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Israeli play pushes hot buttons

'Shabbes!,' a one-man show, displays the mounting tension between

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His characters never actually talk to one another. An ultra-Orthodox man says he feels personally hurt when he sees someone drive on Shabbes, and he explains why youths throw stones at passing cars.

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A secular activist admits she and her friends have antagonized religious people by purposefully driving through their neighborhoods and shouting "Shabbat Shalom" - Sabbath peace.

A harried worker tells how he and his neighbors have begun blasting their stereos on Friday nights to try to drive out the ultra-Orthodox Jews who have moved into their quiet suburb and have promptly tried to enforce religious strictures on all. But the thumping stereos begin to invade the secular man's sense of peace as well. "Forget my house and my neighborhood," he vents. "I want my religion back!"

Among the more alarmed at this state of affairs is the left-wing intellectual doomsayer, who feels that if given the chance, religious circles would turn Israel into another Middle Eastern theocracy. He conveys a resentment at the Orthodox who, as bearers of ancient religious traditions, see themselves as carrying a fuller "wagon" of knowledge - and thus deserving of the right of way.

"Our two wagons are heading toward that narrow bridge," propounds the resident of an elitist Tel Aviv neighborhood, "and a confrontation will take place."

With a rather dark cry of desperation at the finale, Gringras prods the question of whether that may be true. The disparate voices find no route to a happy ending.

"The show ended up being a wake-up call to me and to people like me.... I do feel the doom, to be honest," Gringras says. "There are those in my audiences who have latched on to the feeling of despair. They look to me to tell them that things will be all right, and I don't know if I can do that."

After each performance, he opens the floor for discussion. Many in the audience tell tales of disappointment in the increasing levels of intolerance and lack of dialogue. One mother who moved here from New York two weeks ago complained that other boys had called her nine-year-old son names because he was wearing a kippa, a religious skullcap. Another immigrant said mutual respect between religious and secular had all but disappeared since he first moved here 28 years ago.

When Gringras performs the piece in Hebrew, reactions are sometimes even stronger. Some dislike the picture he is presenting to Jewish audiences from abroad, who have been frequent patrons of the traveling show. "Some Israelis are angry about it," he admits. "They say, 'Is this what you're telling them about us?' "

Gringras prefers to think that it's what they're telling them about themselves. And though he holds strong opinions on the issue, he prefers to let the true-to-life characters he's developed speak for themselves. But many here aren't satisfied with that answer. He was recently interviewed about the play on several Israeli radio programs, in which the interviewers wanted to know immediately: "Whose side are you on?"

In a country where dress code is an immediate indicator of religious affiliation, one interviewer complained that radio listeners would not be able to see whether he was wearing a kippa.

He laughs and claims allegiance to his hometown soccer team instead. "I say I'm on Manchester United's side."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society