Love in troubled times

A group of American Jewish teenagers ride an emotional roller-coaster as they watch a production of ‘An Israeli Love Story.'

Adi Bielski 311 (photo credit: .)
Adi Bielski 311
(photo credit: .)
It’s late afternoon when 150 bouncing-off-the-walls teenagers – laughing, talking, singing – crowd into the lobby of the Givatayim Theater. Even though they’ve been on the run since early morning, these kids – half from Israel, half from the New Community Jewish High School in Los Angeles – can’t wait to start the next event, whatever it is.
As it happens, the last item on today’s agenda is a play few of them know anything about: An Israeli Love Story, a monodrama starring Adi Bielski.
The first big challenge facing these 15- and 16-year-olds lies in finding precisely the right seat, preferably one in the exact center of all their friends. They shuffle around, move back and forth, and then, as things start to settle, Yoav Ben Horin, director of Global Jewish Education for LA’s “New Jew” school, jumps up on the stage. Ben Horin, obviously a much-loved tour guide during the reciprocal Israel-Los Angeles visits, seems intent on telling the chattering teens something about the play.
“This is a true story,” he begins. “It starts in 1942, when Margalit was 15 years old, just about exactly your age. She was a moshav girl in pre-state Israel….”
The teenagers are interested, no question about that. It’s just that the need to comment and share their reactions with each other proves overwhelming. Over and over Ben Horin calls for quiet, generally earning himself about 30 seconds before the background babble buries him again. The chatter doesn’t stop until the house lights dim and a single spotlight hits the stage. Only one prop graces center-stage, a crudely fashioned, unpainted low wooden bench. Even so, the shift in the teenagers’ focus is apparent – there’s something oddly compelling about the utter simplicity.
Bielski enters slowly, carrying a handbag and a battered 1940s-era cardboard suitcase. Although she’s 28, she could easily pass as a teenager with her curly dark brown hair in braids. Her plain shirt, baggy black pants with brown sandals worn over white ankle socks make her seem both approachable and interesting.  But the one thing none of the girls miss is that Bielski, playing the role of Margalit, is clearly heartbroken.
Suddenly every kid in the audience perks up. Margalit pulls a tattered, often-read letter from her pocket, and as she reads, we understand that the letter is the very last her fiancé wrote. Sitting slumped into the bench – which we now recognize as a bus stop – Margalit leans forward and beings to tell her story.
From that moment on – through 70 minutes of an emotional roller-coaster that has the audience laughing and crying within the same minute – the teenagers live in Margalit’s world, transfixed by her story, her life. They laugh at her antics, they clap to the music when she dances for joy, they giggle when she imitates her mother’s voice.
They’re as caught up in Margalit’s tale as if she were their best friend. Now there’s not a single extraneous noise in the theater of any kind – not until the end, anyway. Then all you can hear are the sniffles.
As Ben Horin said, Margalit’s story is true. It’s the chronicle of what the play’s author and director, Pnina Gary, lived through during the years 1942 to 1948, set against the backdrop of pre-state Israel.
Margalit’s bus stop bench where she starts to tell her story is the very same bench she’d occupied four years earlier, when she looked up and then fell instantly in love with handsome young Ami, even though the two barely exchanged a greeting.
For the next four years, Ami occupies Margalit’s every thought. Several times she concocts schemes to “accidentally” run into him, but most of that time, Ami seems oblivious to the younger Margalit. Worse than that, time after time, he turns up with another girl. As a passionate young kibbutznik, Ami is always busy, and after he joins the Palmah, he becomes even more unavailable. Margalit never gives up, plotting occasions to speak to him, comically reminding him each time of who she is.
The teenagers love these scenes. The girls have engineered similar schemes themselves, while most of the boys decide they wouldn’t make themselves nearly as hard to get as Ami does. Ami finally sees Margalit for what she is – a breathtakingly beautiful young woman who loves him – and falls deeply in love himself. When Margalit describes the wonder of their first chaste kiss, the teenagers giggle. Life was different then.
