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Shulem recalls the liberation from slavery in Egypt ,remembering the Holocaust
By Peter Slymovics

Dr. Peter  Slymovics  from The Hebrew University Jerusalem  is also on the staff of Beit Midrash Elul and is a lecturer on Jewish Philosophy and Jewish Thought for the Israel Defense Forces and other institutions of higher learning


Theatre Company Jerusalem's SHULEM  written by Gabriella Lev, is nothing less than a tour-de force. Lev and her co- creators, Serge Ouaknine, Ayellet Stoller, Avishai Fish and Gershon Weisserfirer depict and examine the indelible mark the Shoah has made on our personal and universal consciousness by portraying how the mystifying muddle of memory is transmitted to the next generation and the elusiveness of certainty. The manner in which music, movement, text, visions and languages are interwoven, the profundity of the material and the virtuosity of the performers is what transforms this insightful examination into a theatrical glory.

Shulem is a story-teller, a raconteur, who has lived the most terrible period of Jewish history, the Holocaust. He experienced his life, as did our ancestors for thousands of years, with humor and a strong identification with the long story of the Jewish people. In each retelling his stories presents us with a radically different text, the facts easily sacrificed to fit present needs. Villains can become human and even friends. In one telling when Shulem meets a Nazi prison guard at the end of the war, his response is swift; harsh deathly justice is done. But in another story, years after the death camps, Shulem begins a friendship with the same Nazi. Years later, in a spirit of forgiveness, they meet in a coffee-house in Berlin. In Shulem’s world, truth is relative - adjusting itself to the needs of the moment. Life does not imitate art; it is art. Truth is shaped by the story teller, the traditional artisan.

The Performance

Lev - electrifying and moving – becomes her father, her mother, her aunts, their gypsy seer, shifting roles and languages with breath-taking clarity - sometimes speaking three languages in a single sentence .The fact that Lev is playing her own life recollections heightens the hypnotic aura of the performance. She “embodies” the knowledge of how much first generation Holocaust experience has been transmitted unconsciously, almost by osmosis, to the second generation.
Who are we watching ? Shulem? Shulem's daughter as a little girl? (wonderously played by Ayellet Stoller) Shulem’s daughter as a mature woman? as an actress? The answer is all of these. These magical possibilities amplify life. The set-up of the staging is another dimension carefully worked into the body of the play. The audience sits close enough to touch the performers, on either side of the performance area with the action occurring between the two rows of audience, and on both extremes of the space. We are also watching each other. The mechanics of seeing, remembering and witnessing is not only being commented on, but being viscerally experienced by the audience. You cannot forget for one moment that you are in a theatre - the home of artifice, yet what you are experiencing bears witness to a truth of life, perplexing, profound and ambiguous. For example, the director Ouaknine stages a tank battle with three simple elements: three actors, a box on wheels, and a euphonium. The scene is deeply philosophical and absurd. We see Shulem as an officer in the Red Army's campaign against the Nazis, refusing to destroy a Jewish cemetery despite orders. He enters the cemetery, opens a coffin and discovers a Tsadik, a righteous person, fully alive, wrapped in the ritual tefillin and talit. The startling image of righteousness, alive but in a coffin, in the middle of the Holocaust best depicts Shulem’s attitude to life. Miracles can always be found. It requires a good story-teller to unearth them.

The sudden shifts between comedy and calamity, between a single still sound and a vivid cacophony, suggests how quickly life-events can shift, how tenuous is our hold on well-being. The lighting is subdued, giving ambiance to figures moving in and out of shadows, from life to art, from memory to present reality. As an answer to the curse from the Haggadah "Spill your wrath on all the nations who know you not!" flowers on darts fall from the sky, a most potent image. Wrath is indeed spilt, but it is only dangerous flora that fall from the heavens, pierce the Passover table and stand upright - a startling icon of divine mercy and judgment, recalling hoped for teshuvah. The action always reassuringly returns to the ritual, the formal procedure celebrating the Jews' freedom from bondage. In this sense, “SHULEM ” is not typical avant-garde theatre, but an affirmative assertion of life in the face of absolute evil. Indeed, the Seder is seen as the one element that makes any kind of sense in a period of history when evil rules and God is significantly absent.
The Analysis

It is of major significance that Lev’s richly textured play takes place on the night of Passover around the traditional family Seder table. One might expect an expression of the complete absurdity of human existence to make light of the Seder night. But in the case of SHULEM  , the absolute horror and irrationality of the Holocaust is precipitously balanced by the power of tradition exemplified by the Seder night. Lev constantly straddles a thin line between meaningless insanity and a deep affirmation of the value of life. Ouaknine’s direction and visual conception, Fish's music, and the acting of the entire cast, follow and accentuate this tension.

The Passover night recalls the liberation from slavery in Egypt. In the background hover the events of the Holocaust which make the slavery of Egypt seem almost rational. The family is seated around the Passover table remembering Egypt, remembering the Holocaust, recalling past Seders with the departed Patriarch of the family, Shulem. The Passover Hagaddah recounts, through stories and powerful symbols, the liberation from slavery. Equally important, it tells how each generation celebrated the liberation of Egypt in its own personal way. Here, too, Shulem's family also remembers him, his personal stories of liberation all intimately linked to his personal past and the history of his people.

