'Until the Curtain Goes Up, Every Show Is the Best There Is'

After 42 years as Haaretz’s theater critic, Michael Handelzalts has taken his final bow. He reflects on a lifetime in the orchestra seats

Michael Handelzalts outside the Habima Theater in Tel Aviv.
Moti Milrod

Michael Handelzalts has lost two of his closest friends in the past two months. The first to pass was Yitzhak Livni, the legendary head of Army Radio and the person who brought him into the station as a soldier from the program for the academically gifted. On Livni’s watch, Handelzalts became the station’s late-night theater critic, appearing on a cultural program that was broadcast just before midnight and which, recalls Handelzalts, consisted mostly of spouting “intellectual bullshit of the highest order.”

He spent his military service with another friend, Micha Levinson, whom he had known since high school. The two stayed in close touch until theater director Levinson died in March. These two deaths, Handelzalts says, were a major reason behind his decision to leave his position as Haaretz theater critic, after 42 years.

“When people who have been part of your world depart to the next one, you realize that maybe it’s time to end this chapter,” he says with a smile. “I will keep going to the theater as long as they invite me, but the time has seemingly come to stop writing.”

Even after the deaths of Livni and Levinson, Handelzalts, 67, is still surrounded by friends who occupy the top positions in the local arts scene. He has known Omri Nitzan – one of the Cameri Theater’s greatest directors – since high school. And he first met Ilan Ronen, the artistic director of Habima, while studying in the theater department at Tel Aviv University. During his studies he also met actor Sasson Gabai, who was his classmate, and Menachem Perry, one of the founders of the university’s literature department, where Handelzalts also studied.

It would be easy to list numerous other leading cultural figures who are close to Handelzalts. But in short, the man who became Haaretz’s longest-serving critic was no stranger to the theatrical milieu in particular, and the world of Israeli culture in general. This proximity to the centers of power did not always make life easy – he was often accused of cronyism and sycophancy toward his friends, and of slaughtering everyone else.

The villain’s end

Handelzalts was born in Warsaw and immigrated to Israel with his parents at age 7. He spent his childhood in an immigrant neighborhood near Rishon Letzion. When he was in sixth grade, the family moved to Tel Aviv, and he later enrolled in the theater and literature departments at Tel Aviv University. A chance ride with his department head, Menachem Brinker, afforded him his first opportunity to write theater criticism, for the cultural supplement of the now-defunct daily Lamerhav.

At Army Radio, where he was on the air for over a decade, Handelzalts held a number of positions. Then, in 1975, Haaretz’s then-Managing Editor Gideon Samet hired him as the newspaper’s theater critic, initially as a freelancer and subsequently as an employee. He founded the newspaper’s Books supplement and edited it for 12 years, wrote reviews and opinion pieces, created regular features and honed his language with television criticism for the English edition. In parallel to his daily work at the newspaper, he translated a number of books, including works by Arthur Conan Doyle and Laurence Olivier.

He wrote his farewell column at the end of March and, in a farewell event held at Haaretz’s offices a few days prior, related with a smile that when he was brought in, one of his roles was to edit the culture pages. “I discussed the conditions of my employment with Amos Schocken, who was the managing director at the time. I told him that in the evenings I went to see plays and, as these were outside of working hours, I deserved overtime pay. Silence prevailed and then Amos said to me, ‘But you also enjoy yourself.’ And then the right answer came to me: ‘For every show I enjoy, don’t pay me.”

Now, after reviewing thousands of shows (he estimates he has written some 4,000 theater reviews in his lifetime), Handelzalts sounds quite pleased with the state of Israeli theater. When asked how the art of criticism shapes a person’s soul after 48 years of writing, he replies, “Over the years, it has made me someone with a better understanding of the world.”

In your final newspaper column, you noted that in the theater, the critic will always play the role of the villain.

“In the film they have just made about [Israeli playwright] Nisim Aloni, his life story is presented as a play, and in Act III the villain comes to kill the king – and I am the villain. That is how the film is made. This is its narrative. In the film, they describe Aloni’s last play, ‘Eddy King,’ from 1975, which was panned by all the critics. My review was significant because it was published in Haaretz, and also because its headline was ‘A charlatan despite himself.’ To this day, they haven’t forgiven me for that. And I say: If it weren’t for the role I played, you wouldn’t have had anyone to blame.”

Your predecessor at Haaretz, Haim Gamzu, was said to be terrifying. There was even a new Hebrew verb coined in reference to him – ligmoz – which encapsulated all the fear and distrust of the critic. Did you feel you had to follow in his footsteps?

“When I started out, Gamzu was the past as far as I was concerned. I didn’t want to be like him, because I felt I represented something different. I assume that I was engaged in establishing my standing, and so I panned shows more than was necessary. But a bad production insulted me. I was insulted on behalf of the art of theater. Today, the theater has changed considerably and part of the audience is now younger. It doesn’t matter what I say – as far as they are concerned, I am an old fuddy-duddy who needs to be canned.”

