Double life of the 'religious shabbab'

Playwright Yehoshua Sobol comments on the cynical abuse of modern Judaism in his forthcoming play.

sobol play 88 (photo credit: )
sobol play 88
(photo credit: )
Arguably Israel's best-known playwright, Yehoshua Sobol writes plays that either make people bristle like porcupines, or cheer. "Kol Nidrei," his newest play for the Herzliya Theater Ensemble that opens in Herzliya November 15, may be different - a bit. It's "not a comedy, not a tragedy, not a drama but touches all three," he says with a grin. "I enjoyed writing it, and as we rehearse, all are finding more and more in it." The events of "Kol Nidrei" occur over one Friday night. Two young haredi men are supposed to be attending their rebbe's Friday night tisch. As it turns out, they're living a double life, dutiful husbands and yeshiva scholars by day and eager initiates into the secular world on Friday and other nights. Matters come to a head when one of the young men tells his pregnant wife of the deception. The whole fragile construct begins to fray and eventually surprising truths emerge. Sobol's daughter, Neta, is working on a doctorate based on the Zohar, a Kabbalistic text. Sobol helped and the play began to take shape, because during the research "I became very aware of the disparity between the essense of Judaism, and the superficiality of today's version of the religion; I'd been wanting to bring this disparity to the stage. "There's a lot of talk today about a democratic Jewish state, but if you want a really Jewish state, then you have to ask what, exactly, backs this label of 'Jewish'. Instead of an examination, there's abuse of the term 'Jewishness'. It's used for politics, the economy and the acquisition of power. It's precisely this prostitution of religion that causes the crisis of faith among the ultra-orthodox. They are very aware of this disparity between the cynical use of religion and the thing itself - the essence and existence. This causes among [some of] them the very strange phenomenon of the double life. They're called the religious shabbab." Shabbab is actually an Arabic term for youth. In Hebrew slang it means youth that has slipped its reins, that is at odds with its society. During his research for the play Sobol met with young people, and most are in their early twenties, who are outwardly haredi but who also live this secret and secular life. He speaks of one youngster who told the playwright that he wanted to do his matriculation and then study political science. He's married, but says of his wife that "he doesn't know what she knows." There seems to be a tacit agreement all around to be silent. Gili Yoskovich, 22, plays Esther, one of the wives in "Kol Nidrei". She is one of those who left the haredi world, and very much identifies with her role. "I like my religion," she says, "it's the haredi way of life I separated from, a life in which questions aren't answered and you do things because that's the way they're done. I fought against that always, because I wanted to find my own way, and that caused problems." On the other hand, the haredi community, says a social worker who requested anonymity, is aware of the problem and no longer sweeps it under the rug or freezes out the disaffected. The rabbis now make an effort to reach out, and in the community there are those who work with teenagers in order to nip "secularists" in the bud, as it were. Yoskovich was married at 18, divorced a year later and left for the secular world and acting school after her divorce. She is on good terms with her family and with some of her girl friends from school. Of the play she says that "to me it's as if for the first time the haredim are doing a play on themselves. It's very truthful. It's like it happens." "Kol Nidrei," Sobol observes, does not "come from the premise that the haredi life is a lie, but says that a crisis is developing in haredi society that will eventually explode." That crisis, he feels, is part of a larger, 200 year old crisis that dates from the Enlightenment and stems "from the existential dilemma of 'what is a Jew?', a question that "has influenced the whole body of my work, directly or indirectly." Sobol has written more than 40 plays and won a raft of prizes, many of them for "Ghetto" (1984), arguably his most celebrated work. Currently he has "Real Time" running at Habimah and "Eye Witness" at the Cameri, both intensely political plays "that deal with the ethical and moral problems that arise from the Israeli condition." The Habimah play centers around a family and young reserve officer whose lives seem thrown beyond the pale. Witness is the story of a World War II Austrian conscientious objector, widely interpreted as comment on those soldiers who refuse to serve in the occupied territories. And aren't the divided loyalties of "Kol Nidrei" a metaphor for post-disengagement Israeli society? "Yes, yes," Sobol answers, and points out forcefully that what we need is a Jewish renaissance "and that's not going to happen. Orthodoxy is too introverted and secular society for too long has denied the existence of any absolute values." Political as he is, Sobol has no wish to enter politics. "I'm not politically talented," he says, "and have no interest in power struggles. Besides, I like what I'm doing too much to leave it."