We know, of course, that during the mid-1940s life in pre-state Israel was anything but quiet. Periodic news bulletins – punctuated by the “BEEP, BEEP, BEEP” of the Voice of Jerusalem radio news broadcasts – interrupt, and events taking place around the world are reported. World War II rages in Europe, so as news diminishes from family members left behind, before drying up completely, people worry.
Locally, life becomes dangerous. Even though plans for a Jewish state are in full swing, frequent attacks by local Arabs become more and more lethal. As the Nazis and Arabs march across Africa toward “Palestine,” intent on duplicating the horror of the European Holocaust here, the tension is palpable. When the radio reports news of the German defeat, the young Jews sing and dance all night – until they begin learning of the fate of those left behind in Europe. When the state is declared on May 15, joy breaks out again – only to be crushed by the war launched against the nascent state by the neighboring Arabs.
Through it all, Ami and Margalit find places to meet. When it’s warm, they go to the fields. When it’s cold, to the barn. They plan to marry, but blending the ideologies of a communistic kibbutznik with a socialistic moshav girl isn’t without problems. In the world of Ami’s kibbutz, nothing is owned privately, everything is shared. But to Margalit, who comes from a moshav where private property is permitted, that adjustment isn’t easy.
Practical problems exist, too. After they wed, where will they live? Ami is firmly committed to his kibbutz, but it’s full. Will they ever be granted a “family room” – a private bedroom? What about wedding gifts? To kibbutzniks, all wedding gifts will be shared with kibbutz members. Margalit ponders whether she can be happy in such a system.
Each Shabbat, either Margalit travels to stay with Ami, or Ami travels to her, but when the danger of Arab attacks on the roads increases, Ami’s mother writes to the young couple suggesting they move their wedding date up. The risk of weekly travel has become too great.
Wedding plans are made: a hand-me-down wedding dress has been shortened for Margalit, family members begin to arrive, women spend days cooking and baking. As the aroma of roasting chicken wafts over everything, Margalit’s joy is beyond description.
Then, in a heartbeat, it ends. As a consequence of a simple everyday task, tragedy strikes. In the scene where Margalit lies sobbing on Ami’s wooden coffin, telling him through the cracks in the boards how their wedding would have been, there isn’t a dry eye in the theater.
“I was born in 1927 in Nahalal – the first moshav in the Jezreel Valley,” Pnina Gary, the real-life Margalit, says. “Nahalal was a farming community established in 1921. “Ami” in the play was my boyfriend and lover, Eli Ben-Zvi, whose father, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, later served as Israel’s second president, after Chaim Weizmann.
“Eli was a member of Kibbutz Beit Keshet, today just a short ride by car from Nahalal; but back in those days, the distance between the two communities was considerable. The story told in the play is absolutely true. The only thing I changed, for dramatic reasons, was the date for our wedding. In the play, we were to be married the next day. In real life, it was a few days. But everything else – including the snippets from the letters Margalit reads – is real. Those were the same letters I received from Eli and from his mother.”
Even though Gary has spent her entire creative life in the theater, helping found the Zavit theater, then as an actress in Habimah, where she founded the experimental small-stage theater Habimartef, writing her own story wasn’t something she’d planned to do.
“I started out as an actress influenced by Lee Strasberg, with whom I’d studied, doing off-Broadway kind of things. Gradually I moved into directing, first as artistic director for the Theater for Children and Youth, now called the Orna Porat Theater.
“I liked directing, making decisions, being in control. When you’re an actor, you don’t get to make many decisions – you do what the director tells you to do. I also began adapting books for plays, among them Amos Oz’s Elsewhere, Perhaps and A Perfect Peace and Amos Elon’s biography of Herzl.
“As a playwright, I’m a little different. Traditionally, a playwright should have such a marvelous imagination that he can invent things, make up stories and situations. I don’t have that talent, but because of my years of experience in theater, I can take other material and fashion it into a play.”
“Still, the idea of telling my own story – dramatic as it was – never occurred to me until 20 years ago, when my grandson was in that age group where students are assigned to write about their roots. He asked me to tell him about my years in Nahalal, so of course I did. He wrote the story, and when he read it to his classmates, they loved it. They were fascinated by the values we held back then, being against materialism, standing for equality, always being ready to help someone else, all the values that were the hallmark of our moshav.
