A real-life drama

A new play explores the agonies endured by religious teens who turn to the streets – and the warning signs for the parents who are left behind.

Rabbi Hagay Lober and Assaf Pniel. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Rabbi Hagay Lober and Assaf Pniel.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
At the conclusion of the show The End of the Way by the Aspaklaria Theater, there was a moment of silence and a few sobs. Then came the applause, followed by a flood of remarks and animated conversation among the audience in the small, packed hall in Givat Shaul.
The End of the Way, or perhaps The End of the Road (the author says he is still not sure about the most appropriate title), is a relatively new production of the religious theater team created and led by Rabbi Hagay Lober, an educator, graduate of the Ma’aleh religious film school, actor and playwright. Lober, 39, has the courage and candor to say that what is depicted in the play – teenagers leaving home, living in the streets with all the use of drugs, alcohol and promiscuity that goes with it – can happen in any family, that no one is immune. Lober believes that education and parents’ responsibility means understanding what a teenage boy or girl really needs, and theater is the best way he has found to express it and convey the message.
What is particularly interesting about this play is the arduous work that was done prior to its production – two years of talking and listening to the kids who hang around Kikar Zion and mostly Kikar Hahatulot, which ultimately forms the bulk of the play.
In short, the story is about two families who are confronted with this situation. A teenage boy and girl, both from well-to-do religious Zionist families, run away from home and live on the streets.
Lober dramatizes the whole process – where it started, what caused it, what mistakes were made on both sides and how terrible the outcome could be. There is no judgment, no preaching, just situations very well presented and well acted. One can see that it is the product of long and intensive groundwork. But there’s more. This play is not about just any youngster in this country facing a teenage crisis that might go too far.
Lober says loud and clear that this is an emergency situation, that it has touched the religious community, which for a long time had been thought to be more protected, more equipped to face all the crises of modernity and loss of values so typical of our times.
MORIAH IS a young girl, a product of the religious Zionist community. Her father is a successful lawyer who works hard and sincerely believes that through his work he is providing his family with the best standard of living. Therefore, he expects his daughter to fulfill her part – namely to comply with the customs and to get the highest marks in school. The father is totally unaware of the anguish his daughter is experiencing at home and at school. At first, he disregards his wife’s concern about their daughter’s behavior (she is constantly locked in her room, listening to loud rock music; refuses to sit with her parents at the table; and when she goes out, she doesn’t say where she is going and comes back very late, etc.).
One night, things become really alarming.
It is already way after midnight, and the father agrees, in response to his wife’s panic, to go to one of the squares where many teens hang out, drinking and smoking. He is convinced that “my daughter” would not be found in such a place with such people. While waiting to see if Moriah shows up, the father notices a young boy who looks homeless (played by Assaf Pniel). The boy tries to offer him some assistance, but the father dismisses him with contempt. After all, his daughter wouldn’t have anything to do with a guy like that. But as time goes by – the play depicts a whole night with a few brief flashbacks – it turns out that not only does the boy know Moriah, but he is the son of a well-known rabbi, a longtime friend of Moriah’s father, who slowly and painfully begins to grasp the reality around him and all its complexity.
The play does not have a very happy ending. Moriah is apparently in serious trouble. She takes drugs, which she acquires through what Lober calls “the old-fashioned way,” hinting at prostitution, while Matania, the son of the well-known rabbi, understands that he has gone too far and there is apparently no way back for him.
Moriah’s father realizes that for a long time he’s been blind and deaf to his daughter’s distress, and we don’t know if he manages to rescue her or not.
The performance is usually followed by a discussion between Lober, Pniel and the audience, who get a chance to talk about the issues presented on the stage. That particular evening, last Wednesday, the play was presented to a group of teachers from a religious elementary school in Ma’aleh Adumim. The school’s staff explained that the fear of what awaits them – both as parents and educators – was the main reason behind their decision to see the play.
“Our students – both boys and girls, who study in separate wings of the school – are still too young, but we know what is happening out there, so we wanted to learn about what might become the reality we will be facing in one or two years. We know these things are happening everywhere now,” explained the principal, who organized the evening.
One of the teachers added, “Although it is very sad to admit it, we must realize that the religious environment and way of life is no longer a sufficient tool to protect our youth from this social disease.”
All agreed that modern life, technology and the social networks have created a new reality that must be addressed through new modes of education.
“What we can learn from the play,” said another teacher, “is that regular education is not the best answer for every child. There are some who need special attention, special care. It is our responsibility, both as parents and as educators, to pay attention to prevent such disasters.”
IN AN extensive conversation in the offices of the theater, Lober and Pniel presented their credo, based on what they have seen, heard and mediated, following a few cases they encountered. “It all began after a play we presented at Retorno, a place that treats religious teens who become addicted to drugs. At the end of the play, the administrators of the institution told us that we should consider writing something about that particular issue, and this play is the result.”
Lober did extensive research as a playwright with Pniel, in his capacity as an actor and psychodrama therapist, as well as two other members of the theater staff – Dori Shreiber and the director, Uri Weil. Over the course of two years, they spent hours in the streets of Jerusalem, such as Kikar Zion and Kikar Hahatulot. They also went to Retorno, talked to the teens there and in the streets.
“We went to meet the parents of these teenagers.
We went to their homes, sat with them, listened to their stories, to their anguish. We also went with them to the squares to look for their children. We were there with them at those terrible moments. We found out about a place called the Red House near Shiloh, where some of these young people go to rest and get some care for a while. We met them there and talked to them. We talked to teens at various stages of their journey – when they began to go to the squares, when they moved out to live on the streets and when – at least some of them – got themselves to rehab and therapy centers. At the end of this process, we sat and tried to put all the testimonies into a text that would become a play.”
