What is it like for American Jews and Israelis to interact with each other? How do they communicate? Do they really get each other?
These were some of the questions Jewish Circle Productions set out to answer at the Live Oak Theater in Berkeley on June 16 — using playback theater.
Unlike theater groups that rehearse beforehand, playback theater solicits personal stories from audience members, then uses improvisation to mirror the speaker’s story back to the audience.
“We didn’t prepare any scripts,” explained Roni Alperin, JCP’s artistic director, who served as emcee for the production of “Same Am, Different Language.” In Hebrew, “am” means “people.”
“This is a theater of neighbors, of community,” Alperin added. “At the end of the evening, we’ll know what this performance was really about.”
The topic was a new one for JCP, which has been doing this kind of theater in the Bay Area Jewish community since 2009. “We thought of this as a way to bring Israelis and Jewish Americans together, to explore how we experience one another and the miscommunications that arise because of cultural differences,” said Ofra Daniel, executive director of JCP. “We do come from a different planet, in a way.”
Ultimately, said Daniel, an Israeli who lives in Berkeley, the intention is to create empathy. “If we have the opportunity to laugh at our flaws together, then it can create release and empathy for each other.”
The troupe — which included four Israelis, one Jewish American and one non-Jewish American, plus two Israeli musicians — began by sharing personal stories relating to Israel or Israelis. Then the audience pitched in.
One American woman spoke about her love for Israel and how she learned Hebrew on a kibbutz, but then when she traveled to the Far East, she was repulsed by the behavior of the young Israeli tourists she saw. She even stopped speaking Hebrew because she didn’t want to be mistaken for one of them.
An Israeli audience member, noting she was embarrassed by that story, had one of her own: When she came to the United States to attend college in the Boston area, she was just as shocked by the behavior of the American students as the other woman was by Israelis in the Far East. “I came from the army, with certain values,” she said. “And when I got here, the Americans had no restraints.”
“I didn’t come to college to study, I came to drink!” is how her story got “told” back at her, with the actors drunkenly downing shots as they spoke.
The last storyteller of the evening was a bilingual Israeli-born woman who has spent most of her life in the United States. On a visit to Israel, she was admiring some mezuzahs when an Israeli father and son approached. The boy, about 11, asked his father what they were, and if there was anything inside them. The father answered that something is scribbled inside. The teller of the story, incredulous, recalled telling them that the Shema and V’ahavta prayers are inside, to which the father responded, “What are you talking about?”
“How could they not know this, when they are on every public building in Israel?” asked the teller.
The actors had the most fun with this story. Daniel, on her knees with a scarf over her head, played the mezuzah. “Shame on you for not knowing what’s inside me,” she said, as if speaking to the father and son. “I’m not coming into your house for sure. You can’t buy me. I’ll come to California with you,” she told the speaker. “People in California actually know what a mezuzah is.”
When asked how she felt about the actors’ portrayal of her story, the storyteller said, “It was ridiculous enough when I was there, but this was even better. You turned it into a comedy scene.”
By the end of the evening, Daniel’s goal of getting people to laugh together had been realized, but given that at least half the audience was Israeli, it was noticeable that no Israelis got up to tell a story themselves; the only Israeli who spoke was reacting to someone else’s story.
Afterward, David Brutman, an Israeli living in Sunnyvale, said he was more interested in hearing others’ stories, and felt the performance “touched on the most passionate and sensitive points of this ambivalent relationship” between American Jews and Israelis.
Daniel later said that the Israelis in the audience felt well represented by the actors, most of whom were Israeli. “I think they felt that we were their voice,” she said.
“Seeing everyone hanging around the theater after the show, talking, wanting to discuss it more, is what makes playback theater a great vehicle for the Jewish community’s growth,” Daniel added. “It’s a meaningful experience — beyond entertainment.”
Jewish Circle Productions will be taking its playback theater to local JCCs to explore how American Jews relate to Israel. Also, a performance in Hebrew focusing on Israelis living in the U.S. is being planned for the South Bay.
JCP is also open to organizations suggesting themes of their own.
Said Daniel, “We’re a young organization, and we’re trying to see what the community’s needs are.”