Acting the part, together

Yael Levin, a young Mexican-born multilingual actress who recently made aliya and her husband, Yoel, cast together.

yoel and yael levine 521 (photo credit: Benny Kahane)
yoel and yael levine 521
(photo credit: Benny Kahane)
Bad enough that US sailors stationed on a South Pacific island during WWII had to face enemy action. Worse yet was the critical shortage of “dames.”
The good news – at least as Rodgers and Hammerstein told it in their hit musical comedy South Pacific – was that many of life’s lesser necessities could be acquired by trading with Bloody Mary, a flirtatious and flamboyant Tonkinese trader. As for Bloody Mary herself, the one thing she wanted was to speak proper English – at least as good as “any crummy Marine.”
When LOGON – the Light Opera Group of the Negev – cast the part of Bloody Mary for its 30th annual musical comedy production, it picked Yael Levin, a bubbly young Mexican-born actress whose English is slightly better than perfect. In fact, Levin is, by profession, a qualified conference translator who speaks not just Spanish and English, but French, Russian and Hebrew as well.
“My husband, Yoel, and I have this thing about languages,” Levin laughs. “We just love studying and learning new languages. We spent time in Russia and Canada, too, so that helped.”
Yoel Levin, who plays the part of Lt. Lopez, is turning the couple’s affinity for languages into a family trait. “At home with our two kids – Ishay, five, and Ya’ara, four – we take turns. If one of us speaks Spanish to them, the other will speak English,” Yoel notes.
“They’ll grow up with three or four languages – I think that’s good. It’s healthy. Any child can do that.”
The Levins’ quest for languages began when Yael and Yoel were teenagers in Mexico City and individually decided to spend a summer in Russia.
“That’s where we met,” Yael says, although Yoel tells half the story. The Levins are so perfectly attuned they not only finish each other’s sentences but also seem to be thinking the same thing at the same time.
“It was 1993,” Yael recalls. “I was 17 and Yoel was 19. We didn’t know each other, but we’d each volunteered with a group traveling to Russia to run Jewish summer camps for Russian teenagers. Having a chance to learn Russian was a big reason for both of us, and from that time on, Yoel and I were a pair.
“We were on the same path – both bigtime Zionists, big fans of David Ben- Gurion. We both wanted to make aliya and live in Israel.” After their second summer trip to Russia, Yoel decided to stay on.
“I was there for two more years, studying classical guitar and Russian. A friend and I rented an apartment in Penza, a big city you don’t hear much about. The summers were great, but the winters, when the temperature dropped to minus 33, were something else. You could put a glass of water outside the w i n d o w and it would just freeze, just like that. Even so, it was a great experience.”
Back home in Mexico, plans for aliya began to take shape. “Because of our love for Ben-Gurion, we wanted to come to the Negev,” Yael explains. “Like him, we believe the future of Israel is in the South. We wanted to help make the Negev flourish.”
A pilot trip to Israel after their 2001 wedding ended up lasting a year and a half.
“We were exploring our options and having a great time,” Yael says. “We spent our savings, studying and traveling around all over, north and south. We thought of just staying on in Israel then, but we had too many loose ends in Mexico – an apartment and a car. And I wanted to finish my degree.”
Next came a sojourn in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“We wanted to study environmental science, so we went to Canada, where both kids were born,” Yael recalls. “We made aliya in 2009 from Vancouver and ended up in Yeroham after spending a couple of months with Yoel’s mother in Jerusalem. At 72, she’d made aliya all by herself about a year before.
“When a friend told us about a house in Yeroham, we snapped it up. Now Yoel’s mother lives here, too. If she hadn’t been here to babysit, we couldn’t have done South Pacific.”
FEW PEOPLE enjoying the annual LOGON performances realize how much volunteer time goes into the productions. During the last several weeks before opening, rehearsals go on four evenings a week.
“After work, we leave the house at 6:45 p.m. and sometimes don’t get home until after midnight. Rehearsals started several months ago, but the schedule intensifies as the opening date gets closer.