“What troubled me was that these young people had no idea how difficult it was to establish a moshav or a kibbutz in those days. To them, the 1948 war was ancient history. They thought Israel had always been like this, with everything ready, waiting and convenient. I began thinking that writing about those years in my own life would be good, so I wrote it out in the form of a play.”
The intensely intimate nature of several key parts of the story made it difficult, Gary admits. “It’s a very private story – it involves things we didn’t talk about in those days, not even with our mothers.  I wrote it, but then I became nervous and too timid. I put it in a drawer and there it sat for many years. I wasn’t ready to share that part of my life with the world at large. 
“Then, just after the Second Lebanon War, I came across a story someone else had written. It wasn’t the same, but it was every bit as personal and intimate as my story was. Reading it made me rethink my decision. I began to understand that the events of those pre-state years didn’t belong to me. It wasn’t my story, it was an Eretz Yisrael story. It belonged to all of us who shared those times and events and benefited from them later.
“I decided I should tell the story so that people today would know how much this state cost our young men back then. People gave their lives for this state – they were willing to die so that the State of Israel could be born.”
Newly inspired, Gary took the play out of the drawer and began reworking it.
“Even though lots of big theaters don’t like monodramas, I knew that’s what this would be,” Gary recalls. “I began thinking about what kind of young actress could play the role – the choice of actress would be critical.
“I went to all the drama schools, one after another, watching plays put on by graduating classes. When I came to the Yoram Levenstein School of Dramatic Arts, I saw Adi Bielski playing a small role. She was the one, I just knew it. There was something enormously believable about the way she acted, exactly the quality I was looking for.
“We talked. I explained what I was doing and asked if she was interested. We started working together.”
“For a little over seven months, I’d go to Pnina’s house three times a week,” Bielski told Metro, just after her performance. “It was almost a secret – we really didn’t know what would come out of it. But we worked and worked, trying the story this way and that. In Pnina’s house we used her coffee table as the bench, so that’s where that prop originated. Much of the time we didn’t work directly on the play – Pnina would just tell me stories from that period. Or I’d say, ‘Why did you have Margalit do that?’ or ‘Why do we need this scene?’ and Pnina would tell me the background, why the scene was important.
Now, that’s what I act – it’s not just what I say on stage, it’s everything that came before it, everything that happened in their lives during that time.”
Born in Jerusalem, Bielski – whose mother made aliya from South Africa – grew up in Ra’anana speaking English at home, so being able to play Margalit in both Hebrew and English was another asset.  Even so, the world of Pnina Gary in Nahalal in the 1940s was not the Israel Bielski knew.
“It was a whole new world for me,” Bielski says. “Meeting Pnina, living this play day by day, was very intense. I felt pain knowing I’d missed something I never knew. All the joy Pnina felt back then became my joy – her pleasure in working the land, her world of hoes and cows, singing and dancing until dawn, hiding with her lover in the meadows and barns.
When Ami was cut down, I felt her shock – and yet, that part was very familiar for me. What has changed? Young people still sacrifice themselves for the greater good. It’s true that back then, there was no “mine,” only “ours,” but the whole ethic – the modesty, the ability to live with less, the desire to chase values and ideology instead of money – all of that endures today in Israel.”
Ultimately, Bielski won Fringe’s “Best Actress of the Year” in 2008 for her performance, but at this early stage, both Pnina and Bielski worked without pay, with no assurance anything would come of their efforts.
“At that point, I hadn’t even intended to direct it myself,” Gary says. “I went around talking to any number of young directors, but none of them had a feel for the period. Eventually I just stayed with it.”
They tried a few test performances. “We started by inviting some friends from the theater to see it,” Gary remembers. “We put it on for them and every time, the consensus was, ‘You have a play!’ Then Yoram (Levenstein) invited us to use a small room in the school, so we put out 20 chairs and invited 20 people at a time. We did that five times – about 100 people saw it – when the Givatayim Theater people came, saw it, and immediately adopted us. 
For over a year and a half, we’ve been playing at the Givatayim twice a month, with the understanding that we won’t present the play elsewhere in the Tel Aviv area. Then the Hani Theater producer took us on, so we’ve presented it in other places all over Israel.”
