Los angeles – If you posit the question, “How many pro-Israel plays can you find currently being staged in the United States,” the answer is, apparently, “None.” At least that’s what husband-and-wife team Mel Weiser and Joni Browne-Walders discovered three years ago.
The theatrical duo, who live in Phoenix, Arizona, premiered their play A Tiny Piece of Land at Pico Playhouse in Los Angeles on April 8. The show is an unabashedly pro-Israel piece that looks at the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through the eyes of a family that was evacuated from its home homes as part of the 2005 Gaza disengagement.
The play focuses around four central characters: Yossi Ben David – an expat American who knew little of his Jewish heritage before making aliya and falling in love; his Israeli wife Aviva; their young daughter, Rachel, a pianist who is studying at a music conservatory and plans to continue her studies in New York after completing her; and Barry, Yossi’s estranged brother, who unexpectedly leaves his Seattle, Washington, home to turn up on Yossi’s doorstep.
Many stressful aspects to living in Israel are thrown into this melting pot. From kidnapped soldiers and rocket attacks on Sderot to the Gaza pullout and the death of Rachel Corrie – even hate crimes in the Western world – everything is brought to the fore and shown through the eyes of the family.
Weiser, who co-wrote the play with his wife and directs the production, acknowledges that the family is meant as a microcosm of Israeli society. “It was necessary to get in everything that Israel is going through,” he explains. “We realized we were writing for an American audience and we really wanted to present what an ordinary family has to contend with.”
The idea for the production came to Browne-Walders a little over three years ago following what she calls the constant “Israel bashing” in the media. At the time, the couple was visiting the Orange Stage Works company in Ashland Oregon, where they discovered the artistic director of the company was about to stage a production of My Name is Rachel Corrie
, an anti-Israel play about the 2003 incident during which the American student was run over by an IDF bulldozer in Gaza.
When the local Jewish community got news of the productions there was a huge outcry, and the artistic director said he would be willing to stage a pro-Israel play alongside the one about Rachel Corrie. The problem, says Weiser, was there was no such play.
IT WAS then that the couple decided to write the play themselves – a tall order for two people who for many years were themselves assimilated Jews and had grown with almost no Jewish background. Weiser credits meeting the head of Israel Bonds in Phoenix with his growing Jewish identity. “He became my Jewish mentor, gave me books to read about Israel, and eventually, as Aviva says about Yossi in the play, ‘He’s become a Jew.’”
Browne-Walders grew up in “lily white Christian Phoenix,” wanting no part in her Jewish heritage. But when, in her twenties, she began reading reading the Jewish press and sites such as Honest Reporting and CAMERA, she slowly began to reverse her view of Israel as oppressors. “I finally realized that, as my grandmother once said, ‘there are anti-Semites in the world.’”
The couple set to work writing and in February 2009 went to Israel do some authentic research. “We spent the whole time writing notes and interviewing people, asking questions; we even stayed in an Arab hotel,” says Browne-Walders.” They decided to hold a reading in Jerusalem and assembled about 40 people, including friends who had made aliya, along with writers and journalists, among them Jerusalem Post
Palestinian Affairs Correspondent Khaled Abu Toameh).
“The reading was wonderful,” says Weiner, “and we were given a deeper insight into what the play should be. We did eight rewrites based on everyone’s information and now we’re finally ready to present it.”
He also notes that along with the very pro-Israel stand the play embraces, it was also necessary to present the opposing views, “but not in a way that was propagandistic. We had to present them forcefully and so we decided to introduce a character that didn’t know anything about life in Israel. That’s why we created Uncle Barry, a relative who comes over from the United States. He adopts all the opposing positions that many people feel.”
While both actresses (Andrea Dovner, who plays Aviva, and Anat Gerber, who plays Rachel) are Jewish, and Gerber is actually Israeli, Weiser says they never considered introducing a Palestinian character.
“The Palestinian point of view has to be presented by people who are not Palestinian,” Weiser explains emphatically. “If something happens that is anti-Semitic and someone who is not a Jew stands up and condemns it, it’s much stronger than if a Jew says, ‘You’re being anti-Semitic.’”
