Israeli play pushes hot buttons
'Shabbes!,' a one-man show, displays the mounting tension between
Weekend falls on Israel. The cry of "Shabbes!" rises.Skip to next paragraph
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Drive through the streets on a Saturday here, and the Yiddish word for the Sabbath is literally shouted as a condemnation of those who violate the Jewish day of rest.
This emotion-laden word is also the title of a one-man show here that displays - at times humorously - the mounting tension between secular and religious Jews in Israel. In fact, polls show that if Israel should fight a civil war, it would be over this issue.
In the show, actor-writer Robbie Gringras portrays eight Israelis who all ponder how much of a role religion should play in public life. But this isn't simply a show that faintly echoes life. One reason the play resonates so well is that Mr. Gringras draws his material directly from daily headlines and then puts a fractured mirror of Israeli society before his audience.
The inspiration for the show comes from a battle that erupted two years ago over whether a main artery in Jerusalem should be closed to traffic from sunset Friday to dusk on Saturday. Traditional Jewish law forbids all work and most kinds of travel on the Sabbath.
Ultra-Orthodox protesters, who clashed with police each weekend, won the right to have the road closed during prayer times on the Sabbath - but still want the road closed for the entire day.
The latest such crisis has threatened to shake up the new government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, which hold 22 of the 75 seats in his governing coalition, demanded that the premier prevent the movement of a turbine - a 300-ton component for a state-run electricity generator - on the Sabbath.
But the Public Works Administration decided to move the three-lane-wide motor anyway. At three miles an hour, it would have held up traffic for 16 hours on a major highway had it been done on a weekday.
Hundreds of secular Israelis lined the highway outside Tel Aviv to applaud the passing turbine, which had overnight become a symbol of the struggle against religious hegemony.
Gringras has long been interested in exploring Jewish issues. A native of Manchester, England, and a graduate of Oxford University, he moved to Israel three years ago after an earlier stint on a kibbutz. His training in drama led him to pursue Jewish theater - he co-founded the well-reviewed Besht Tellers in London, which performed in far-flung locations from Hong Kong to Russia. But the questions his scripts posed eventually led him here.
In Israel, he found that for the first time, the very mention of Jewish subjects provoked ire as much as reverence.
"I couldn't do something Jewish in Israel until I realized that there was a great deal of anger over religion, and until I could address that, I wouldn't get anywhere," says Gringras. Calmly picking at a bowl of late-brunch granola at a Jerusalem hotel, he seems far from the exasperation of the characters he will become in a few hours for a Saturday evening show.
On stage, he slips seamlessly from one role to another without the use of props or costume changes, morphing into a collection of postures - one signature stance per character - so varied that it's hard to believe they're being formed by the same lithe body. He uses a rich range of English regional and socioeconomic accents - from royalty to cockney and everything in between - which seem fittingly fine-tuned to represent the range of the Israelis he portrays.
From ultra-Orthodox to doomsayer