“Right now, for us, we’re all a little fuzzy. It’s hardest on Ya’ara, who’s only four. Every night she asks, ‘You’re going to the theater again?’ But she’s excited too – she’ll have fun seeing us on stage. It’s a good thing we’re having so much fun because we’re putting in very long hours right now.”
Interestingly enough, some of the Levins’ theatrical experiences echo those of Ed Spitz, who helped found LOGON 30 years ago.
It all started in Omer, when Spitz, who’d been frustrated in his desire to play the judge in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury, talked a few other English-speaking immigrants into joining him in staging a show.
“Our theater group in Brooklyn when I was in college had put on Trial by Jury,” Spitz says. “I really wanted to play the judge, but the director’s husband was a real judge, so he won the part. I played the jury foreman, but never got over my desire to play the judge.”
For years Spitz waited, hoping another opportunity would present itself; but not until he engineered it himself did it happen.
“Construction on Omer’s new cultural center started in 1977,” he says. “I drove by the site every day, watched it come up, and then I got an idea. Maybe we could put on a play! And if we did Trial by Jury, maybe I could play the judge! “So in 1981, we did – we used a musical score I’d mimeographed back in college. We built a few basic sets and put on two performances; both sold out. We decided to keep it going.”
Not only did LOGON continue, so did Ed Spitz. This year, Spitz plays Captain Brackett, the naval base commander.
The Levins had a somewhat similar experience. They, too, had wanted to act, sing and dance, but didn’t get the chance until after their aliya.
“We did some small plays in Russia – summer camp stuff,” Yael says. “Then in Mexico, we took singing lessons from a really cool teacher, who encouraged us to audition, so when a group decided to put on Fiddler on the Roof, we went for it. But with several hundred people auditioning, we didn’t make it.”
“Then we got to Vancouver,” Yoel continues. “Once again, a local group was doing Fiddler. We auditioned – and this time we made it! “Only then did the reality hit us: We had a newborn, and the rehearsals were a long way from where we lived. It wasn’t realistic to fit it all in between work and study, so we had to turn the roles down.
“That’s why, the minute we landed in Israel, Yael said, ‘This is it! This is where we’re going to do it!’ We discovered LOGON last year, but were too late for My Fair Lady. But this year? Finally! It’s happening!” EVEN THOUGH it’s her first big theater performance, Yael isn’t suffering from butterflies.
“Playing Bloody Mary isn’t nearly as intimidating as translating for an audience of thousands of people,” she says. “It’s not the same, of course, but there’s a lot of stress in translating, too. Stress is okay. I like having pressure – you get a real shot of adrenalin afterwards.”
Yoel admits to a few jitters – not about his singing or acting, but about his juggling.
“It was the craziest thing,” he laughs. “We were at one of the LOGON workshops, and they were asking us about other talents. ‘If any of you have any other talents, please stand up and show us,’ they said.
“I didn’t quite understand, so I said, ‘What kind of talent? You mean something like juggling?’ Understand, I wasn’t volunteering – I was just asking. But they kept after me, ‘Could you do a little juggling?’ So finally I gave in.
“Now I’m juggling in the show twice, and I’m more nervous about that than about anything else. You can almost bet that, sometime, I’ll drop one of the balls and it’ll roll into the orchestra pit.”
During the day, both Levins work as tour guides at Midreshet Sde Boker.
“It’s a great job,” Yoel says. “We get to talk about our passion for Zionism, for Israel and for David Ben-Gurion. We offer several programs in Spanish, English, Russian and French. It’s like a dream come true – to be able to tell visitors about the Negev and Ben- Gurion’s vision.
“But if we could? I think we’d both love to just keep doing South Pacific forever.”
Performances of LOGON’s South Pacific begin February 15 in Beersheba, followed by performances in Haifa/Nesher, Modi’in, Netanya, Jerusalem, Kfar Saba and Givatayim. For tickets or more information, or call (08) 641-4081.