Voices of Mothers From 2014 Gaza War Are Spoken by Men in New Play

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From left: Yechiam Berko, Yoni Grin and Sagi Tal.
From left: Yechiam Berko, Yoni Grin and Sagi Tal. Credit: Moti Milrod
Maya Asheri
Maya Asheri
Maya Asheri
Maya Asheri

“The feeling is that my child is being torn away from me and no one is taking me into account – do you get it? Because no one is asking me whether to take him or not, no one is making me any promises. No one is telling me it’s going to be okay, on the contrary. On the contrary, I am not even a part of the story.”

Two minutes after the opening music and the start of the rehearsal, Anat Trivaks, who lives near the Gazan border and is sitting in the auditorium, is already wiping away her tears. That wasn’t the only time. Later on she said that even though it is so awful, she in fact isn’t a person who cries a lot. Next to her sat her husband Michael. Behind her sat Tsafra Regev from Kibbutz Gevim in the south and her daughter Shaked. Tsafra doesn’t cry but rather concentrates, breathing deeply, on what is happening onstage. “The tears exist. They are on the way,” she will promise later.

On the modest stage – three chairs and a door that is not attached to anything – sit three young men, actors, running through the new play. This is the first dress rehearsal in the hall where the production is set to open next week, a professional gathering. Anat and Tsafra had never met Yoni Grin, Sagi Tal and Yechiam Berko before that day but they knew the words that came out of their mouths: Their very own words.

In “Mothers, Three” the three actors dramatize portions of personal and intimate interviews with Regev, Trivaks and a third mother from Sha’ar Hanegev, who did not come to the rehearsal, about their experiences during Operation Protective Edge. Not as inhabitants of the Gaza-border communities, but rather as mothers of sons who served deep inside the Gaza Strip during that summer of 2014, so near and yet so impossibly far. The interviews were conducted by Lahav Timor, creator and director of the production, about a year after the operation ended and the sons had returned home safely. These interviews, verbatim, serve as the only text of the play. Each of the actors plays one of the mothers and uses her words to transmit the feelings, anxiety, anger and paralysis experienced by a mother whose son is in the midst of a war.

“It all began when I saw Tsafra having a kind of heart attack at the beginning of Operation Protective Edge. She got the phone call from Nadav” – the names have been changed in the production – “that something was about to happen and he was on his way to Gaza, and then the woman I knew became something dead,” related Timor, who works as a teacher in the Gaza border area, where he was born. “Even a year later that picture never left my mind. I said to myself I had to do something with it. So I went to Tsafra to interview her and I said to her: ‘We’ll see, maybe I’ll write something from this.’ I did other interviews and said, ‘With this I am going to create a new text, a text of my own,’ but that was a very frustrating experience because every time I tried to write a text of my own, it was nowhere near the level of the texts of the interviews. Nothing else was any good.”

Yoni Grin in the play "Mothers, Three".Credit: Moti Milrod

The strength in reversal

”The other children weren’t at home, only me. And also I don’t cry in front of them. That is, I certainly do cry in their presence, but only I am in it. They aren’t relevant at all. This is a hard thing to say, but they aren’t relevant at all.”

Lahav Timor, creator and director of the production.Credit: Moti Milrod

For several months the three actors worked on the mothers’ texts without knowing anything about them, not even their names. They did not listen to the original recordings of their voices or read the questions that were asked, only receiving blocs of text.

“You came in and I said to myself that there is something very asymmetrical in what is happening here,” actor Sagi Tal (who speaks in the name of the third woman) said to the mothers. “I feel that we have been exposed to so much of your authentic and sensitive inside information and you don’t know anything about us.”

“I’d never worked with anything like this before,” adds Berko (who speaks in Tsafra’s name). “The woman Lahav interviewed wasn’t thinking in any dramatic sense but was simply speaking her truth. So you work on the text, and you think, also as an actor – how do you approach material like this? That is, if I am playing your character, and I am speaking texts you said from the depths of your heart, am I doing them because I understand the pain? I can’t understand that pain.” About the encounter with the mothers he adds: “It was very special. I worked only with a text and this is the first time I saw the face. Two weeks ago was the first time we heard the voices. Again, I felt there is a person here who is speaking her truth and therefore it’s very important to try to bring some kind of truth from within myself.”

Closing Women’s Festival

The show will premiere on Saturday evening and close the Women’s Festival at the Holon Theater (March 7-10). The decision to place texts by women, mothers, in the mouths of men seems even more peculiar given the context in which it is being presented, but for Timor and the other people in the room this is entirely not random. “At first I thought we would go with actresses of their age. When I tried that, it didn’t work,” he says. “And then I tried it with young actresses. And that didn’t work either. And when I met with this bunch, suddenly I felt that I was succeeding in hearing these words and it became a very expansive story. I felt that through the guys their voice was coming out – theirs and the voices of other mothers on this trembling earth.

