English Language Theater in Israel: Backstage with the Stollers

A behind-the-curtains glimpse at a pair of giants in Jerusalem’s English-speaking theater community

(photo credit: KAREN FELDMAN)
Fleeing the rampant violence of the pogroms in the early 1900s, Leah and Larry Stoller’s parents and grandparents escaped from Europe (the Vilnius and Kiev areas) and made their way to America, thereby ensuring the families’ survival through the coming Holocaust.
Born in 1929, Leah and Larry grew up in the Bronx, studying in public schools, with some supplementary Jewish/Hebrew education. Leah was a rather indulged only child; Larry had to work from the age of 14 to help support his family. As youngsters, they spent much of their time outdoors, but the indoor activities they both enjoyed introduced them to the world outside their neighborhoods.
“There was no TV, no computer with Google and Facebook and no personal telephones. We had three outlets to the world outside: the movies, the radio and the public library,” Leah recalls. They were voracious readers – and still are.
“In 1944, something exciting happened. A man from the government came to our high school and asked students to volunteer to work on farms. There were not enough men, as most of them were fighting the Nazis and Japanese in World War II. I signed up and worked on the farm for two summers, in 1944 and 1945. I honed my agricultural skills to such a degree that in 1945 I became ‘champion bean and pea picker of Chenango County, NY,’” she jokes.
“Our generation was a golden one. We grew up in a free country – no pogroms, no actions against Jews. We went to school, played with our friends, and knew we could be whatever we wanted to be in America. Only in the last days of the war did we find out about the Nazi death camps and the destruction of the Jewish people.”
Larry served in the National Guard. The young couple met in 1950 at a college activity. Larry was attracted by a daring blonde streak in Leah’s hair, and his dashing auburn mustache (which he still has, although it has turned white) caught her eye. Thus was kindled a loving relationship that has only grown, and some seven decades later is still going strong.
In 1951, Larry graduated from City College of New York with a BA in business administration, Leah earned her degree in English literature and education from Hunter College. They married in August 1953. Larry created a successful business which he ran for 23 years, until they made aliyah. Specializing in designing and decorating officers’ and non-officers’ clubs for more than 200 US military bases, he traveled extensively. Leah taught fifth and sixth grades in New York City public schools.
Eventually, the Stollers expanded to a family of four, with two sons, Josh and Jeremy, in a “big, beautiful house in Queens, New York.” Life in America was good, but they soon left it all behind.
HAVING ALWAYS been fascinated with the Jewish state and kibbutz life, and somewhat infused with the euphoria of the Six Day War and a spirit of adventure, Leah and Larry spent part of their summer vacation in 1972 trying out life in two different kibbutzim, and the next year, at the age of 44 (Josh and Jeremy were aged 13 and 10 and spoke no Hebrew), leaving behind a large, beloved family and friends, they decided to make aliyah.
They lived and worked on a kibbutz in the Jerusalem area for seven years. Among other roles, Larry served as the ulpan director and head of volunteers, and Leah taught English there. As part of her teaching, she put on a well-received Broadway musical each year in English, complete with sets and costumes, with the pupils as actors, putting her piano-playing skills to good use.
In 1980, the Stollers left the kibbutz and moved to Jerusalem, where they have been living ever since. Leah and Larry did volunteer work for a number of organizations in the city, and Larry also joined the civil guard and ultimately went back to salaried work in the medical field (he retired at age 83). Josh and Jeremy served in the army in combat units.
SOON AFTER moving to the capital, Leah’s love for theater and her talent for directing found an outlet that touched the lives of many. The Stollers became a key force in the Jerusalem English-Speaking Theater. Leah directed more than 50 plays through the years, while Larry served as treasurer, business manager, theater liaison and worked backstage for practically every play that was produced.
“JEST’s founding in the mid-1980s was our response to the thirst of ever-growing numbers of English-speakers in the Jerusalem area for English-speaking theater,” explains Leah. “We brought to the stage quality American and British plays – musicals, comedies and dramas – encompassing a broad spectrum of relevant content and subject matter, including productions with Jewish themes.”
Crowd favorites (and Stoller favorites) included Annie, Neil Simon classics, Terrence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy, Korczak’s Children by Jeffrey Hatcher, Arthur Miller’s The Price, and The Mousetrap, by Agatha Christie.
JEST pioneered and laid the groundwork for English theater in the capital and flourished for more than a quarter of a century. When its curtain came down for the last time in 2014, it was succeeded by a new crop of amateur theater groups with many active in the theater community who had their roots in JEST.
Leah is still involved with theater; she leads an active play-reading group that meets regularly in Jerusalem, and she directs/produces an extremely popular, annual dramatic reading for the Na’amat organization.
Now Leah and Larry have entered their 90s. What is it like to be an older person in Israel?
“It’s okay growing old in Israel,” Leah says. “The health fund and Hadassah Hospital are marvelous – the doctors, the nurses, the secretaries. I’ve never seen a more caring group of people. We also have help in the home now. We have friends that we love here, and of course our sons and grandchildren are nearby, but we have close family that we miss very much in the US, and it is increasingly hard for us and them to travel. We’ve had a lovely life; we have no complaints.”
They are too modest to say so themselves, but if given a cue to speak, the many friends who know and admire the family will readily attest with passion and appreciation that the Stollers have made a significant contribution to Israel in the work they did, the lives they touched and the people they helped.