Life imitates art at 'Kol Nidrei'

Oren was shaking as he left the auditorium. He had just seen Kol Nidrei, a new play by Yeshoshua Sobol about haredi Jews who lead double lives as Bnei Brak yeshiva students by day and Tel Aviv bar-hoppers by night. Oren, who requested that his real name not be used, was wearing a black kippa and a blue button-down shirt rather than the white shirt worn by most yeshiva students. "[The play] really spoke to me," said Oren, in his mid-twenties, who lives in a haredi community with his wife and child. His wife didn't know where he was that night, and by sneaking off to see the play, which he discovered on the Internet, he too was leading a double life. Even wearing a blue shirt as opposed to the accepted white was a big step for him. Kol Nidrei exposes the growing phenomenon of haredi Jews who explore the secular world, almost always in secret. The play blurs the boundaries between art and life, as the haredi rebels are actually played by yotzim - a term used to describe haredi Jews who "come out" of their communities. Their real-life stories inspired Sobol, a renowned Israeli playwright who sought to bring this subject to the fore. The play opens with the main character, Nachman (Menachem Lang), bickering with his wife, Esti (Gili Yoskovich) after Friday night dinner. He excuses himself to attend a tisch with his rebbe - a cover-up for an outing with his married chum Chaim (Nadav Segel), in which they exchange their shtreimels [festive fur hats] for T-shirts and sneak out to Tel Aviv. This clash of cultures forces all characters - secular and haredi alike - to confront their values and determine what they really want. The heated exchanges between the couples at the Friday night table - filled with Torah references and religious idioms - give secular audiences a peek into dysfunctional haredi homes. The audience can be made to feel like intruders, especially when Nachman appears curled up with his secular lover. Yet the play, which is based on thorough research, tackles the subject with seriousness and humor, which makes it more than just a shallow critique or voyeuristic look into ultra-Orthodox communities. The play features three formerly haredi actors who now study acting. Lang's performance at times seems uncertain, never successfully infusing Nachman with an identity of his own. Segel's acting comes across as amateurish in some scenes, especially as he casually gulps gefilte fish while revealing shocking truths to his wife Rachel (played by professional actress Lucy Duvinchik). Yoskovich gives the most convincing performance of the three yotzim. However, knowing that the actors are dramatizing their own experiences makes up for the fact that they never studied acting. While Lang, who plays Nachman, was never attracted to Tel Aviv nightlife, and actually disapproves of his character's extreme double life, he thinks that on some level, most haredi Jews lead double lives. "Any haredi who is not totally immersed in Torah leads a double life," he said. This second life can range from secretly watching soccer games or television to cruising around secular communities (as Lang did) to hiring prostitutes. Oren, who related to the character of Nachman, is intrigued by pubs and nightclubs. An 18-year-old once took him to a Tel Aviv pub, but he didn't feel comfortable. "I felt like a stranger," he recalled. Indeed, the haredi and secular lives can seem to exist in two separate countries, with different dress, customs, language and manners. That is why the character of Nachman in Kol Nidrei goes so far as to change his name before venturing into Tel Aviv. "The portrayal is very authentic," Oren said. He excuses Nachman's continual lies and adultery, calling him "a victim." Oren says he considers himself secular, and doesn't believe in God or Jewish law. Yet his outward appearance sets him apart as a religious Jew. He puts off doing what he says he "needs to do" - including getting a divorce - because of social pressures and the potential heartbreak of his frail mother, a widow. "I can't go tomorrow, shave my beard and say that's me," he said. "I don't have the inner strength." For now, he's taking advantage of his job, which brings him into contact with secular people. "If the time ever comes to 'come out,'" he said, "it could be that this play was the trigger." Herzliya Theater Ensemble, Herzliya Performing Arts Center, Rehov Jabotinsky 15, December 8, 9, 10. Tickets: (09) 972-9999