Shedding ‘a little light’ on Sabras and American Jews

‘Or Katan,’ a new romantic comedy by playwright Aviv Luz, explores the question of what it means to call Israel home.

Or Katan (photo credit: Nathan Grundland)
Or Katan
(photo credit: Nathan Grundland)
In Exodus 3:8, Israel is described as “a land flowing with milk and honey.” In Or Katan, the newest play joining the lineup of Nephesh Theater, Israel is more like a land of Kassams and air-raid sirens.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and the members of Nephesh’s latest production are gathered at the company’s offices in Tel Aviv. They’re holding their first read-through of the play – a romantic comedy by Aviv Luz – and pondering the very real question of what it is that makes people – Israeli and Diaspora Jews alike – decide to call Israel home.
Danny Isserles, a member of the 2008 class of the Nissan Nativ Acting Studio, plays the lead role of Erez.
A typical Sabra newly released from the army, Erez dreams of America.
“I’ve had a lot of encounters with Zionistic Americans and Canadians,” Isserles says, “a lot of discussions about living in Israel or just coming for a trip.”
“What I’ve seen is that as much as people tell them what life is like here, they still never get a sense of what living in Israel really is. They hear about bombs and it sounds horrible – I’d imagine it like Iraq – but my concern would be that when they come to Israel, they’d find it boring because we’re not actually Zionists day and night.”
Enter Jenny, Erez’s counterpart. Played by Na’ama Amit, a Nissan Nativ classmate of Isserles, Jenny is a young Brooklynite and a Diaspora Jew who has come to Israel on the Oranim program to volunteer in a hospital. The question of whether she is also a true Zionist or whether she runs back home when the reality of life in Israel rears its head is the issue she grapples with as the play develops.
“When Jenny hears the air-raid siren the first time, she’s in shock for a half hour afterwards,” Amit says.
“It’s the real moment when the penny drops and she realizes that everything is not all gold and pioneer stories the way she had imagined – and this is the first time Jenny experiences it.”
THE THEME of integration into Israeli society may be one that Nephesh Theatre followers know, but in its more than 30 years of existence, this is the first time the theater company has examined the issue of the American Jew in Israel. Interesting, or ironic (depending on one’s world view), is the contrast made to the Sabra, who views America as a land of opportunity, where the streets are paved with personal fulfillment. Erez dreams of his trip to New York, where he intends to work with his former roommate, Stas, and spend time in a studio recording music.
“I plan to work in Brooklyn and record a disc of my songs, and I’m getting ready to perform concerts there,” Erez imagines telling his parents. In another scene, he strums out lines for a song he’s penning as Jenny watches. It’s a cute scene, and the song’s lyrics are trivial enough for the audience to realize that Erez’s dream of being a singer is just a phase.
“It’s not that Erez will eventually become a famous singer,” says Isserles. “It’s that he just got out of the army and he wants to feel free to be a dreamer, a singer – it’s a fantasy, it’s not a real profession.”
Real or not, Erez’s dream of being a singer and Jenny’s perception of Israel undergo changes as the Kassams come crashing down. It’s the juxtaposition of land-of-the-bible reality versus 21st-century existence that makes the play an accurate reflection of the dilemma of life in Israel or, as Nephesh Theater founder and play director Howard Rypp puts it, “Judaism inside the framework of being Jewish and Israeli.”
And even as the American Jew and the Israeli Sabra , Rypp reminds Isserles and Amit that Or Katan is also the story of two characters’ personal journeys.
“You need to ask yourselves ‘Where did the change occur? Where did it make each of them become a person who is more complete?’ We need to think about what each one gave to the other to make this change happen.”
When it comes to life in Israel, there is, Luz explains, “both a vulgarity and a softness.” The journeys of Erez and Jenny are about learning to accept them both.
“I want the audience to see the beautiful things here in Israel,” says Luz. “Yes, Israel is a country that’s very hard to live in. You have to be involved all the time – you can’t just sit and do nothing because we’re small, so everything is very intense. But even so, Israel is a country that people live in nonetheless.”

Or Katan will be performed on July 4 in Kiryat Motzkin; on July 13 at Tzavta in Tel Aviv; and on additional dates throughout the country. The dialogue is in Hebrew with some English. For additional information about show dates and locations, call (03) 522-1101 or e-mail [email protected]