Israeli play spotlights Rabbi A.J. Heschel 50 years after his passing

Heschel, one of the most important Jewish thinkers, is now the center of a play in Hebrew, 50 years after his passing.

  Heschel’s Passover Eve. (photo credit: WZO)
Heschel’s Passover Eve.
(photo credit: WZO)

A new Hebrew-speaking theater production displays the life of Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel. The solo performance play is an original production commissioned by the World Zionist Organization to inaugurate events marking the 50th anniversary of the death of Heschel, dubbed “one of the most important Jewish thinkers of modern times.” 

“Heschel’s Passover Eve,” is the name of this new production that was launched a few months ago. The play displays Heschel a few days before the Passover Seder to which he invited his friend and traveling companion, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in April 1968. The preparations for Seder night infuse the Jewish "Festival of Freedom" with universal meaning and link the call, "Let My People Go," to the struggle for human rights, social activism, the need for Tikkun Olam, the relevance of Jewish tradition, Zionism and Jewish Peoplehood for each one of us.

The actor who plays Heschel is Rodie Kozlovsky, who fits into the role beautifully. Kozlovsky is a veteran actor who performs in theater, television and Israeli films. He most recently appeared in the hit tv series The Arbitrator and in the movies "The Moon with Wolves" and “The Man on the Wall.” The play is in Hebrew, but there are English subtitles displayed on the screen behind him. In addition, Kozlovsky beautifully throws in words in English and Yiddish that make his performance more authentic. 

The life of Abraham Joshua Heschel

Heschel was born in 1907 in Poland and he passed away in 1972, exactly 50 years ago. He was considered to be one of the leading Jewish theologians and Jewish philosophers of the 20th century. Heschel served as a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement. 

 Heschel’s Passover Eve.  (credit: YIZHAR HESS) Heschel’s Passover Eve. (credit: YIZHAR HESS)

This production was the brainchild of Dr. Yizhar Hess, vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization (WZO). “We are proud to celebrate the very significant contribution of Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel to contemporary Judaism and Zionism,” Hess told The Jerusalem Post. “Heschel was a leader in the world of Zionism, as an influential rabbi, as a philosopher and a poet, who also touched many Jews in the diaspora, mainly in North America. He himself was a model of commitment to the Zionist idea, the human spirit and human rights.” 

The play has already performed dozens of times across Israel and has even premiered already in New York, Buenos Aires and in the UK, during the annual Limmud festival. “These days we are working on an American production in English,” Hess disclosed. “I hope to be able to have Heschel be the prism through which young Jews in the US learn about Zionism, through a unique angle of human rights, Zionism and the love of mankind.”

The production and creation of “Heschel’s Passover Eve,” was all funded and initiated by the WZO and is offered to institutions across Israel for a subsidized price. “‘Heschel’s Passover Eve’ will participate in festivals and we hope it will also win awards,” Hess said. He explained that groups of teens or young adults that watch the play can also participate in an educational seminar that takes place on the same day of the appearance.

Hess shared that he and his staff were worried that actor Rodie Kozlovsky “is taller than Heschel, but we got along and he studied and investigated the role in depth. I was impressed to see how he connected with this character in such a natural way.”

Heschel was a member of a Hasidic family and a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism. Heschel was the youngest of six children and at the age of 10 he was orphaned by his father. His uncle took him under his authority and at the age of 15 he received rabbinic certification from Rabbi Menachem Ziemba in Poland. Heschel's path in the Hasidic world was guaranteed. A bright future awaited him as a rebbe, with a successful match already arranged for him. Following a personal crisis, Heschel decided that this path was not suitable for him. He completed his high school studies in Vilna and at the age of 20 enrolled to study philosophy, history of art and Semitic philology (study of texts) at the University of Berlin. 

The rise of Nazism 

An element that was emphasized in the play is that the rise of the Nazis to power, undermined Heschel's expectations of the West and he realized that the ethics of the Western world were not enough to balance its technological power. During the play he shared how he sat in a room, surrounded by Nazis, in a chilling and accurate way. Heschel later decided to become a new kind of Jewish philosopher: not a thinker who addresses Jews only, but a prophet at the gate, trying to formulate a moral claim for everyone in the world in light of the origins of Judaism.

He was deported to Poland in 1938 and then was able to escape Eastern Europe a month and a half before the outbreak of war. He was able to get out of Poland for London thanks to an American visa, which was obtained for him by the Reform movement and in 1940 arrived in the United States. Heschel began his career at Hebrew Union College, an institute for Jewish studies on behalf of the Reform movement in Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1945 he moved to teach at the Beit Midrash for Rabbis of the Conservative Movement - Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS). It was at JTS where Heschel was a professor and held this position until his death. 

“Originally we thought that the play would appeal to American Jews visiting Israel since we thought that they would like the fact that for once, we are interested in them,” Kozlovsky told the Post after a performance in Jerusalem for Kol Ami Mechinot gap year participants from the diaspora and Israel. “But I think there is something special about the way that Israelis perceive a play about a leader from abroad. In a way, Israelis are more open to listen to a Jewish leader from the US than to a similar leader in Israel.” Kozlovsky gave an example of a couple who walked up to him after a show and said that they identified with the scene where Heschel was surrounded by Nazis in Berlin. “They said to be ‘we were at [Itamar] Ben Gvir’s political even in Israel and we felt the same way Heschel felt in Berlin.’” 

As a secular Israeli Jew, Kozlovsky added that he feels that “the American version of Judaism is an amazing version that we Israelis are always looking for.”

Kozlovsky explained that he doesn’t think the young Israeli audience connects to Heschel’s support for African Americans and said that it would have possibly been better to implement some of what Heschel did for Soviet Jewry. “The black struggle causes alienation among many Israelis because it is another person's struggle that isn’t relevant to them.

Heschel was very active for the liberation of the Jews of the Soviet Union, that would definitely touch a lot more Israelis.”

Even though Heschel was one of the leaders of the Conservative movement in the US, the word Conservative only appears once in the entire play. “Reform and Conservative Jews are are under such an attack in this country, we needed to run between the raindrops in order to not to mention this too much, so Israelis don’t think that we are trying to brainwash them.”