The Bard Behind Bars

Performing Shakespeare enables prisoners at Ashmoret jail to channel energy toward brighter future.

Last Thursday afternoon, prisoners in the addiction treatment division at Ashmoret Prison were quoting Shakespeare. "O! She doth teach the torches to burn bright/ It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night/ Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope's ear;/ Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!/ So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows,/ As yonder lady o'er her fellows shows./ The measure done, I'll watch her place of stand, /And, touching hers, make blessed my rude hand./ Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight!/ For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night," inmate Asher acted out a scene from "Romeo and Juliet."

Nothing about his performance let on that this was his first encounter with Shakespeare. "It's the first time I even understood what Shakespeare was," he says with a smile. "I went to school for eight years."

Asher, 36, comes from a well-known crime family from the South that is involved in drug dealing. Asher is now serving out his seventh jail term. He has been drug free for a year and a half since being placed in the addiction treatment unit. "I approached this sentence with the notion that I want to stop with the drugs," he says. "I strayed from all of my family's rules and cut myself off from everyone. All of my brothers are addicts who were drawn into this world as I was, from a young age, without understanding the consequences. The only thing I knew from a young age was drug dealing. In the process of getting clean, I felt that something in me died. Drugs always made me feel alive and well, but working on this production has filled me with new life. Theater has a healing affect," he says. "Theater breaks down barriers. The entire time we worked on the production I felt as if I wasn't in jail, and I said to myself maybe I don?t deserve such an experience."

Ashmoret Prison houses prisoners who require protection during their incarceration. Itamar Yefet, the head of the prison's education division explains that "these are prisoners who clashed with figures in the underworld and their lives are in danger, or they chose to be witnesses for the prosecution and have to be protected."

In addition, the prison is home to vulnerable prisoners who were taken advantage of in other prisons and who committed serious sex offenses. "These are prisoners who are in a fragile place and are between two worlds; on one hand they can no longer be part of the criminal world and on the other hand, they will never be part of the normative world and they don't have the tools and the knowledge to integrate," says Yefet.

The drug addiction treatment department is currently treating 26 people. "Through the rehab program, prisoners undergo a long process that forces them to work on themselves and to go back and deal with their starting point with drugs and crime. For the most part, this is home. Theater and art are tools we use to reach them and help them experience emotions and pride in themselves," says Yefet.

Owning up onstage

The play "Mima'amakim" (From the Depths) weaves together snapshots of the prisoners' lives and scenes from "Romeo and Juliet," "Othello" and Jacques Brel's song "If You Go Away." The play relays the story of Asher, whose wife chose to leave him and cut off all contact when he went to jail. "It shows the stages I went through with her," he says, "from pure and impossible love to thoughts of revenge, like Othello, but in the end I realized I had to apologize to her and that apparently I hurt her as a person and as a woman. I learned to accept her choice with all the pain that goes along with it."

Director Dafna Rubinstein, 27, worked with the drug addiction treatment unit's theater troupe for three intense months. Rubinstein says she felt she had to write the play after discovering that Asher's acting skills and his thirst for theater could help him tell his own story. Rubinstein, a young and successful artist, wrote the play "Close to Home," during the course of her studies at the Rose Bruford School of Theater Studies in London, and she presented it in Hampstead's New End Theater. The play received rave reviews; two years ago the Cameri Theater also put on the play. She is now working on a production of "Romeo and Juliet" for the Tmuna Theater.

"I'm the daughter of a criminal lawyer and in London it is common for prisoners to work with theater, so I feel I'm in my element," laughs Rubinstein, adding: "it was important for me to get out of Tel Aviv, which is competitive and full of egos and leave behind the elitist, glamorous world for a more realistic world. I derived great satisfaction from showing them there is another option besides drugs, prison and violence. Giving them a kind of escape from prison, from the anguish and pain. As an artist I believe this is the place where one creates, not Tel Aviv. Actually from this place and from these stories, it is possible to generate a genuine work."

Onstage, inmate Shimon wears a Beitar Jerusalem T-shirt and offers a chilling account of his childhood. Shimon, who is serving his fifth jail sentence, has been addicted to drugs since he was 15.

Spotlighting a troubled childhood

For the first time in his life, he has been clean for 15 months and 20 days. "I brought to the stage my own story," he says. "My father was a fan of Hapoel Jerusalem and an usher at the games.

"He was violent, abusive and humiliating and every time his team lost, I was hit and when his team won he would go easy on me. Before he would come home, I would want to find out the results of the game to know whether or not I would get hit. I knew that if they won, he would give out candies and we'd laugh and if the team lost - I knew that I had to disappear. I remember hiding under the tables, behind the curtains, going to bed in the afternoon, hiding under the blanket. There I nourished a wish that hopefully his team would always lose. I brought home the black and yellow colors of the team he hated - Beitar Jerusalem, just so I could show him what I couldn't say in words - that I hate him."

One of the plays was performed for the prisoners' families. Shimon, whose family cut off contact with him, invited his family. During the play, his family left the auditorium in protest. His eyes fill with tears and for a long time he was unable to speak as he relived his family's reaction: "I called my sister after they left in the middle of the play and she told me 'how can you stand on the stage and dare to tell everyone what we went through at home?' I'm 47, I haven't managed to raise a family, I haven't loved and I haven't been loved but to this day I wear a yellow Beitar shirt even though I don't really understand soccer.

"I would like to be like Asher who approaches acting from a place of pleasure and experience," says Shimon. "When I stand on the stage I don't see the audience, I turn my gaze to the gray place where I grew up. I'm totally immersed in the experience, so for me the theater is not acting - it's life."

Shimon says he's glad the production, which included three performances, is behind him. "I feel a lot of joy now after the experience," he says, "I don't feel as if I'm in jail. I feel as if I'm immersed in something I once would have paid a lot of money to feel moments of. How can I explain it to you: I feel like I'm on a natural high, without paying money for a fix." Asher, on the other hand, dreads curtain call. "When I'm on stage, I feel alive. I would like to study acting, but there?s a big gap between the desire and my faith in myself. Now that the play is over, I know it will be difficult for me for a whole month, I'll sink and I won't be interested in anything."