Till death do us part

“Yair said he wanted to do something connected to being an orphan and I said that maybe we should do something like a mass shivah (mourning event), whereby, in fact, everyone is mourning.”

WRITER-FILMMAKER Yair Agmon: Hopeful that Orphans’ Evening will impact positively on those left behind. (photo credit: RAYA SHUSTER)
WRITER-FILMMAKER Yair Agmon: Hopeful that Orphans’ Evening will impact positively on those left behind.
(photo credit: RAYA SHUSTER)
There is the natural order and the unnatural way. 
Yair Agmon is fully aware of the accepted life-death progression, whereby the parent passes on before their offspring. However, as the 31-year-old writer-filmmaker points out, that does not mean we are not at liberty not only to mourn the death of a parent, but to also seek solace and support for handling their absence from our lives.
That, in a nutshell, is the theme of a slot at the forthcoming Literature Season, which will take place at Beit Avi Chai April 1 to 4. The biennial festival focuses on Israeli prose and poetry and next week’s program takes in intriguing confluences between music and the written word; a look at offerings by newcomers to authorship; and there will be a salute to Amos Oz, one of our most celebrated writers, who passed away last December at the age of 79. Gender also comes into the literary fray when critic-journalist Moria Kor joins forces with singer-songwriter Anat Malamud for an interdisciplinary look at female contributions to textual works.
The participant roster reads like a Who’s Who of the local literary bunch, including such leading lights as Tzruya Shalev, Yehudit Katzir, Haim Be’er and Rivka Miriam, while the pop-rock-folk musical bill features the stellar likes of Dikla, Yaron Pe’er, Karni Postel, Noam Rotem and Ruth Dolores Weiss.
The sessions, over the course of the four expansive days, take in a wide range of topics, including the current state of literary critique, an educated glance at one of Oz’s most lauded works, The Same Sea; a foray into a new contribution by one of the younger crowd, 32-year-old poet Alex Rif; and there will be something of a nod in the direction of the upcoming general election with the “Counting Votes” spot, in which 74-year-old author Haim Be’er chats with journalist Ariel Horovitz about the fateful choices made by writers during the course of their work, and about how writers and politics mix. Pop singer Merav Hellinger will provide a musical interlude betwixt the learned dialogue.
THE FESTIVAL closes at 9:30 p.m., on April 4, with Orphans’ Evening: “How Do You Write about Orphanhood?” at which six artists will talk about their personal and professional take on their own parental loss. The panel features actress-singer Maytal Michaeli, internationally acclaimed author Dorit Rabinyan, poet-novelist Maya Tevet Dayan, and filmmaker Yuval Hameiri.
The evening was devised and will be moderated by Agmon, along with stand-up comedian Eli Haviv. Agmon lost his father just over three years ago. The writer was only 28 years old at the time, a young age to lose a parent. It was then that he conceived the idea for the Orphanhood evening. 
“I am an orphan,” he states simply, before expanding on an area of our lives, which in the natural sequence of events, is something the vast majority of people experience. “After my father died, I felt the topic is generally ignored. That is the way things are supposed to be – the rules state that parents die – and because that is the accepted continuum people don’t talk about it.”
That, says Agmon, applies across the board, and to all age groups. 
“I think of my mother, too. My mother relates to it as a non-issue. To my mind and feeling, I think we really need to deal with this.” That is the core of the Literature Season April 4 session, when Rabinyan et al will talk about their own loss – each have lost a parent themselves – and also about how they address it in their creative pursuits.
Both Agmon’s and Haviv’s fathers died in the last four or so years. The latter says that he and longtime pal Agmon began chatting about their bereavement, which eventually culminated in the Orphans’ Evening. 
“Yair said he wanted to do something connected to being an orphan and I said that maybe we should do something like a mass shivah (mourning event), whereby, in fact, everyone is mourning.”
The weeklong shivah period, following the burial, is a wonderful Jewish institution, when the mourners are surrounded by relatives and friends who form a warm support group during the initial difficult period. But what happens after that? Basically, when the seven days end the bereaved are left to get on with their lives, as if nothing has happened. 
“There are so many orphans out there,” Haviv notes, “but there is not a lot of legitimacy to talk about it, on a regular basis. I personally feel that if I mention, in company, that my father died, the energy in the room changes. People don’t know how to react. It is not easy to raise such things and it also makes life difficult for other people.”
Agmon and Haviv are hoping Orphans’ Evening will impact positively on that lamentable societal state of affairs and admit to harboring some long-term aspirations, too. 
