Tongue twisters: Actors to perform in many languages

Comedy and drama are sure to stir the soul — and provoke discourse — with “Israel in the Gardens'” first-ever theater stage this year.

From a soliloquy on making aliyah as an Ethiopian Jew to a multicultural spoken-word poetry slam, festivalgoers will be treated to performances by acclaimed Jewish actors from Israel, Russia and the United States, in each respective language.

The stage, Be’chol Lashon (“in every tongue”) will be showcasing performances throughout the day inside the Metreon Theater at Fourth and Mission streets, near Yerba Buena Gardens.

“The theater stage gives us a chance to provide a greater visual and emotional sense about what Israel really is and how it encompasses you no matter what your background,” said Scott Rubin of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, which works to support a racially, ethnically and culturally inclusive Jewish people throughout Israel and the diaspora. The institute is co-sponsoring this new theater stage with the Israel Center, longtime organizer of “Israel in the Gardens.”

Actors will be performing personal accounts about identifying as a Jew from various cultural and ethnic perspectives.

Yossi Vassa is a Jewish Ethiopian Israeli whose performance “It Sounds Better in Amharic” traces his journey at age 10 from Ethiopia to Israel and his experience adjusting to life there.

This will be a return trip to the Bay Area for Vassa, who had 12 sold-out shows at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora in February, part of a cross-country tour. He will perform in English, Hebrew and Amharic, the Semitic language of parts of Ethiopia.

Rachel Factor will present her unique path to Judaism in her one-woman show, “J.A.P.”

Factor was born in Hawaii to Japanese-American parents. She pursued a theater career, landing as a Radio City Music Hall rockette in New York City and performing in “Miss Saigon” and “Shogun, the Musical” on Broadway.

She then met a nice Jewish boy, converted to Orthodox Judaism and made aliyah. Today Factor lives in Jerusalem with her husband and two children.

Then there’s Vanessa Hidary, the original “Hebrew Mamita.” She is a New York-based poet and spoken-word artist who has been featured on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam.” Hidary seamlessly blends Latino and African American hip-hop with her Sephardic Jewish heritage, reflecting her multicultural upbringing and her commitment to friendship between all people.

“These are all racially and ethnically diverse Jews who show that Israel is not a monolithic culture,” Rubin said.

The voice of diversity is important for people to understand because Jewish culture — as well as the state of Israel — is more ethnically diverse than most Americans realize, said Yarden Schneider of the Israel Center in San Francisco.

“In Israel, it is like a salad — you see so many different people with different cultures that are very specific to where everyone came from,” she said. “Hopefully, the stage will reflect this new face of Israel, acknowledge the different faces and celebrate them.”

Schneider and Rubin hope the theater will help break the stereotype and help people understand that Jews come in all colors, ethnicities and cultural preferences.

A wider understanding of Jewish diversity is also a crucial component in confronting the rise of anti-Semitism and the ongoing controversy surrounding Jewish and Arab relations, according to Rubin.

He said people often misconstrue the Middle East conflict as one between a white colonial people and its brown neighbors, while in actuality the Jews of Israel were always a confluence of Middle Eastern and European descent.

“Characterizing the Israel-Arab conflict in racial terms is old and inappropriate,” Rubin said. “Israel and the Jewish people are not monolithically white. Israel is perhaps the most culturally diverse country in the world.”

The day’s performances will use a mixture of comedy and drama to address these deep and personal issues.

“Something very Jewish and Israeli to do — dealing with difficult situations with humor,” Schneider said. “We’re very proud of this. We’re one people made up of all of these beautiful pieces.”

Another presence on the theater stage will be Robbie Gringras, a British-born Israeli who will perform “Why Am I (Still) Here,” an account about making aliyah that celebrates the complexities of Israeli life through song and personal stories.

And Vladimir Fridman, a Russian musician and actor, will offer standup comedy — in Russian.

A tribute to Hanoch Levin, one of Israel’s most highly acclaimed playwrights, will be performed in two parts: the Baby Boomers Theater Comedy, a Palo Alto-based Russian theater group, and “The Labor of Life: Hanoch Levin’s Theater,” performed by local artists including Amy Tobin and directed by Donny Inbar, former cultural attaché at the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco.

Like the rest of the festival, admission to the theater stage is free, but space will be limited and seating will be on a first-come, first-serve basis.

To find a schedule of performance times, visit the “Israel in the Gardens” Web site: www.israelcentersf.org/israelinthegardens/2006.