The fifth president’s play

Yitzhak Navon’s musical about Sephardi life in the 1920s is still going strong.

Bustan Sefaradi (photo credit: HABIMAH NATIONAL THEATER)
Bustan Sefaradi

Bustan Sefaradi has just completed 2,000 performances, an impressive achievement by any standard.

The milestone event happened on Thursday, when the musical play was performed, yet again, at Tel Aviv’s Habimah Theater. Director Tzadi Tzarfati was understandably elated with reaching the landmark.
Although he has been at the helm since 1998, when Bustan Sefaradi (Spanish Garden) returned once more to theaters with a new production team, the play actually started life way back in 1969. Written by former president Yitzhak Navon, who is now 92 years old, the show portrays life in a Sephardi neighborhood of Jerusalem during the 1920s and 1930s. The storyline focuses on the Castel family, covering all manner of relationships, familial and other; intrigue, social interaction and religious quandaries – all the joys and sorrows of a typical family in a typical neighborhood.
Although the cultural and religious vibes that run through the play clearly pertain to this part of the world – and to a highly specific part of the country, at that – these are all events and emotions that anyone can latch onto and identify with.
“I think part of the play’s continuing popularity is the universality of the themes,” notes Tzarfati. “Anyone can appreciate the things portrayed in the play.”
While he was clearly attracted by the quality and obvious enduring appeal of the work, the director admits that his original motive for moving into the directorial hot seat was a more pragmatic one.
“I had never directed at Habimah before, and the previous time I was on the stage there, before 1998, was as a child actor when I was 16, 40 years earlier. I was an actor all my life, and I always dreamed of returning to Habimah as an actor, but that didn’t happen. So when [then-Habimah general manager] Yankele Agmon suggested I direct the play, I jumped at the chance,” he explains. “I was really nervous about it, but I thought it was an opportunity to bring my professional career full circle.”
In fact, Tzarfati was well-versed in the play’s cultural and ethnic milieu, even though he had to overcome some childhood obstacles in order to bond emotionally with it.
“The play is about a Spanish –or what was then called Spaniol [Ladino], family,” recalls the director. “My grandparents [who were of Bulgarian-Greek origin] spoke Ladino, but I subconsciously evaded and suppressed that. I understand the language, but at home, with my parents, we only spoke Hebrew. But I had to speak to my grandparents in Ladino because that was the only language they knew.”
All that made for a complex personal take on Navon’s work.
“As a child, I was ashamed by the fact that I had to speak Ladino. In Tel Aviv – and remember, this was not just Tel Aviv, but [established, predominantly Ashkenazi] north Tel Aviv – that was simply unacceptable. No one in my class, or in my school, had any idea what Ladino was.”
Even though Tzarfati says he did not personally experience cultural discrimination in the Israel of the 1950s and ’60s, when the Ashkenazi establishment ruled the roost here, he saw the added value of the play as a vehicle for disseminating Sephardi culture and heritage to a wider audience.
Navon’s initial inspiration to write the play came from a production by Yehoram and Benny Gaon called Romancero Sefaradi. Yehoram Gaon, who asked Navon to write continuity texts for the show, said at the time that he was disturbed that Jews of Eastern origin were generally depicted as wretched and uneducated, and as purveyors of spicy food. He wanted to raise the community’s profile and to introduce the general public to the riches of Sephardi music.
Tzarfati goes along with that sentiment.
“Back then, Eastern culture was pushed to one side,” he states. “Bustan Sefaradi put Ladino in the spotlight. Don’t forget, there weren’t that many Israelis of Greek origin – maybe 20,000 or so – and there were about 50,000 to 60,000 Bulgarians.
Compare that with the around half a million Moroccans who came to Israel. So there weren’t that many Ladino speakers around. When I started on my production, I found two or three Ladino-speaking actors.”
Still, his production clearly struck an all-encompassing chord.
“All sorts of people, of all ages and from all cultural backgrounds, have seen the show – Ashkenazi, Sephardi, anyone. You can’t put on a show 2,000 times if it doesn’t have across-the-board appeal,” he says.
“I think you can say the same for the first show, when it was first put on in 1969,” he continues. “That’s the wonderful thing about Bustan Sefaradi. It’s about a Jerusalemite family – they call them samechtettim [an acronym for sefardi tahor, or pure Sephardi] – the kind of people who, today, are considered the aristocracy of Jerusalem.”
The director feels the intimacy of the show also contributes to its appeal.
“It tells the story of a family in a naïve, simple way, about the internal problems between the various family members, the generation gap, religion and so forth.”
The current rendition of the play is very different from the original version. It is a much more expansive reading that includes musical arrangements by singer-songwriter Yehudit Ravitz, and a 14-member cast, as well as an instrumental quartet.
At the end of the day, Tzarfati was a natural fit for the director’s seat.
“I was drawn to the play because it was my first opportunity to work with this language [Ladino],” he says. “It was the first time the language achieved some presence on the Israeli theatrical map. That is a wonderful thing.”
His Ladino roots notwithstanding, he grew up in a very different environment than that of the play, and he received a helping hand from the playwright.
“Yitzhak [Navon] took me around Jerusalem and showed all sorts of places, like the first synagogue he attended as a child, it is only a small place, and the house he grew up in – in the Old City. It was very moving for me,” Tzarfati recalls.
Navon, he points out, “comes from a family that has lived in Jerusalem for 400 years. He is half-Moroccan and half-Spanish. You could say he is the epitome of universal culture. You could say he sent me back to the memory of the stories I heard from my grandparents about Salonika and Bulgaria. That was a strong bond for me with the play and with Yitzhak.”