Cityfront: Doing religion his own way
Talk-show host Jacky Levy's Kalabat Shabbat offers irreverant, yet loving, take on weekly Torah portion.
There is a saying in Hebrew which, roughly paraphrased, translates to "If he hadn't existed, someone would have had to invent him." Jacky Levy - and his actor cohorts from the Incubator troupe - fills a void in our society so snugly, yet so oxymoronically, that the success of his weekly Kalabat Shabbat sessions (in Hebrew) at Beit Avi Chai, in retrospect, seems guaranteed.
For the past two and a half years, every Kalabat Shabbat show (a play on the term Kabbalat Shabbat) has been sold out, and the same punters just keep coming back for more. "There are regulars who book tickets in advance for the whole season," said Levy when we met at the Smadar cinema cafÃ©. "It's great to see the same faces reappearing every week." Judging by the response and the very active role taken by many of the audience members - a mixture of barely disguised adulation and a degree of intimacy, presumably, borne of frequent weekly repartee - Levy has a definitively loyal following.
Levy juggles a slew of professional pursuits, including a long-running weekly satirical Galei Tzahal radio show with Avri Gilad ("Hamila Ha'aharona" - The Last Word) and teaching duties at the Nissan Nativ Acting School in Talpiot. He and the members of the Incubator gang, who are all Nissan Nativ graduates taught by Levy, are the ideal entertainers for the job. They all share a religious upbringing and all are keen to take a contemporary, loving - yet often highly irreverent - look at Judaism and the practice thereof.
The Friday morning Kalabat Shabbat sessions are based on the weekly Torah portion. A typical program will include reference to the original verses, various verbal interpretations by Levy - which are open to discussion with the enthusiastic audience - comedic sketches by the actors on the subject matter, and a one-on-one chat with a well-known public figure.
The program is thematic. Thus, for example, the February 13 session, which was based on the last of the Ten Commandments, which warns against the perils of coveting, featured leading Jerusalem businessman Rami Levy, who offered his own take on materialism.
Levy, who comes from an Orthodox home and leads an Orthodox lifestyle, makes no bones about the entertainment intent behind Kalabat Shabbat, but with added shared deliberative value. "There's all this entertainment on TV and the radio with absolutely no content. You get an hour or two of a so-called good time, and you go away with nothing. I think that is detrimental to entertainment and to people's seriousness.
"You end up with either something serious that is unentertaining or entertainment without any content. We offer content with entertainment.
"Anyway, I believe that content that is purposely and solely serious takes the view that 'I know and you don't, and I'll show you that I'm right.' That immediately obviates any possibility of dialogue. That's not my way," he says.
Levy is ardently Jewish, despite having issues with some of the pillars of Orthodoxy. "I think the haredim take religion too seriously. Judaism wasn't supposed to be so serious. Christianity and Islam believe that laughter is the work of the devil. That's not the Jewish way. The Talmud says that God spends a quarter of his day laughing. I think the haredim tend to forget that."
Incubator troupe member Gadi Weissbart certainly supports that take and says that Kalabat Shabbat aims to push the envelope just about as far as it will go. "We make fun of biblical characters and lots of other things, but the people in the audience know we are not just poking fun and that our approach to religion stems from a love of Judaism."
Only on one occasion has a member of the audience deemed that Levy and the actors had crossed an inviolable line. "Once an elderly woman stood up in the middle of a show and shook her finger at us, and then walked out," Levy recalls. "I have never taken finger-wagging lightly, even if it's only one person. The gang had a chat about things afterwards, about our direction."
Not surprisingly, besides their early religious education, Levy and the actors share similar tastes in humor. "We all appreciate Monty Python," notes Levy. "I remember seeing [Monty Python's last movie] The Meaning of Life for the first time and experiencing something like a religious revelation. I couldn't believe people could use humor in that way. I think something of that approach - the absurd and finding something funny in almost anything - spills over into what we do with Kalabat Shabbat."
Beit Avi Chai, which is overseen by a religious body, is fully supportive of the Kalabat Shabbat stance. "If anything, they have asked us to be less religiously oriented, to make the material more understandable and more palatable to the secular members of the audience," Weissbart notes. Indeed, Kalabat Shabbat sessions are attended by people of all ages, including teenagers and senior citizens, and by secular and observant Jews alike.
Levy muses that Kalabat Shabbat's popularity may be an indication of our evolving maturity as a country and as a culture. "Ten years ago, some of the things we say and do in the show would have brought the government down, but not today. I think there is more openness today. People, in general, are more willing to take a different angle on traditionally held views."
"For us, the Jews of old and the Jews of today are the same," adds Weissbart. "There is lots of politics in the Bible, so we deal with politics. We get at everyone and try not to take ourselves too seriously. King David, for example, did sin, but if you take the Orthodox view, we're not allowed to say that. But we do say things like that in Kalabat Shabbat. People in the Bible weren't perfect, and neither are we."
Meanwhile, Levy's secular-religious bridging efforts seem to be making an impression in high quarters. "I was offered a realistic place in a political party before the last elections. If I'd gone for that, I would have been an MK today. And Haifa Theater offered me a great role in a production. I would love to have done that, but at the end of the day Kalabat Shabbat is too dear to me and too much fun to give up."
On a personal note, Levy recently achieved closure on an important chapter in his formative years. "I was always a rebel at yeshiva," he recalls, "and, before I left, I told my rabbi that he had done everything in his power to dissuade me from remaining observant but that I would stay religious nonetheless. A few weeks ago I did a show on a moshav, and the rabbi was in the audience. He came up to me afterwards and asked me if I still studied Talmud. When I said I did, he gave me a hug. That was very precious to me," says a visibly moved Levy. "I want to embrace things, not exclude them. That's always been my way, and that is the core of Kalabat Shabbat."
For more information about Kalabat Shabbat: www.bac.org.il