For Yair Lehman, it’s a matter of identity

In his one-man show, ‘The Beautiful Israeli,’ the veteran stage performer uses his experience in Operation Protective Edge to take stock of life and the world around him

Yair Lehman (photo credit: DAVID VINOKUR)
Yair Lehman
(photo credit: DAVID VINOKUR)
When it comes to intriguing play titles The Beautiful Israeli is right up there. Intriguing? Nay! I’d say downright appealing and definitively consumer friendly. Who in their right mind, especially in the run-up to the general elections, would not want to be reminded of all the positive attributes of the Moshe or Michal on the street?
Then again, the title of Yair Lehman’s new monodrama, which will be performed at the Incubator Theater in Jerusalem today as well as February 12 and 26 (all 8:30 p.m.), and at Tzavta in Tel Aviv on February 17, at 9 p.m., is something of a misnomer. While Lehman is certainly a patriot, and does his bit for president and country, his play is not an unadulterated approbation of the sunny side of the common or garden-variety Israeli.
Much of 39-year-old Lehman’s work to date has engaged in identity, and the search for it.
He has been a regular fixture of the Kalabat Shabbat study-standup-music sketch routine at Avi Chai House in Jerusalem, and he also performs in the Incubator Theater’s darkly satirical Parah Shechutah (Slaughtered Cow), which pokes fun at just about anything going and leaves its audiences with a plentiful helping of food for thought. Lehman is also one of the theater company’s founders.
“I have engaged in all sorts of issues relating to identity for some years now – Israeliness and Judaism,” Lehman notes. “With Kalabat Shabbat we look at things through the Bible, but also through current affairs. And with Parah Shechutah, we took all sorts of topics and slaughtered them,” he adds with a laugh.
The idea for The Beautiful Israeli was sown some time ago but received a shove in a new direction last summer when Lehman, an officer in the paratroopers, was on reserve duty in the midst of the Operation Protective Edge bedlam. It’s not exactly as though Lehman somehow found new inspiration for the play in the middle of the military operation, but it did throw up some challenging, and ultimately helpful, question marks.
“It was really crazy. There was also this really strong media thing [in support of Protective Edge], and anyone who expressed a different opinion took a lot of flak. You know, they say; ‘when the guns roar, the muses are silent,’” he observes. “But everything that went on then helped to point me in the right direction.”
Lehman is a proud Israeli but says he wrestles with his fair share of existential conundrums, and often ponders his way of life here.
“I work, I am a dad and I have to pay my tax bills and other stuff, and you sometimes wonder what you’re doing here, in Israel, and whether it might be better somewhere else. I am a Zionist and when the army calls me I turn up. When I’m not in reserves I am an actor, a father, all sorts of things, but when I put on my army uniform I sort of shift into a different mindset.
“There, in the army, it’s difficult to be creative and to write. There were some days when had I nothing to do all day, but I preferred to play cards and that kind of thing. Your mind simply isn’t in the creative zone, although I did have the basic skeleton [of the play] written down. It was clear to me that I was going to get back to the play after the war.”
Last summer’s war set many of the issues Lehman had been considering in sharp relief, and made him question some basic tenets.
“You know, now, before the elections, and in general, people are always looking to define what it means to be an Israeli,” he muses. “They always say that when there’s trouble, we all stick together. But that isn’t so true anymore.”
That previously set-in-stone fundament of life here was first challenged on a grand scale during the First Lebanon War in 1982, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest against the scale of the IDF’s penetration deep into Lebanese territory.
“They tell you to get into your [IDF] uniform, like your father and grandfather did, like they did in 1967 and 1948 and during Joshua’s time [in the Bible], and go and defend the Land of Israel,” says Lehman.
“I have that sense of romance, and that’s how I was brought up. But there is also now a degree of maturity – and I think that was what was a bit different about Protective Edge – and people starting asking about what was going to happen afterwards. What was going to happen on a political level, and what was going to happen with all the money [then finance minister] Yair Lapid said would go to education and [that] was spent on the war.”
The Beautiful Israeli is tailor-made to get us to take a fresh look at what life here is all about, and what it means to be an Israeli. The storyline follows the fortunes and thoughts of an Israeli sailing solo somewhere out at sea. His character is unclear. He might be a war hero, a successful competitor in a reality TV show, mentally unstable or simply someone who lost hope and is taking stock of where he is at, what his country means to him, and all manner of other major aspect of life – society, the economy, and his wife and kids.
“I come from a religious background,” says Lehman. “Maybe that’s why I’m always taking stock of life and the world around us.”
The play, says Lehman, is still very much a work in progress. There is a script, but the actor is perfectly willing to go with the audience’s flow and to change direction in midstream as developments demand. He asks members of the audience questions, and can take their answers on board and go off on some tangent.
In fact, the original layout of the play was very different from its current script.
“It was based on a reality show with four characters,” explains Lehman. “There was a haredi [ultra-Orthodox Jew], a settler, a Tel Aviv hipster and an Arab. But then I realized I was taking the easy option. I have played all kinds of characters for years. I thought, where am I in all this? And I ended up with a one-man show.”
Lehman says he would like to leave his audience with points to ponder, but also says he comes away with food for thought himself.
“This show helps me focus on certain things and crystallize them. I don’t want to scare anyone – actually, maybe for a moment or two. I feel I represent a generation of Israelis who feel lost, and desperate and caught up in constant battles, and don’t know where it is all leading to. They want to feel they are on firm ground and everything will be all right.”
Lehman has performed The Beautiful Israeli a handful of times thus far and says he appreciates the PR boost the country’s leaders have proffered.
“With the elections coming up, this a perfect time to perform the play,” he states with a smile. “Think about it, what are all these political candidates saying to us? They are saying ‘I am the beautiful Israeli. I’ll bring you everything you want a need.’ But I speak to lots of people who have no idea who to vote for.”
I wonder if an evening spent watching The Beautiful Israeli can help in that regard.
For tickets: (02) 654-3004 and (03) 695- 50156-7