However, he says, it was important that an Israeli be cast in the play. “It was essential to have that authenticity in the play,” says Weiser. “Without it we wouldn’t have had the heart and soul the play needed. And Anat [Gerber] has the energy and warmth that we needed for the show.”
GERBER WAS visiting her family in Israel when auditions were being held in Phoenix. The Tel Aviv-born actress, singer and dancer moved to the US after completing her army service in 2000. “My agent called me in Israel and told me about the audition,” says Gerber, “and I begged her to get Mel and Joni to wait till I got back home to audition.” The waiting paid off. “The minute she opened her mouth we just said, ‘She’s Rachel,’” Weiser recalls.
The couple also wanted Aviva to be played by an Israeli, but Israeli actresses are in short supply in Phoenix. In the end, they were delighted with Dovner who, thanks to Gerber, picked up the Israeli accent in no time. Dovner’s strong Jewish background and ongoing one-woman show playing Jewish resistance fighter Hannah Szenes were also instrumental in convincing the couple she could take on the part with aplomb.
Gerber was also crucial in helping Weiser and Browne-Walders rework the script. “She told us how to pronounce certain names and words, and we even changed characters’ names in the script because she pointed out that her generation would not have such archaic Hebrew names.
The rest of the cast was also thrilled to have Gerber on board. Robert Bledsoe and Cliff Smith, who play Barry and Yossi, respectively, say they learned much about Israel and Israeli life from Gerber.
Gerber took them to the Israeli market and introduced them to her Israeli boyfriend who was raised in Kedumim, over the green line. He even donated to Smith a pair of Teva sandals he is now wearing as part of his character in the show.
Gerber says the role of Rachel is a “gift.” After all, it’s not often that an Israeli actress in America is cast to play an Israeli.
Even though she grew up in a very secular family in Tel Aviv, Gerber says she was already very involved in the issues the play tackles long before she was cast – because of her boyfriend. “I was so scared when I first went to my boyfriend’s home,” she says. “I grew up in the Tel Aviv bubble and the minute I crossed the green line I started saying Shema Yisrael
, and my boyfriend just looked at me and said, ‘Whatever.’
“It really amazed me that we live in the same country but there’s this huge gap between his reality and mine. I remember being in Israel during the evacuation from Gush Katif. I remember seeing all the orange ribbons on the cars, and it really opened my mind to everything, that there’s more to growing up in a secular city, even though Tel Aviv has had its fair share of terror attacks. And then coming here and getting this part, this whole process has brought growth for me, both personally and career-wise.”
THE PLAY’S Ben David family hails from one of the smaller secular communities evacuated during the disengagement, which Weiser says stems from a conscious choice.
“We wanted to show that there are secular people in Israel who also have very strong feelings about their country – it was one of our basic objectives,” says Weiser. “We also wanted to bring something into the play that would show a transformed Jew – which is what happens to Yossi. He comes from nothing and makes Israel his home, and comes to feel very strongly about it, but there’s no way that he would ever have become a religious Jew.”
The couple hopes that the buzz surrounding the premiere in LA will act as a springboard and help them take the play to New York. They have funded the production themselves and hope that the show will bring in investors.
“We’re really hopeful that both Jews and non-Jews will be able to
identify with this family,” says Browne-Walders. “They’re not monsters,
they’re just human beings. We want people to start thinking about
what’s really going on in the Middle East and that the Jews deserve a
homeland, because if we don’t have Israel we don’t have anything.”
The show runs through April 24, and immediately following each
performance is an audience discussion about the themes of the play,
moderated by various prominent figures from the international political
community, including Nonie Darwish of Arabs for Israel, Roz Rothstein
of Stand With Us, Gary Acheatel of Advocates for Israel, Talia
Shulman-Gold of CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting
in America), Gil Artzyeli, Deputy Consul General of Israel in Los
Angeles, Rabbi Jerry Cutler of the Creative Arts Temple and Rabbi Aron
Hier, Director of Campus Outreach (Simon Wiesenthal Center).