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The Garment brings S.Y. Agnon short stories to stage, in Hebrew

Director-playwright Udi Ben-Seadia predicts some theatergoers may not fully comprehend “The Garment.” For starters, the play is performed in Hebrew. For another, with the text by Nobel Prize-winning author S.Y. Agnon, not even every Israeli in attendance may grasp all the layers of meaning.

Ben-Seadia is not worried. He says Agnon wrote in “high and sophisticated Hebrew, full of allusions to Bible and Talmud.” But by the time of his death in 1970 at the age of 81, Agnon had been canonized as Israel’s greatest prose stylist.

Ben-Seadia, 56, took three Agnon short stories — “The Garment,” “A Goat’s Tale” and “With the Passing of the Wise Man” — and adapted them into a single piece for the stage, which he also directed.

He brings it to area audiences for a pair of performances, May 3 at Temple Beth El in Aptos and May 5 at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto. A one-man show, it stars Israeli actor Yishay Meir and features English subtitles.

The Israel Center of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Temple Beth El are co-sponsoring the shows.

Yishay Meir

Written a few decades ago, the three stories evoke images from distant times and places: a tiny tailor’s shop in the ghetto, an East European shtetl not unlike the Ukrainian village in which Agnon was born, and Israel from the time of the prophets.

However, Ben-Seadia sees a common thread running through them.

“All of them [convey] a deep feeling of persecution,” he says. “Agnon caught something very significant in the nature of modern life. You’re always in a position that you’re not happy with what you have, driven to move from place to place to find the right solution.”

That could be the aging tailor of “The Garment,” never sure he has polished sufficiently the vestments of the local priest. Or the louse in “With the Passing of the Wise Man,” who rudely shoves his way through concentric circles of mourners at the funeral of a tzaddik.

Agnon understood those characters well. Born Shmuel Yosef Agnon in 1888 in what is now Ukraine, he moved to pre-state Israel in 1908, where he began his literary career. A native Yiddish speaker, Agnon laced his writing with ancient Hebrew grammar, ultimately reshaping the modern language.

He became a national hero, twice winning the Israel Prize (the Jewish state’s highest civilian honor) and receiving the 1966 Nobel Prize in literature. Today his image graces Israel’s 50-shekel note. Contemporary writers such as Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua revere him.

Agnon knew his worth. Ben-Seadia tells the story about the time the author met up with another great early Hebrew author, Yosef Brinner.

“Agnon said they had something in common,” the playwright recounts. “Both of them loved Agnon. He   wasn’t that modest.”

Ben-Seadia premiered his play in Israel last summer. Because of the stories’ religious overtones, “The Garment” played well to religious audiences. That’s important to the secular Ben-Seadia, who believes theater should be available to all Israelis, including religious Jews.

He takes this work seriously, having collaborated with Tair, a Jerusalem theater company staffed by and catering to religious audiences.

In addition to his theater work, Ben-Seadia has also written columns and short stories for Israeli newspapers and journals. He currently heads the educational department of a leading Israeli film library.

Soon his play makes its U.S. debut, with performances taking place in Philadelphia and New York before heading west.

One of his concerns is making sure there is always kosher food close by while on the road. Not for himself, but for lead actor Meir, who is Orthodox.

“I also have to find an Orthodox synagogue in Palo Alto that [Meir] can get to by walking,“ Saadia says, joking that by the end of this tour, “I just may become a Jew.”

“The Garment” 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 3 at Temple Beth El, 3055 Porter Gulch Road, Aptos.  $20-$25. Also 8:30 p.m. May 5 at the Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto.  $30-$35. (408) 530-8243.

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.