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Shalom Alecheim's epistolary Yiddish novel The Adventures of Menachem Mendel is brought to the Hebrew stage this week at Tel Aviv's Beit Shalom Aleichem.
Entitled I Forgot the Essential (Shachti et Ha'ikar), this moving comic-drama tells of a husband who leaves the shtetl in search of earnings - and adventures - leaving his wife Sheina Shendl behind with the kids. He tries everything, from the stock exchange to insurance to the Jewish matching business. He always fails, as there is always someone who cheats or exploits him. Of course it is he himself and his fantasies who are his own worst enemy.
Correspondence is the only connection between the two, which slowly but surely deteriorates: "A letter is not a father and a sheet of paper is not a husband. You cannot repair a broken cup. A long disease leads to a sure death," Sheina Shendl's gloomy Yiddish proverbs point out. She finally cuts off the exchange of letters: "I am writing to tell you that I have nothing more to write."
The two-actor play features Esty Svidensky as Sheina Shendl and Michael Teplitsky (who also directed) as Menachem Mendl.
"For me, staging Sholom Aleichem was the realization of a dream as well as a kind of justification for my living in Israel," says Teplitzky, one of the most in-demand Russian-born actors in Israel.
"When I was young, I told my teacher at drama school in Leningrad that I wanted to work in the field of Jewish theater," he recollects. "My teacher's reply was, 'Listen, I am Jewish too, but whether Jewish theater exists at all - that's a good question' Now, after 17 years in Israel, I have decided to finally do what I really want to."
Teplitzky's directorial vision is that of a conflict between two Jewish archetypes - a woman with two feet on the ground forever quoting her mother's wise sayings and a daydreaming man pursuing his fantasies.
"In a way, I am one like him too," Teplitzky smiles ruefully. "I see this story first and foremost as a family drama. I did not want to overload it with Yiddishkeit nor to populate the stage with all kind of grotesque characters. That said, Jewish theater, as compared to classical Russian dramatic theater, is less realistic and more fantastic - but that's what we are as a people, right?"
"Sholom Aleichem is extremely difficult for staging," says the Israeli-born Swidensky. "He's more often savored through slow reading. We tried to bring the blood back to the character's cheeks. This is not a just another Hebrew translation of a Yiddish classic. We went through the letters and created dialogues from them. [Translator] Roee Chen felt quite free about the text, and he's created true magic out of the words."
Other participants of the project are stage and costume designer Polina Adamova, composer Evgeny Levitas, and Michael Tcherniavsky, one of this country's best lighting designers.
Thursday (April 19) and next Saturday (April 21), Beit Shalom Aleichem, Rehov Berkovich 4, Tel Aviv. Reservations at (03) 695-6513.