Each family member represents themselves, as well as the memory of a departed or murdered aunt or uncle, and each symbolizes a major figure in the Bible. The trials of the family in the Holocaust echo the experience of Israel throughout the generations. Contemporary identities mingle with ancient archetypal heroes. In one story, it is stated that Jacob and his children were killed in Germany. History literally becomes one. The refrain of the Haggadah chants out the mantra “In all the generations we face constant destruction”. The other mantra, chillingly reiterated “in each generation and generation God has consistently saved us” stands as a stark and bitter reminder of Divine absence in the dark period of the Holocaust.

But not for Shulem the story-teller. For him even in the midst of the Holocaust, sparks of Divine presence are always there.

In this sense, Lev significantly departs from Jewish raconteurs of the past who tended to mitigate the problematics of being a Jew (not all did), protecting God at all costs from any blame for misfortunes that befell His people. By contrast, Lev's play opens by summoning God to a Din Torah, a public, legal justification of His actions during the war. Why did He disappear when He was most needed? No theodicy is attempted, nor can it be. Even in the period of the Holocaust there is a positive existential response. Tradition goes on in spite of everything, in spite of evil human beings, in spite of God and His glaring absence. The Seder continues, as it always has - even after Shulem's own death.

His story is not the reporting of the professional historian who objectively reports facts while remaining aloof from history. At no point does Shulem let the facts 'speak for themselves'. He presents history with a mixture of how it was and how it should be, constantly taking on different 'truths', expressing the changes in his own life. And it is, therefore, fitting, that the traditional Seder table is the central focal point of the play, around which Shulem's family continues telling stories about their father and grandfather, long after his own death. If anyone expects to get solid information - hard facts - they will be seriously disappointed. Every one of Shulem's stories has many versions; to establish the one definitive text is impossible.

SHULEM’s stories represent an ‘aggadah’ of their own, an historical epoch and our deep need to understand it through our tradition of story telling; an identification with the past and living through the present, in stories. All is possible in Shulem's world because historical truth died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. The post-modern world has not merely relativized truth, but shattered it irrevocably. All that remains is the telling of a good story, enabling us to continue living.

In the final analysis, and despite the horror that he and his people experienced, there is an uncomprehending, simple affirmation of Jewishness and existence in general. Shulem ends his life, able to bear witness to the miraculous events of his life-time. His despair at war does not prevent his appreciation of the Jewish post-war miracle-the resurrection of his people from the ashes. The seemingly glaring contradiction of Holocaust and the re-birth of Israel is never part of his consciousness. Despair is never victorious. Shulem lives with hatred, yet totally defies its power. On the Seder night he is one of the few who opens the door for the Messianic figure of Elijah, even in his native Hungary, where anti-Semites are on the prowl for Jews who devour their children’s blood and bake it with matzoth.

Where does historical truth lie? What, in fact, happened? That is something we will never know in the professional historical sense. In Lev's article in the play’s souvenir program, she quotes Eva Hoffman in "After Such Knowledge" describing what her Holocaust victim parents transmitted to her as "emanations, sometimes nearly embodiments, of psychic matter." And indeed in the production of "SHULEM " the creators have triumphantly succeeded in translating this "psychic matter" into the language of theatre. There is a magical quality, a compassion and a beauty that transcends the devastating facts being recounted. Following the tradition of her father, Lev seems to be telling us that if we live in a post-modern world where truth is relative, than perhaps we can construct it as a better world - where contradictory truths live side by side, each side getting its full due.

By 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 Weisserfirer

Assistant to Director: Emanuella Amichai, Scenery, props and costume design: Yaara Dayan, Movement adviser: Noa Wertheim, Scenery construction: Lishay Levron, Zemer Sat, Eitan Knafo, Assistant stage designer: Shiri Cohen, Technical assistants: Daniel Palanker, Adam Rotblit, Photographer: Lishay Levron, Production: Ayellet Stoller

Theatre Company Jerusalem (TCJ) fuses modern theater techniques with ancient Hebrew and Aramaic writings to create contemporary theatre.
Gabriella Lev, initiated the formation of the company, and was joined by Aliza Elion Israeli, Ruth Wieder Magan and Joyce Miller. Together, they worked to evolve a unique Israeli theatre form - deeply reflective of Jerusalem’s cultural and geographical context.


Theatre Company Jerusalem

Gabriella Lev -Artistic Director

e-mail : gabilev@netvision.net.il

Tel : 972-2- 678 3621 

Web: www.tcj.org.il/shulemen  


On Thursday April 19th at ZOA house in Tel Aviv at 20:30
Theatre Company Jerusalem (TCJ) is presenting a special event and would be honored by your presence. In the period between
Holocaust Memorial Day and the Israel Independence Day, TCJ will strive to stimulate a serious public discussion on the contribution of arts and culture in combating anti-Semitism in Israel and the world. TCJ’s production, “SHULEM” (www.tcj.org.il/shulemen) hailed by both the press and educational experts in Israel as a breakthrough, a new way of relating to the Holocaust and as an artistic triumph, will serve as the basis of a panel discussion.

Panel participants will include Government ministers, Knesset members, Holocaust survivors, press and media, academics, artists. Your presence will make a major contribution to the success and effectiveness of the event, both in raising awareness to the threat of increasing anti-Semitism and in understanding ways to combat it.

"Shulem"presents a collective memory of the Holocaust not as painful and horrific, but as a fabulous tale of the triumph of life. The play illuminates how the parents of a little girl framed tragic experiences as stories filled with magic, music and humor. "SHULEM” yearns to give shape to something that can not be given a shape and an image to something that can not be seen.
"Exceptionally powerful! Consummate and compelling performances!" Maariv (national daily)

With kind regards,
Osnat Gispan


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