In praise of friction

With some justification, Handelzalts has been labeled as part of the elite – a word that has become a pejorative term these days. He doesn’t deny it and isn’t ashamed of it. “It doesn’t matter,” he says. “Even if it’s not comfortable for me, that’s the way people relate to me. I am Ashkenazi; I wasn’t born here; I speak in Shakespeare’s name and I love high culture because I believe in these things.

“What is an elite?” he asks rhetorically. “The people who come out against the elites are sanctifying gut feelings – and I have one thing to say about that: When I have a gut feeling, I know what I have to do and where I need to go.”

You and others have often warned that Israeli theater is losing its critical dimensions and errs too much on the side of entertainment.

“It’s easy to say that. One reason is that the major theaters have auditoriums with 800 to 900 seats, and these plays are performed there. There is a certain number of seats that need to be sold on a given evening, and if they remain empty they can’t be sold the next day. A person who goes into the subsidized theater system nowadays either doesn’t know what he is doing or is a suicidal Shi’ite. Yet despite the impossible conditions, there are an unfeasible number of good and very good productions – and that is the most incredible thing. There is an amazing abundance of talent here, and tremendous creative energy.

“There are actors here who would do any other [country’s] theater proud. On television too, incidentally. Take Maggie Azarzar, for example. I saw her in Beit Lessin’s ‘The Odd Couple’ and she has wonderful stage presence. She’s fine on television, but I want to see her on the stage more. Also Bat Chen Sabag – I’d seen her a number of times onstage even before she made [TV show] ‘Stupid Girls,’ and she is extraordinary. But I want to see her in theater roles. The same goes for Rotem Abuhab.”

Actor Bat Chen Sabag. "I’d seen her a number of times onstage even before she made ‘Stupid Girls,’ and she is extraordinary. But I want to see her in theater roles."
Moti Milrod

Despite your optimistic tone, how do you explain the existence of so many bad productions?

“Do you know why there are bad productions? After all, no one wants to stage a bad show. I understand this now, but at one time I didn’t understand it. A person rehearses and repeats something. He does it once, twice, three times, and he gets habituated and stops seeing the problems. I’ll give you an example: The first time I saw Donald Trump, I was in total shock. My jaw dropped. The second time I was a bit less shocked, and by the third and fourth time I was used to him. He didn’t look like a freak any more. To me he still looks like a fool, but he’s not in the realm of the impossible. It’s part of life.”

One of your great loves is playwright Hanoch Levin. Is he the lone bright shining light of Israeli theater?

“[The late writer] Adam Baruch once told me my luck as a theater critic was that by chance I started writing at the same time as Hanoch Levin began his creative work. There is no one like that today, and he gets in other people’s way because he has already been. He has already mapped out this territory. Now we need someone who will come along and not relate to Levin. Now is a very interesting time with respect to directors. Irad Rubinstein is very talented and Roy Chen at Gesher, who has written a few plays, is another voice. So it isn’t clear yet where this is going.”

Gadi Dagon

Do you think theater, in its current state, is conducting a significant-enough dialogue with the time and place in which it is being created? Is it relevant to Israel 2017?

“The number of plays that relate to the Israeli reality is far greater than people tend to think. Every audience and every generation gets the theater it deserves. There are productions that challenge the audience and sometimes the audience rejects them, and this friction is part of the soul of creative work. If there is no friction, there is no life. The trick is to understand you mustn’t be afraid of friction.”

Even with politicians?

“Definitely. You shouldn’t waste too much energy on the nature of the friction.”

Acquiring a reputation

Handelzalts intends to make time for his family now he has retired, but continues to read a lot and go to the theater, where – thanks to his intervention – access for mobility-impaired people has been installed. Though his health makes it difficult for him to get from place to place, friends and family have grown accustomed to seeing him scooting from performance to performance, and from one cafe to the next on his electric mobility scooter, which he uses because of his multiple sclerosis.

“People die of all kinds of things, so death doesn’t scare me,” he says. “Just like you can say you are alive, you can also say you are on your way to your death. While the two of us are talking, we are in fact in the midst of the process of dying, which is ongoing. People are always leery of spoilers, but I keep telling them I have the spoiler of their lives: You are going to die.”

In contrast to the way you are perceived by the public as a serious and detached person, in fact you are funny, even lighthearted. How do you explain this gap?

“People who know me from my earlier writing take me very seriously. People who know me personally know I love to laugh, and they say I have a pretty good sense of humor. I acquired a reputation as an arrogant putz, which in my opinion is one of the reasons I didn’t make the transition to television – unlike many of my colleagues. I was perceived as heavy and boring, and it is impossible to overcome that.”

What advice would you give the person stepping into your shoes as Haaretz’s theater critic?

“First of all, I’d tell him not to listen to advice. What is true is that until the curtain goes up, every production is the best there is. After it is over, even if it was really crappy, so fucking what? No one promised you anything. And the only thing that must always happen is the text needs to be written clearly, logically, lucidly. The reader has to enjoy reading it, and the review has to include information about what was there and what you thought was there. That is all.

“I can allow myself to say: I did the thing I most love doing – which is to go to the theater – and they paid me for it. I earned my living from it. And the number of times I enjoyed myself was far greater than the number of times I suffered. And even when I suffered, many times it was interesting.”