Meet the Canadian-Israeli playwright lauded for a play on Menachem Begin

"While I’m grateful for the Prime Minister’s Prize, my new goal is to make it to the Nashville Hall of Fame."

 Gabriel Emanuel receives the award from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. (photo credit: GPO)
Gabriel Emanuel receives the award from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
(photo credit: GPO)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

Canadian Israeli playwright Gabriel Emanuel (aka Gabriel “Gordie” Wiseman) was presented with the Prime Minister’s Prize for 2022 by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the President’s Residence, in the presence of President Isaac Herzog, on May 12. He was honored for his acclaimed one-man play MR. BEGIN, and specifically “for his contribution to memorializing the life of Israel’s sixth prime minister, Menachem Begin.”

What was it like to receive the award? 

“It was quite a humbling experience for a ‘greener,’” Emanuel tells me. “Quite surrealistic to ‘hang’ with the president and prime minister over at the president’s pad. And like my brother Ron said (he composed the original music for the play), ‘You may disagree with the prime minister or the president when it comes to their politics, but there can be no denying that the president’s quiche is among the tastiest served anywhere.’”

“Quite surrealistic to ‘hang’ with the president and prime minister over at the president’s pad.”

Gabriel Emanuel

It was particularly meaningful for Emanuel to see Begin’s children, Benny and Hasya, at the ceremony. “Hasya has seen the play on a couple of occasions, and complimented the incredibly talented actor, Danny Steg, for having reminded her of her father in his remarkable portrayal of Begin.”

 PRIME MINISTER Menachem Begin, with press adviser Shlomo Nakdimon at his side, during his press statement after the Camp David Accords in 1978. (credit: Moshe Milner/GPO) PRIME MINISTER Menachem Begin, with press adviser Shlomo Nakdimon at his side, during his press statement after the Camp David Accords in 1978. (credit: Moshe Milner/GPO)
What’s the play about? 

“MR. BEGIN is at best a thumbnail sketch of Menachem Begin’s awe-inspiring life, touching upon the overwhelming impact of the Holocaust, his exile to Siberia, arrival in British-controlled Palestine, assuming command of the Irgun, and immediately becoming Public Enemy No. 1, his conflict with his nemesis, Ben-Gurion (culminating with the historic sinking of the Irgun ship, Altalena, by the Hagana), the stunning victory of the 1977 elections, making peace with Egypt, bombing the Iraqi nuclear reactor, and getting mired in the quicksand of Lebanon. All in the space of one hour.

“This may surprise you, but it is also a very personal love story: Begin was devoted to his wife, Aliza (whom he called ‘Alla’), and was married to her for 43 years before she predeceased him at the age of only 62 in November 1982. I believe it was the profound loss of Aliza, more than anything else, that caused him to resign less than a year later.”

He says Begin’s “impeccable honesty” is sadly missing among many of Israel’s leaders since he died in 1992 at 78. “While an honest politician may be an oxymoron today, Menachem Begin proved it was once possible to be one. His word remained his word.”

Emanuel, who lived in Toronto and Winnipeg before making aliyah, is a lawyer-turned-playwright, poet and musician. In 1978, he co-founded with director Howard Rypp the Nephesh Theatre Company in Canada, where he staged his most popular play, EINSTEIN, about the life of Albert Einstein.

Rypp relocated Nephesh to Israel in 1984 and, inter alia, produced EINSTEIN in Hebrew at Habima as well as IF YOU WILL IT, about the life of Theodor Herzl. MR. BEGIN premiered at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem on July 18, 2013 to a packed audience who included Begin’s family as well as his longtime confidantes, Yehiel Kadishai and Yehuda Avner.

Gabriel Emanuel is divorced with a daughter in Toronto and a son who lives with him in Had Ness in the Golan Heights. “I look over the Kinneret and not a traffic jam in sight,” he says. “I turned 65 during Covid, and it was either retire or start something new, creatively, which I could do on my own. So I decided that it was time to write and record my own songs. On Spotify I’ve actually got a growing number of fans in Finland (of all places) who think I’m a genuine Country Western-singing cowboy. So while I’m grateful for the Prime Minister’s Prize, my new goal is to make it to the Nashville Hall of Fame.”