Tsafra Regev with Yoni Grin.Credit: Moti Milrod

“To my mind there is a kind of strong melding that happens when there is a young man on the stage, whom we identify as a son or a child, but we hear the mother’s voice,” he continues. “The soul is a woman’s soul. And this duality, this symbiosis, takes place in the mothers too: They are not in the war together with their sons but they are only there – it is their whole life.”

“I didn’t imagine that this is how it would be,” says Anat, supporting the decision. “But when I saw what I saw, I felt that I was entirely exposed. It’s inside my head, apparently, because I know that that’s what I had said and how I felt but I didn’t think it would be so powerful with young men saying it. This reversal, when the children are speaking the mother’s text, is very powerful.”

“I felt that you really peeled another system of defense away from me,” adds Tsafra. “I remember I said to Lahav that the moment I talk about the things, the text isn’t mine – it’s yours. And now it has suddenly become mine again, very strongly.”

Alone with the pain

“I see him coming and he starts running towards us and we towards him. He was terribly pale, and that’s awfully, awfully joyous. He told us: I didn’t kill anybody. There were difficult experiences but I didn’t kill anybody. And if I did kill, I didn’t see that I’d killed. I heard from his voice that he was okay.”

In the conversations with Timor, the three women did not hold back from talking about the less “representative” sides of a mother waiting for her son to return from battle. The anger at the state that took him, the anger at the son who insists on quarreling over the phone in what could be their last conversation, the ignoring of the other children at home, the difficult things the soldiers did during the war, the logistical musings about where to hold the week of mourning and the wondering about whether it wouldn’t be better for the son simply to leave the country.

Yechiam Berko.Credit: Moti Milrod

“The very fact that in the interview the women agreed to talk about these things made us understand that this is a voice that needs to get a place,” says Timor. “We set out to see what happens to a woman whose son is in a war. That’s what we asked. And there were a lot of different answers, and every answer has a place.”

The decision to focus on women whose sons returned home from the war safely was not immediately obvious in a country that sanctifies bereavement. The title, “Mothers, Three,” is drawn from a well-known poem by Natan Alterman, “Three Mothers,” about mothers whose sons fell in battle. “This isn’t a play about bereaved mothers, but the ground is still knocked out from under them,” says Yoni Grin (who speaks Anat’s words in the play). “That’s the blessing there is in this play, it’s the spotlight that’s cast on a place that is usually left in the dark.”

Tsafra agrees. “It’s a very strong point, and women wake up in the morning with it after their son has come home,” she says at the end of the rehearsal. “I remember that scene” – which is also mentioned in the play – “of me standing in front of the teachers’ room and saying that my body is here but it will take some time for my soul to come back. The loneliness of mothers after the war is huge. We remain alone with this pain and the dialogue isn’t there anymore. During the war, there is dialogue – people came to my home and told me stories but when the war ended and Nadav came back and went to the United States there was terrible loneliness. It’s a very big emotional vacuum. And one of the things I felt very strongly today at the rehearsal was that suddenly there was an echo of the inner vacuum.”

As for politics, as well as the circumstances that led to the existence of Protective Edge – the play avoids talking about them, for better or for worse. On the one hand, Timor is not disturbed that the three women at the center of the play don’t exactly represent Israel society in all its political nuances, and on the other hand it was not at all urgent for him to voice direct criticism of the government’s policy. “This is a play,” he says, “that is simply about mothers and sons.”

Anat Trivaks with her husband Michael.Credit: Moti Milrod

‘The children are leaving’

“I remember complex dialogue, about how the children are leaving for abroad,” says Sagi Tal about his initial feeling, as a former soldier and a son, in the face of the text he was given. “And we talked a bit: ‘What, is this our message? That they need to leave?’ And I reconciled this for myself in that here we have the public and the personal. And from the public perspective we can all talk about what we want here in this country, and we all have hopes. But from the private perspective, when I suddenly thought about my mother, so yes – if the soldier can fly to Canada and not have to do reserve duty there, then sure, he should fly there now. There is a text that I say, ‘No one asks me whether to take him or not.’ And this is something that hadn’t occurred to me at any stage. After all, there’s an army, there’s a state, and as far as I am concerned it’s an axiom that we don’t cast doubt on it. But it is possible to look at it from the perspective of the mothers: We are not a machine for producing soldiers. We raised a child for 18 years, with a whole world, and now he is becoming something that serves under the heading of ‘the state’ above, and no one is asking me. It’s the public and the personal, which are always clashing.”

For Trivaks, at least, nevertheless there is a broader message that was important to her for the play to transmit, even if it is “somewhat political,” as she says. “There are mothers here, families, human beings, and they are a lot more important than anything else. I work with teenagers and I have children who have yet to go into the army and I feel that any day another war could break out. And what is our hope? Every day I meet with students in 11th and 12th grade, and I say to myself next year they will be conscripted into the army with so much willingness and motivation, and I wonder for what? For what? In this operation 74 soldiers were killed, and what? We came out, and once again we’ll go back in. It’s terribly sad for me to know we are raising children in this country without hope that there will be a chance for something good.”

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