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Seven languages on one stage :The play "Shulem" experience the Holocaust through art
By Gabriella Lev

Theatre Company Jerusalem


Gabriella Lev, Created with Ayellet Stoller
Director and Visual concept: Serge Ouaknine
Composer and Musical director: Avishai Fisz
Musician and creating actor: Gershon Weisserfirer
Performers (in Alphabetical order) : Avishai Fisz, Gabriella Lev, Ayellet Stoller, Gershon waiserfirer
Directors assistant: Emanuella Amichai
Scenery, props and costume design: Yaara Dayan
Light design: Shahar Kedem
Choreography adviser: Noa Wertheim
Scenery construction: Lishay Levron, Zemer Sat, Eitan Knafo
Photographer: Lishay Levron

The discussion of the Holocaust is always relevant since it is an event which on the one hand can never be comprehended while on the other hand it has changed the face of the world and evoked the questions: what is man? What are the limits of humanity?

Now, 60 years later, we have the right to a very special position in history- the witnesses are passing away and we are the generation that has heard their stories first-hand and now must pass them on to the generations to come. The question is - how? It is said that a person knows that he is getting old when past memories are fresher in his mind then are everyday memories. The time that has passed made it possible for the witnesses to release their memories and speak about them. Life healed their horrible wounds through their giving birth to children: the creation of new life, the growth of the next generation, a continuity, a generation that will always remember.

Judaism is expressed through this important transmission from generation to generation; this is the core of our existence.

The first request made by the witnesses, and also by those who did not survive was, was: do not forget! This request was very difficult for the survivors’ first generation since they were reluctant to speak about the holocaust. Only now, as the witnesses are approaching the end of their lives- are they more able to talk about it.

The first intuitive response of the Jewish people was to erect museums and collect testimonies, written documents, photographs; Yad Vashem, Paul Landsman, Spielberg. This level of documentation has been conducted very thoroughly. Now the question arises how to express the historical experience as an experience that has become an integral component of the subconscious of the second and third generations.

It is impossible to create a metaphor or an allegory from an immediate or primary experience, therefore, only the second generation and generations to come have been liberated from this limitation and are free to reshape reality. The second generation is allowing itself to express their parents experience through art. The documentation of the Holocaust has been undertaken and almost completed, and now the expression of the holocaust is no longer about the unmediated experience but about the manner in which the experience is encoded in the subconscious. This is what authors such as David Grossman are doing and this is also what the play "Shulem" is about.

Art is created out of an unspoken history (like oral tradition rather than literary tradition) of layers upon layers in the artist's mind, expressed through art. The meaning of art is to fabricate in order to express the truth.
There is no doubt that theatre can not compete with reality, it can only try to bequeath to the private experience its due mythical and subconscious dimensions. This is what the play "Shulem" does.

The Jewish approach to theatre can not compete with blood, it can not give in to realism as does western theatre so often today. In order to reach catharsis one must see things through the artists’eyes and view of reality. The audience leaves the theatre cleansed and purified, and this is theatre's purpose.

7 languages on one stage

The stage is not a world of words but a world of images. The images in the play "Shulem" are all from one specific world-Eastern Europe. The languages are the image's tunes, and in many ways the music of life in Israel. The end of the play combines all the music into one word, the Hebrew word for resurrection, for Hebrew is the language that redeems from exile and heals the wounds of exile..

The turmoil of life through gypsy music

Gypsy music is a very ancient music (some say it's origins go back to the music from the holy temple). It includes elements from many world cultures. It is music that bites at the heart, gives a taste of death in order to declare life. Only when facing death does life receive its power, and this is what is expressed in gypsy music. Lorca wrote: "It is not music that comes from angels, but it is music that comes from facing death". Death for the Jewish people is not pure, they are commanded to choose life and not death.

A stage with no stage

The play "Shulem" is a ceremony in which the dead are resurrected and participate together with the living in the Passover "seder". The stage of the ceremony is the altar on which the sacrifices are being offered in order to give a new and better life to the participants in the ritual. The participants are the people sitting around the table, i.e., the altar, experiencing catharsis through sacrifice. Therefore the audience in the performance of "Shulem" does not face the stage frontally, but rather is a full participant in the ceremony.

Is it possible to be an artist after the Holocaust?

History shows that holocaust survivors have chosen two ways in which to survive and continue with life: total silence or transforming the experience into art. Art enables us to transform the personal experience into a mythical one and thus it gains meaning. In either case, silence or art, the choice is life.

The music transmits the experience

“Shulem” is not a linear story, nor is it a story at all. It is an agglomeration of sounds and words that together try to ascribe a shape to something that shape cannot contain, and delineate an image to something that cannot be seen. The music derives from gypsy music, opera, German cabaret songs, Jewish music, prayers, words and stories in different languages. This unique musical expression was created both out of an urgency arising from a fear of silence and a deep yearning for the silence that brings a peace that cannot be found.

The silence in the play "Shulem” is created by sudden stops, cuts and frozen images.
The movements are like a dance of clowns because only in madness can we cope with the wounds of the past.

The Holocaust through the eyes of a little girl

The play “Shulem” presents an original view of the Holocaust as an empowering experience. It relays unique situation in which the parents of a little girl manage to convey tragic stories in the guise of tales filled with magic and humor that convey a message of strength, validating how reality can be overcome through art.
In “Shulem” that art is nourished through the Talmudic approach. Every event turns into Midrash and therefore rises above reality and thus elucidates and reflects reality.

