Israeli play pushes hot buttons

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

Weekend falls on Israel. The cry of "Shabbes!" rises.

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.

Simmering battles

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

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.

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

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