Talking about being an Israeli

In a series of 10 events, the Notzar Theater is exploring identity and solidarity.

‘Arava’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dalit Milstein feels strongly that theater is not just about offering the public a good evening out; she firmly believes that the discipline has a deeper role to play as well.
That will, no doubt, come across loud and clear in the Notzar Theater company’s Israeli Series, which kicked off last Saturday and incorporates 10 events, running through March 2.
Milstein, the company’s chief director, has lined up an intriguing set of discussion sessions that will precede performances of Notzar’s play Arava, based on the book of the same name by Israel Prize laureate Aharon Megged.
Arava tells the tale of a bunch of youngsters who set out to find sources of water in the Arava desert during the early days of the state. The quest becomes a more complicated enterprise than the explorers first imagined, and conflicts gradually emerge between the good of the group as a whole and the interests of the individual, and the Zionist ideal and the group members’ other ambitions.
It is a powerful production and certainly a good onstage fit for the series’ purview. It also suits Milstein’s theatrical- cultural ethos down to the ground.
“The Israeli Series is in line with the whole philosophy of Notzar, and of Bat Yam,” where the theater company is based, she notes. “You know Bat Yam is a real cultural social melting pot. There are people here from every possible cultural and ethnic background, from all walks of life, and all religious and secular leanings. And we get the cooperation of the municipality, and without being an official municipal theater company.”
The director says she likes her audiences to go home with food for thought, not just a sense that they have had a good time.
“This series is about fighting for the relevance and legitimacy of theater in Israeli society or, for that matter, any society,” she continues. “Theater should look at our identity, at how we set out the path ahead, and examine the solidarity between us.”
She feels there is nothing new in this outlook. “That is the traditional role of theater. But I have nothing against entertainment per se.
Entertainment is not a negative term or a positive term, it is a means. It is not a matter of light entertainment versus something heavy and serious.
You can entertain the public and still leave it with something deep to reflect on.”
That goes for the pre-performance endeavor, too, and she has put together a fascinating roster of speakers, mostly in pairs, who will present their own Israeli cultural baggage.
The opening session featured – naturally enough – Bat Yam Mayor Shlomi Lahiani, who talked alongside social journalist Merav Betito about their individual journeys from the margins to the epicenter of society, and how this helped formulate their identity as Israelis.
Tomorrow evening’s slot features an intriguing cross-generational discussion between acclaimed playwright Yehoshua Sobol and his rock musician son Yahli Sobol.
“I think that will be a fascinating evening,” says Milstein. “Yahli is such an icon for the younger generation, and his father is a highly respected writer. It should be interesting to see where that leads.”
The Sobol-Sobol tête-à-tête goes by the name of “Our Face and Voice – Who Is This Israeli?” Later next week, on Wednesday, journalist and lecturer on music and cinema Yehuda Nuriel will speak alongside veteran filmmaker Avi Nesher. Nesher will talk about his oeuvre to date, and about whether Israeli films crystallize the archetypal image of the Israeli, or distort it and then proffer it to the public as the genuine article.
“I define the series as a sort of civilian home activity,” suggests Milstein.
“There is definitely a political element to this – politics comes into everything – but it is not party-related.
There is no political wheeling and dealing here. The topic of Israeli identity, and who is an Israeli, is very political. Don’t forget there were a few High Court rulings on that.”
But the discussion part of the proceedings won’t be anything like the stormy affairs that often erupt at the Knesset and other political forums, she adds. “It will be a sort of intimate, coffee-house ambiance. The idea was to bring in speakers who address the topic of Israeliness, either in their professional or private life, or even as sort of icons of the so-called real Israeli.”
Next Saturday sees Yesh Atid Party member Rabbi Shai Piron come face to face with anthropologist and poet Prof. Zeli Gorevich, although there may be a snag that Milstein did not foresee when she put the program together.
“I don’t know, Piron might be an MK by the time his turn comes round,” she laughs. “I thought he was the ideal participant, and he even lives in Bat Yam. Hopefully he’ll have the time to take part.”
Other public figures on the Israeli Series roster include journalist Avirama Golan, who will meet with social activist and educator Zohar Avitan on February 19 to discuss the local Mediterranean identity and whether it really exists. The social margins of life here also get an airing, at a session titled “Mint-flavored Sabra – The Place of Non-Israeli Identities in Israeliness.” The slot features veteran sports personality Zohair Bahalul, who will spend some time with poet Erez Biton talking about “otherness” in local society and about the colors, cultures and sounds that tend to get pushed to the outer reaches of what is generally accepted as Israeli identity.
On February 28, journalist Yifat Erlich and author/playwright Nava Semel will look at the way the Holocaust impacts their take on what being an Israeli means, and Milstein herself will take part in the only nonpair discussion slot, on March 2. The latter session looks at Israeli women in a male domain and will include rock singer Si Hyman, artist and blogger Ortal Ben-Dayan, and media professional and blogger Anat Magal.
Milstein is hopeful that the discussion- performance synergy will yield substantial added value.
“[Octogenarian British film and theater director] Peter Brook once said that you are always going to have failures in everything you do,” she muses. “There is always some element of failure in my work, too, but there is so much you can learn from that. I think, and hope, we can all learn from this series.”For more information on the Israeli Series and Arava: (03) 635-0772 or