The Talmud never provides definitive answers, because while there is always what Shulem called the "bottom line", i.e., the Law, the Halacha, surrounding it around are endless questions left unanswered, until a simple question about when to say the prayers turns into a question regarding the order of creation of the world.

The main question in the play is "Gobbiko, do you know the question?", because the true meaning of being free is the ability to ask questions. That ability, that freedom was given to us by the Talmud.

What is the color of the Shoah?
by Serge Ouaknine (Director and Visual concept )

All through the rehearsals of “Shulem” one question obsessed me: what will be the piece's dominant color? What is the color of the Shoah [the holocaust)? Is color possible? Which tones, which light intensities to use so that objects and beings would emerge like calligraphic letters out of a white sheet of paper? I had no doubts about the textured voices and music. What is the color of the Shoah that would not invoke miserableness, as in so called “modern” or “post-modern” art, neither would it be an illustration nor another cliché. What would be the color to be seen by the audience against the stream of what was heard? I had to find a personal, intimate anchor to guide the inevitable visual dimensions of things.

A very early remembrance of my student era came back to me From 1965 to 1967, I lived in Poland, in the centre of its communist regime. I had left Paris for the Fine Arts School of Warsaw, and then for Wroclaw (formerly Breslau) to what would become the famous Laboratory Theatre of the master Jerzy Grotowski. I was a witness, a disciple, and a collaborator. A young artist, in search of his own roots, in quest of a bridge to be built between my "Eastern" and my "Western" boundaries. I, born in Morocco, wanted to unite myself with the other part of my people. I felt called by a distant tragedy, and wished to recover some vital traces from its ruins. So I walked to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I was 22 years old. I followed the railways.

All through my career, as a theatre director and professor of acting and visual arts, I always found a moment to tell what struck me most in Birkenau: inside, the barracks were painted in white. Yes, the beds were ugly wooden rabbit's cages, but on the walls were hundreds of graffiti. Almost invisible. Little flowers ( in red), small pencil sketches, poems, love declarations, surrealistic rendezvous for “after war”, addresses and telephone numbers in Lublin, Lodz, Katowice. Very tiny humoristic cartoons, yes! a little Jew running after a frightened kapo! In the very heart of hell, flowers and laughter!! But from where did the prisoners have the pink and violet ink to leave signs that triumph over their oppressors? I repeat, the inner walls looked white. From far away only. But from close up, sometimes scratched with a nail there would be a surname in Yiddish, or a drawn face emerging from that snow. This, for me, remains the color of the Shoah.

But no performance can assume its shape. Horror has no image. Horror has no color. None of the overexploited images of the Shoah can depict the real facts. Life, and only it, can triumph over this unbearable white. That very burst of life, those little nothings on the walls, insignificant stains; remain more eloquent than any story of despair. And, what would lead the staging of “Shulem” were not the visible things and its effects, (even though they represent a tremendous amount of work to render them simple), but the speaking stream of a living legend. This constantly revised Haggada is a most creative way to transmit a possible taste for life, a possible desire to build again. Shulem Wieder actually existed, this father who survived THE WAR understood that in order to transmit and reconstruct life, he should pay less attention to his pains but be exuberant with his children, with fabulous tales and unbelievable variations of the same stories, sometimes mythical, sometimes fabulously funny, so that the dream would infiltrate the drama with a flow of love. The pilpul of many languages that would involve his children in a permanent state of creative mind. Ancient Talmudic wisdom, his strategy, fully triumphant.

Mystical visions, humor and imagination triumphing more effectively than mourning the loss of dear ones. Celebrating Passover, elevated by a mixture of Gypsy and Jewish melodies, coming out of slavery in Egypt as if just yesterday from Auschwitz. How he became an officer in the Soviet army, not even knowing how to shoot … how he captured a Nazi officer to advise him and play his role… So Gabriella Lev became an artist to return her tribute. Ayellet Stoller mirrors her juvenile actions; the adult within the child, the never eradicated child within the adult figure, both remembering the faces of the saga. Avishai Fisz and Gershon Weisserfirer bearing a vital and precious music, also actors in this open play-yard where tears and laughter are equally woven. If the Jews have survived by studying the Book, the Gypsies kept their lives by their music. The spirit of vitality and life shining beyond any ordered death. That is how the father triumphed over Hitler. It was clear to me that building this ritual is a blessing I had to honour. I did not feel I was making a show, I felt I was clarifying my life.

The repair – the tikkun – is beyond any color.

Contact :

Theatre Company Jerusalem fuses contemporary theater with ancient Hebrew and Aramaic writings to create a dynamic new theatrical art, relevant to modern day questions and dilemmas.
The Theatre was founded in 1982, by Gabriela Lev who together with Aliza Elion-Israeli, Ruth Wieder -Magan and joyce Miller seeked? the opportunity to create a different, original and unique Theatre in Jerusalem.

Po.box 4724 Jerusalem Israel  e-mail : theatrec@netvision.net.il

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Related Links:

  • Read additional from Page to Stage
  • Theatre in Spotlight -Theatre Company Jerusalem
  • Serge Ouaknine-Jrusalem

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    There is currently 1 comment about this article:

    1.Brillant presentation of SHULEM
      serge ouaknine, Montpellier France    (5/27/2006)

  • Gabriella Lev : "Gobbiko, do you know the question?"

    Serge Ouaknine Director and Visual concept

    Gabriella Lev ,Avishai Fisz,Ayellet Stoler,Gershon Waiserfirer

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