In 2007, actor and director Ofra Daniel moved to the United States from Tel Aviv. Like many Israelis who have come to America, her identity has evolved into something ambiguous as months become years, and children are born and educated in American schools.
Unlike the hundreds of thousands of other Israelis in the United States, however, she has decided to make this very ambiguity her work, channeling her questioning into the Jewish Circle Theatre.
Begun five years ago as an acting class, and recently designated a nonprofit, the Jewish Circle Theatre is dedicated to bridging the divide between Israelis and American Jews in the Bay Area — and hopefully beyond.
“Our two communities, we are not that much alike, and we’re not sure we want to be together. Let’s just admit that,” Daniel, 39, said over coffee at a café near her home in Berkeley. “And once we do, we can really figure out what the Israeli issues are. Mostly they have to do with loyalty to Israel, and guilt at having left. There is a sense that they are betraying Israel by becoming American, even American Jews. Israelis are, in a way, hidden Jews.”
Despite having raised three children in Berkeley public schools, and presenting theater workshops with Israeli and American organizations for years, Daniel was surprised at how segregated audiences were for her first Hebrew and English productions.
“After one production, I asked the audience: ‘How many of you have American friends?’ Only two raised their hands out of 40,” Daniel recounted. “Only two? After being here for 30 years, and clearly not going back to Israel?”
Daniel describes JCT as a “community theater,” which in this case means a network of mostly nonprofessional actors, musicians and set people who collaborate on non-equity productions. After several smaller productions at JCCs in the South Bay, they were collectively surprised when a new play written by Daniel, “Café Kassit,” about a famous bohemian hangout in Tel Aviv, sold out multiple shows at the Theater You in Mountain View.
Rebecca “Riki” Resheff, a retired therapist who lives in Campbell with her husband, has acted with Daniel for five years. She points to the success of “Café Kassit” as a turning point in the enterprise.
“I was at a funeral recently and someone recognized me from the production,” she said. “This is happening more and more.”
Resheff is part of JCT’s Bama Ivrit (The Hebrew Stage), the Hebrew-speaking arm of the organization, which meets and performs in the South Bay. Bama Ivrit, like the English-language workshop that will now meet at Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom, draws on a technique of asking participants to share their personal stories. In this way, even the productions written by Daniel draw heavily on the collective history of the Israeli Americans who are performing.
In some ways the Jewish Circle Theatre has become a stage, both literal and metaphorical, for a community trying on a new role as permanent residents of America.
“I’ve been here more than 20 years,” explained Resheff, who is 67, with adult children who also live in Silicon Valley. “I used to think of myself as an Israeli living in the U.S. But recently I’ve adopted the term Israeli American.”
The increased profile of the JCT comes at a time when the complicated and permanent reality of Israelis in America has become more visible. In November, a vastly expanded Israeli-American Council — with new backing from billionaire Sheldon Adelson — held a conference in Washington, D.C., addressed by the likes of Joe Lieberman and Mitt Romney.
Daniel, who attended the conference, explained: “The Israeli consulates are here to help Israelis as Israelis. And the federations and synagogues aren’t sure what to do with Israelis in terms of involvement and support.” And just as the Israeli American Council is filling a new role on a national stage, the JCT is taking its place on the local stage.
John Gertz, the theater’s new board chairman, is an American-born theater, film and television producer who holds dual Israel-American citizenship. As a Jewish community leader, who has been president of the JCC of the East Bay and other local organizations, he has seen firsthand the number of Israelis who have not yet found a place within the American Jewish community, and the ways in which American Jewish organizations don’t quite know how to connect with their permanent Israeli neighbors.
“Our mission is to bridge the cultural gap between Israelis and American Jews, and help them dialogue with each other,” he said. This goes not just for the Bay Area but the rest of the country, and Gertz is working with Daniel on bringing several of JCT’s productions to other major metropolitan areas with sizable Israeli populations.
Among the upcoming JCT plays is an adaptation of the “Rooster” story by Reb Nachman of Bratslav, the early 19th-century Hassidic leader and author. In this story, often seen as a parable for parent-child relations, a rabbi attempts to communicate with a child who believes he is a rooster by acting like a rooster himself.
With a bit of creative license, one can imagine Israelis and American Jews as characters in a “Rooster”-like drama who find themselves speaking different languages, perhaps unsure if they are even the same species. Ofra Daniel, and the Jewish Circle Theatre, are betting that they are. n