelings, but first and foremost painful. On the one hand, it’s a subject that is impossible to delineate, impossible to speak to and speak about “correctly”; it will always be beyond our ability to fully grasp and deal with. On the other hand, in Israel, bereavement, and the Holocaust, have become pieces in the political identity game, as if the suffering of individuals has some value in the collective power struggle.

Ben-Gaash’s solo play does not go into any of that, but it does still touch on them – with daring self-revelation, great sensitivity and exquisite verbal and physical expressiveness. It is mainly the story of her childhood, as a girl living through all the dozens of formal ceremonies and personal rituals in an effort to bring her father back into her life, her father who vanished so suddenly in that war. Through the eyes of that hurting young girl, she introduces the audience to her mother, who acts the hostess to all the condolence callers at the shiva, worrying about them rather than herself. For a moment, she embodies her teacher at the Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) ceremonies, who encourages the girl to share her personal experience of loss with everyone, and in the same breath also tries to instruct her how to grieve. As the hour flies by, we also see filmed testimonies of soldiers who came back alive from that war and of their family members, who carry with them the shock of survival, as if Ben-Gaash is saying, amid her own pain, that bereavement may not be the worst thing that wars leave in their wake.

Snait Ben-Gaash in 'Post-War Testimony.'
Gerard Allon

Ben-Gaash created this play as part of her studies in the “Actor-Artist-Researcher” program at Tel Aviv University, and she fulfills all three of these aspects here. It is first of all her personal story, but her character is fully brought to life, making excellent use of certain props (like her father’s uniform and his shoes), and depicting a multifaceted tale without once losing the focus: the world of a young girl grieving for her father in a society that knows much better than she does on how “to be bereaved.” For the entire hour, she held the audience rapt, turning that one terrible word into a personal experience for each and every viewer there who hurt and cried and also laughed along with her.

One comment that doesn’t directly have to do with this special play: For a long time I thought that with all its sharp divides, within Jewish-Israeli society there was one area at least where people always showed some restraint and mutual respect. That even if someone thinks that bereavement is being cynically exploited by someone else (and I’ve come to believe that any subject can be cynically exploited, alas), everyone still remembered that we were still dealing with individuals suffering terrible pain and with matters of life and death. And then I read about how supporters of the soldier who killed a “neutralized,” i.e., badly wounded, terrorist treated a bereaved father during their demonstration on behalf of the said soldier. The father, Yitzhak Frankenthal, only urged them to wait for the military court’s ruling on the matter. And I also read about how some Israelis who think of themselves as patriots relate on social media to the views of the author David Grossman, whose son was killed in Lebanon. I saw that bereavement, like the Holocaust, is becoming subject to rampant inflation. Strange as it may sound, this small play tries to put bereavement back in proportion and give everyone whose terrible fate it is to experience it the personal dignity they deserve.

A sense of great shame

The successful Israeli Arab actor Salim Dau, a veteran of theater, movies and television in Israel and abroad, also brings to the stage a personal and national tale. Unlike Ben-Gaash, who created a genuine play, Dau basically does stand-up with props, accompanied at times by oud player Habib Shehadeh.

He tells about his childhood in Kafr Kana in the Western Galilee (He hoped it was considered part of the Upper Galilee, wasn’t happy to learn it was considered Lower Galilee, so he compromised on calling it Western Galilee). He recounts his experiences as a child during the military rule, and the time of the Nakba in his memory and his family’s memory. He talks about the city of Carmiel, where the houses were built by people from Ba’aneh on land that used to be theirs. When he studied acting at Beit Tzvi School for the Performing Arts, he introduced himself to the woman from whom he rented a room as Sami Dadon.

When he went to Paris to study acting at the Jacques Lecoq school, the Shin Bet tried to recruit him as an informer. He describes life as an Israeli Arab who is admired and has had a successful career; and yet it is still a terrible story about the lives of Israeli Arabs. And it hits all the harder for being told with such charm and affability, with such good-naturedness. The pain and the anger come through nonetheless, and at least for me as a viewer and as an Israeli citizen, also a sense of great shame. Dau’s personal-national story made me think of several milestones in my own personal history. When I was in high school, Carmiel was just being built. Our literature teacher, the poet and poetry publisher Itamar Yaoz-Kest, moved to the new city, and we all viewed this as an act that was in the true pioneer spirit. Now I heard from Dau on the other side of this pioneering act, something that as an Israeli I should have been aware of long ago.

One of Dau’s stories was about the Shin Bet guy who kept trying to recruit him as an informer or collaborator. In those years, I’d heard similar stories from my Polish colleagues, when we met at international conferences in Europe, and I’d thought at the time that this was something that only happens in Communist societies. Back then, 40 years ago, I felt certain that nothing like that happened in Israel. Dau says that he refused to cooperate and to report on his fellow Arab students who were studying abroad. As a result, he says, on one of his return trips to Israel, the security personnel at the airport didn’t check his luggage at all. At first, he was very pleased, but then he realized that because of this, all his Arab friends (who were delayed and carefully searched) were convinced that he actually was a collaborator.

And then it suddenly came back to me. As I sat there watching Dau’s performance and hearing this story, I recalled how in the early 1980s, after I wrote in Haaretz about meetings I had with a Palestinian delegate to the International Theater Association convention in Madrid, I was summoned to a meeting in a small building that was part of the Prime Minister’s Office (now part of the Sarona compound in Tel Aviv), where I was pleasantly requested to tell them about any such meetings in the future. As I recollect it, I turned them down, and I thereafter suppressed the memory of that meeting. Until now.