All the neighborhood's a stage

A long-running interactive show produced by the Train Theater continues to delight adults and kids.

gabbai 224.88 (photo credit: )
gabbai 224.88
(photo credit: )
In the interactive play Where is Mrs. Gabbai?, kids and their parents stroll in the alleys of the Yemin Moshe neighborhood with the walls of the Old City as their background. From the first gate, the audience descends into the fruit garden of Mr. Levi at the foot of a water canal. Searching for the mysterious Mrs. Gabbai, "who paints the sky and changes the seasons of the year," they listen to stories about the childhood neighborhood of actor Jack Shvili. Up to the age of five, Shvili grew up near the railroad tracks that run through Katamonim Gimmel. Now 51 and father to a 10-year-old son, Shvili recalls how he, his brother and sister were separated from their mother after she was hospitalized for psychiatric treatment. Their father brought them to live with his parents in Yemin Moshe. Shvili remembers his mother as a warm and loving person who was always hugging and kissing her kids. She was Yugoslavian-Macedonian and loved singing. "She used to sing in Ladino in the kitchen," he says. "My love for singing comes from her." Shvili's father is of Georgian origin. The family left the Caucasus Mountains in the 19th century on their way to Alexandria, Egypt. Ten years later, the family headed north to Safed in Palestine. After several earthquakes there, the family went south and settled in Jerusalem, near Damascus Gate, in the neighborhood of Bab el-Amud. "My mother would perform exorcisms. She would expel demons. My grandmother would call her 'the witch,'" says Shvili. "I would hear stories about my mother, about how she would burn from madness. She later burned the house and was hospitalized. After that, I didn't see her anymore. "And meanwhile inside my head, always in the background, were the questions, 'Where is mother? When will she come back and get me? Where is her hug?'" Twelve years ago Shvili moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and began to sift through his past, to memories of his mother and to the separation from her when she was admitted to the psychiatric hospital in Givat Shaul. Years later he would still be traumatized from the mere mention of the name "Shaul." "As the youngest child, I suffered greatly, longing for her," he says. In recent years, local artsits' childhood memories of their mentally ill parents have started to surface in cultural works, including Gila Almagor's Aviya's Summer, Dudu Dotan's one-man show Little Devil and the recent film Sweet Mud (Adama Meshuga'at). Not to mention Amos Oz's latest novel A Tale of Love and Darkness, describing his childhood in Jerusalem with an aloof father and a troubled mother. The title character in Where is Mrs. Gabbai? is based on a real-life woman by that name, whom Shvili remembers from his own childhood in Yemin Moshe. "Mrs. Gabbai lived one house below that of my grandmother. She was a strange woman who walked around the neighborhood dressed in black. When she appeared in the alleys, everyone ran away from her. I froze where I was standing and she would walk past me, not seeing me, and I would follow her hypnotized. "I was attracted to her otherness," he continues. "Through her I could connect to my mother, and feel that not only my mother is like that. There are many ways to look at the connection." Although Where is Mrs. Gabbai? is a children's play, Shvili and his partner Avi Cohen have been invited by grandparents and their families to perform it several times. Where is Mrs. Gabbai? will next be performed on August 25 and August 27 at 5 p.m. Meeting point and ticket purchasing is 30 minutes before the show at Rehov Emile Botha 5. For more details and tickets call 561-8514, ext. 5, Sunday through Thursday, 8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.