“The event at Beit Avi Chai has therapeutic value for everyone concerned,” says Agmon. “I am always looking to get things out in the open, because I see myself as a sort of a public figure.” He is also looking to leave the members of the audience with some longer-lasting return on their entry ticket. “I would like people to leave with food for thought, some inspiration and a sense of comfort that they are not alone.”
AGMON AND HAVIV have lined up a diverse range of professionals for the occasion, each of whom is expected to offer a singular perspective on the painful, and inevitable, area of life. 
“The idea is for each artist to bring their own new, approach to the death of a family member, through literature and cinema,” Agmon explains. “We will screen a short film, too.” The latter refers to an eight-minute video work by Hameiri with the ungainly title of I Think That’s the Closest to How It Looks. “It’s an amazing film about missing someone.”
The evening promises to be a richly varied affair that should allow the patrons to glean insight, possibly relating to their own loss, as they wish. 
“The artists have all experienced loss, process and express that through their art,” Haviv says. “We thought we’d talk about that in a forum that conveys the ambiance of a shivah. There will be refreshments and people will sit on plastic chairs. We really want to conjure up that [shivah] atmosphere.” That implies a comfort zone, too. “We want people to feel secure and to be able to talk about their own emotions.”
The main slice of the action will, of course, be provided by the invited artists, with each given 10 to 15 minutes to present their take on bereavement, but Agmon and Haviv would also very much like to get some audience participation going, too. 
“We will have to see how the time allows for that,” says Agmon. “I really hope that happens. It is important for as many people as possible to express themselves on this subject.” 
“We want to generate a moment when it is okay for members of the audience to bring it up,” Haviv adds.
NATURALLY, WITH Haviv on board, comedy will also come into play, emotive theme notwithstanding. “I use humor to deal with this,” he explains. “I try to soften the subject, which is tough. When I am on the stage and I say something, I have to be very funny, otherwise the members of the audience won’t forgive me for raising such an issue at a stand-up comedy evening.”
But is it all systems go, regardless of the potential minefields of social and moral acceptability into which Haviv is liable to stray, and have his own show blow up in his face? Just how far can Haviv go, in such a sensitive area? 
“The truth is I am always checking out the boundaries,” he admits. “It sometimes works well, but you get audiences that are less open to joking about death.”
That, says Haviv, applies to all walks of life; his line of work is replete with pitfalls. 
“There is this thing of reclaiming. In this PC-conscious era, I, for example, can poke fun at Iraqis only if I am an Iraqi myself. So, when I talk about mourning I talk about my own personal mourning.” That allows the comic generous room for maneuver without taking on flak. 
“The audience can’t really judge me when I do that, but at the beginning when I raise the topic, there is a weird, tense, silence in the auditorium. They are waiting to see what I am going to come out with.”
This is, of course, a military conflict-saddled country where, sadly, many youngsters die long before their parents. That makes it tougher to air one’s thoughts and feelings about losing a senior member of one’s family. There is a distinct dividing line between the two. 
“[Twentieth century French philosopher] Jacques Lacan talks about trauma and tragedy. He says that tragedy is something that takes place within the natural order of the world, within the story of life, and trauma is something that occurs outside the normal progression of life. If you lose your child, that is trauma; if you lose your father, that’s a tragedy. With that the story ends. There’s nothing to talk about because that’s the way it is meant to be.”
Haviv says that it can happen at almost any age. 
“My paternal grandmother died when my dad was 70. We went to the cemetery and he held my hand and said ‘Now I am an orphan.’ That is an amazing thought. He was already a senior citizen, and not far from his own death. But I think that is not something you can understand if you don’t experience it yourself. People don’t talk about that much.”
Whether we like or not, we all get to pass on at some stage or another, even in a Western society that seems to be obsessed with hanging on to one’s youthful looks for as long as humanly – and technologically – possible. 
“I think we suppress that because it makes our own death more tangible,” Haviv posits. “So we all push our death to one side, but half the population, whether they have lost one parent or both, have the same title, orphan, that no one talks about.”
Haviv says there is no escaping our own mortality and the sooner we get to grips with that the better for all of us. 
“Life is terminal – for us and for the people around us. I think we are pushing against that more and more, which is why society increasingly tends to focus on young people.”
If you have come to the conclusion that Orphans’ Evening is going to be all doom and gloom, nothing could be further from Agmon’s and Haviv’s intent. 
“I think denial makes death harder to deal with. I think acceptance of our inevitable end offers a great sense of freedom and release,” says Haviv. “At the end of the day, we are here to live our life to the full. We should never forget that.” As the inimitable British 1960s hippie band The Incredible String band once sang: live till you die. 
Sounds simple enough.
For tickets and more information about the Literature Season: (02) 621-5300 and www.bac.org.il