Pniel adds with a sigh that it was long, difficult, painful, moving process that took them deep inside the life of these teenagers, witnessing and practically living among the young boys and girls.
Since the play started its run a few months ago, it has been performed 600 times across the country – in front of large audiences of students, therapists, parents and teachers. It was also presented abroad to some Jewish communities in the US, who face the same problems and crises. In some of the cases, Lober says they performed in front of parents who sent their children to study at yeshivot in Israel, hoping to protect them from the drugs and delinquency they fear in the States, only to discover that this is exactly what happened to them in Jerusalem.
“There were a few cases like this, and it was very moving for them and for us. They live in the States, and place names like Kikar Hahatulot are no stranger to them. They wanted us to present the play. They wanted to understand, through our play, what really happened to their children, what really goes on here, because what we do is not a play about drugs – there is no reason to do such a play. We present parents and teenagers with a mirror of what their life looks like.”
Surprisingly enough, The End of the Way doesn’t show even one second of the usual scenes of someone shooting up or smoking weed or anything of the sort.
“This is absolutely not our task,” Lober asserts. “We wanted to talk about what happens before that stage.
What happens, where are the points that predict what will happen later on. On the way, there are things that should be recognized as hints of what is going on in the young person’s mind and soul. They can be regarded as red flags that parents should see before it’s too late. But also they indicate the process that these youngsters are going through,” he says.
LOBER PLAYS the two fathers – Moriah’s father, the successful lawyer who cannot admit that his daughter could be in such a situation; and Matania’s father, the well-known rabbi who almost dies of a heart attack when he realizes that his son is not coming home and refuses to go into rehab.
Since both Lober and Pniel are parents – Lober has nine children and Pniel has four – a question about their own personal fears is self-evident. “Yes, of course, there are fears, but I believe that my children have been sort of vaccinated, since they saw this play at a very early age,” says Lober.
As for Pniel, whose oldest son is five, he explains that for the moment the decision is to wait a little longer before exposing him to the play because of one particular scene: “At a certain point, I, as Matania, get slapped in face by Lober in the role of my father. We thought that this would be too much for such a young boy, so we decided to wait.”
Lober believes that as soon as his children want to see the play, he shouldn’t refuse. “It works with my own children as it works for regular spectators, like when fathers and sons come to see it together. After the play, an open discussion is possible, and that is exactly what we are aiming for. And just as my children and I talk about the contents of the play after watching it. I believe it is the best thing to do.”
“We try to show the situation from both sides,” adds Pniel.
“Like yesterday, we performed the play at an institution for girls with such problems. Hagay spoke about the family side, and I spoke from the youngsters’ point of view. After the play, we presented the two aspects of the situation. I personally can identify much more easily with the teenagers’ side in these situations.
The need to be listened to, to be understood, to be supported – I can understand that and represent it.”
Lober and Pniel believe that drugs are a kind of medicine taken by young people who feel that no one understands them or cares about them or their specific problems. The two men speak about the pain, the desperate feeling of being alone in the world that these boys and girls experience, their fears and their frustrations that eventually lead them to find in drugs, alcohol and living in the streets the closest thing to relief. And though there is no question about the genuine pain the teenagers feel and suffer, one wonders if the adults – parents and teachers – haven’t gone too far in trying to understand and to explain.
“Isn’t it also the refusal to cope with the normal difficulties of life?” I ask them. “After all, we were all young once, with sensitivities, frustrations, a sense that no one understood us, and still there were times that this situation didn’t exist and were certainly not accepted as part of life.”
“That was a different generation,” says Lober. “Things have changed.
People are less patient; they want results and answers right away.
Everything is so quick, so immediate – you know everything that goes on around you, and you want the same. Once, we could even get a slap in the face and nothing would happen. Today it is inconceivable. Times have changed. Nothing is the same anymore.”
As a result, continues Lober, “A child or a teenager today has much more legitimacy to feel like a victim and to act like one.”
Asked if the play doesn’t encourage this sense of victimization even more, Lober says. “On the contrary. The play represents reality, it doesn’t incite it. We present a mirror, bring the spectator to a catharsis, allow him to understand something.”
THE PLAY doesn’t deal with the most painful and dramatic cases, such as abusive parents or child molestation – just “simple” situations such as a father who is too busy establishing his career to pay attention to a difficult time in his child’s life, difficulties at school that are not taken seriously and the like.
“We focus on communication problems between the generations, not on really hard things that also happen,” says Pniel.
“People think that only if a girl has been molested does she have the legitimacy to run to drugs, but if her classmates ignore her and she feels ugly and alone, she has no right to do it. We say yes, in any case, if that’s the way a young person feels, we have to listen to them and pay attention to any sign, whatever we think about the seriousness of the reason, because this generation is much more sensitive and because the education that put clear limits, as we all did once, fits seven children, but the eighth one cannot adapt to it.
So what should we do, abandon him? Give up on those children?” The last issue brought up in the discussion was the political and social aspect within the religious Zionist community. I asked them how much of a toll the burden of being at the forefront of a national movement has taken on religious youth.
“First of all, I believe that we have less sensitivity to these issues in the religious community. We are busy with other things, important things. The Torah world requires a very high standard of learning and dedication and less attention to feelings,” explains Pniel.
As for political involvement, Lober says that this has had a double aspect and influence. “There is no doubt that the high demands on this young generation has saved and inured many of them. They were focused on serious issues, and I am not saying that it was a just cause or not. But on the other hand, the demand has also put a heavy burden on some of them.”
For information about upcoming shows, visit www.aspaklaria.org or call 651-1936.