Not only in Israel, either. “We’ve done about 140 productions, including at the Leeds Jewish Performing Arts Festival last year. In May we open in London at the New End Theater for three weeks, May 18 to June 6, and a Canadian tour is in the works as well.
“I get e-mails and letters from people from all over the world telling me about their own memories from that time, the people they knew, how they felt when they saw the play. One lady came three times. I asked her why, and she said, ‘This play is my life, too.’”
Tal Einkorn, manager of the Givatayim Theater, echoes that sentiment. “This is a very unusual play for us,” she says. “We have a lot of very fine shows here, but this one is unique in that no one has ever said a bad word about it. It attracts mixed audiences, young and old, and everyone raves about it. It’s become something of a cult play – people come back to see it time after time, bringing new friends each time. Publicity has been by word of mouth, people telling people.”
The play means many things to many people. Even the difference between the Hebrew title and the English title signals something different. “In English, it’s An Israeli Love Story, which is not a literal translation from the Hebrew, which is Sippur Ahava Eretz Yisraeli, Bielski notes. “Beyond that, some people see it as a political play, some see it as a Zionistic play. 
“What do I see? A love story, which makes it truly universal. Everyone relates to that – especially these teenagers who saw it today. When you’re 15 or 16, you relate to everything Margalit went through – falling in love, being jealous, being disappointed. The background may be different, but the story is the same.”
The American teenagers agree with that.  Part of the LA contingent is here for a three-week exchange visit, staying with Israeli families, after which the Israeli kids will visit them in Los Angeles for three weeks.  The other part enjoys three-month reciprocal visits.  All are students at the New Community Jewish High School in Los Angeles.
Hannah Mehlman, just two weeks shy of turning 16, says she was surprised by the play. “We didn’t know anything about it, but I thought it was going to be about philosophy, something more abstract. But it was really interesting, the music, all the accents, the different ways people talked. I loved the history, how it was to live here back then.
“It’s not the way we live now, that’s for sure – we all have cell phones so we wouldn’t have written letters like that. But when you think about it, it’s not that long ago. 
“Could we go back to that? I don’t think so. Not everyone would go along with it. But it would be fun to live like they did, sharing everything, always to be there for each other.”
Would she pursue a boyfriend like Margalit did? “No!” Mehlman laughs. “I wouldn’t have the patience. I’d find someone else. The play helped me understand the people better. We also toured a kibbutz that had an underground cavern where they made bullets, right in this same period, so it was fun to see both sides – how they made the bullets, and how they lived at the same time.”
Matthew Pearlman, at 15, isn’t at all sure he would have volunteered for the Palmah like Ami did. “No, personally I probably wouldn’t have – but it’s hard to say because we come from such a different place. That’s the thing that I like best about Israel, the freedom and independence all the kids have. The Israeli family I’m staying with is great – the kids just say, ‘Mom, I’m going out,’ and then we just leave and go hang out with friends. You can’t do that in Los Angeles.”
For Pnina Gary, seeing young people learn about this part of history makes it all worthwhile.
“Reliving it all again in order to write it was extremely painful – terrible, really. I still can’t imagine how I got through it. Now, I sometimes forget things that happened yesterday, but every event of those days is burned into my mind. 
“I remember writing the scene where Margalit talks about the meal the family ate after Eli’s funeral – eating the food that was intended to be her wedding feast. As I was writing, I could hear how the spoons clinked on the bowls. I suffered the loss all over again. I remember the joy we felt when the state was declared – but what really sticks in my mind are all the funerals.  In Nahalal alone, 14 young men were killed. 
There was a play by Moshe Shamir, He Walked Through the Fields.  Every day I went to see that play, and I cried and cried.  These memories never leave you, not for as long as you live.”
Manyawards and honors have come Gary’s way for her 36 original plays andher 45 productions, including, in 2006, a Lifetime Achievement Awardfrom the Ministry of Education and Culture. Still, she says, if thisplay reminds people of how much was sacrificed in order to create theState of Israel, then that’s her biggest reward.
“People should not think that the State of Israel came easy,” she says. “That’s what this play is about.”
For tickets or more information, call (03) 644-3559,