Of angels and men – and women

The play ‘If Not for the Angel’ looks at the Binding of Isaac from several new perspectives.

Of angels and men – and women (photo credit: Courtesy)
Of angels and men – and women
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Sara, the biblical matriarch of the Jews, dies as the New Year is born. This is the premise behind Theater Company Jerusalem’s (TCJ) play If Not for the Angel. The multifaceted performance sheds a new light on the well-known biblical story of the day that Abraham’s wife learns that her son Yitzhak was bound as a sacrifice on an altar by his father.
Gabriella Lev, artistic director of TCJ, tells The Jerusalem Post that the impetus for the play came after she heard a lecture by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg on why Sara’s death follows directly after the Akedah (the Binding of Isaac). As a contemporary and innovative form of Midrash, TCJ’s If Not for the Angel offers a glimpse into the dynamic substratum of the biblical text.
If Not for the Angel is no ordinary performance. “It’s more of an event,” says Lev. At the start of the play, the audience is led into a large beautiful hall inside an old Templer building, one that the company moved into last year. The audience is divided into three or four small groups, where they learn about the ancient legends and stories for 10 to 12 minutes. On a large screen, human figures and projections of Aramaic texts appear.
Modern technology mixes with ancient melodies, specially composed songs and dramatic action to give the visceral effect of the past meeting the present.
“This usually has quite an effect on the audience,” says Lev.
The unique and unorthodox performance style is mirrored in the text of the play itself. “Three different versions of the story are presented in their original ancient midrashic language. The central metaphors used are ritual, death, renewal and transformation of the New Year,” Lev explains. “The artistic, visual form of this creation, is locked into the sacred meaning and attempt to redeem a history marked with violence.”
Women’s issues play an integral role the innovative performance. According to Lev, TCJ’s interpretation of the famous biblical story sees a woman who refuses to take her place as the obedient wife to an act of violence.
“We see a woman who questions God. We see women throughout the centuries until the present who have to deal with men’s wars and men’s God. The answer in the play is not a militant stance but a surrender to the mystery,” she says.
Lev believes the play is relevant to a modern audience. It deals with issues that modern women in Israel can relate to, such as sending their children to the army and giving them the responsibility of building the nation, she explains.
While the subject is serious and intense, Lev adds that there are a number of lighter moments in the performance.
“The play includes a few funny parts that deal with the Yiddish mother, and it contains songs in Ladino,” she says.
Lev is proud of the international recognition the play has received. Some of the most prestigious accolades include the United Nations Prize during the International Year of the Woman; the Meir Margalit Prize for Outstanding Theatrical Achievement; and Edinburgh Theatre Festival Fringe First. It has been performed around the world at festivals such as the Jewish Music and Theatre Week in Dresden, Germany, and the International Theatre Festival in Lublin, Poland.
The play was written by Aliza Elion- Israeli, with the help of Lev and Ruth Wieder Magan. Lev says there was a long process involved in creating the piece, such as researching classic Jewish texts and biblical legends, speaking to experts and attending lectures.If Not for the Angel is presented at the Beit Mazia Theater, 18 Mesilat Yesharim, Jerusalem, on February 18 & 19 at 8:30 p.m. For tickets, call (02) 624-4584/5.