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Back to The Travels of Benjamin The Third
By Ala Zuskin-Perelman

Ala Zuskin-Perelman, the daughter of Benjamin Zuskin and Eda Berkovsky, both actors in the Moscow State Jewish Theater, was born in Moscow. There, she became engineer (MSc) and translator / information expert (MA), and raised her family. Zuskin-Perelman immigrated to Israel in 1975 with her husband Yuri Perelman and their two sons. For two decades she ran the Information Center at the Standards Institution of Israel. She works to memorialize her father: by giving speeches, being interviewed, publishing articles, and assisting The Tel Aviv Diaspora Museum, The Jerusalem Cinematheque, Israeli community television producers, and The New York Jewish Museum. Zuskin-Perelman’s book, The Travels of Benjamin Zuskin, has been published in Russian, 2002, and in Hebrew, 2006. She is preparing now the English version. e-mail : ala@bezeqint.net  

On January 12, 2007, I saw a Yiddishpil premiere. Yiddishpil is the Israeli theatre performing in Yiddish, directed by  Shmuel Atzmon. The performance was The Travels of Benjamin The Third, based upon the novel by Mendeli Mokher Sfarim.

I am reviewing it late, since it was not so easy for me to concentrate on writing a review. To explain why, I have to first tell my story. The 12th of January was chosen for the premiere on purpose, since it is the eve of January 13th,  the date that Solomon Mikhoels, the eminent Soviet Jewish actor, stage director, and public figure, was murdered under Stalin's orders. My father, Benjamin Zuskin, who was also executed under Stalin's order on August 12, 1952, starred as Senderl together with Mikhoels as Benjamin in the The Travels of Benjamin The Third, which premiered in The Moscow State Jewish (Yiddish) Theatre in 1927, precisely 80 years ago. The Yiddishpil premiere was dedicated to their memory. In fact, Mikhoels's daughter Nina and I were the guests of honor.

On my way to the theatre I was tense. How could I see the new performance instead of the old one? Could I compare both? I have not even seen the Moscow performance. Before I was born it stopped running on the stage, and it ran for many years. All my life, I knew that Senderl was the most beloved character my father ever performed on stage or in cinema, and when I wrote a book about my father and his theatre, I could only name it The Travels of Benjamin Zuskin. So, the Moscow performance is known to me even to its most tiny details, although this knowledge is based on a virtual image. I was afraid that the "flesh and blood" performance would either sweep out or alter this image.

The "flesh and blood" performance starts. I am still tense until I see at the back of the stage a windmill with slowly revolving arms. In front of it, one friend meets another with no words. Benjamin and Senderl. What? My complacent memory reminds me of the sayings of a Moscow critic: "Adventures of the souls of Benjamin-Mikhoels and Senderl-Zuskin where elevated and tragic." You see, for Mendeli, the prototypes of his heroes were Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and spiritually, the two actors perfectly fit these prototypes. The public, charmed with such a spiritual interpretation, paid no attention that externally, Mikhoels-Benjamin and Zuskin-Senderl were different from Cervantes's personages. Mikhoels, for instance, was even smaller that Zuskin. And then, I suddenly ordered myself: "Stop it! Stop comparing!" Nowadays, why on the earth is the Tel-Aviv theatre supposed to follow Moscow, and not Mendeli Mokher Sfarim, or Cervantes? Here, before my eyes, are all the attributes of the Cervantes's original intention: handsome, tall and nobleman-looking Sassy Keshet as Benjamin, and in contrast to him - short, chubby Yaakov Bodo as Senderl, and an obligatory windmill too.

From this point on during the performance, I ceased to be under the shadow of my past, and became a part of the audience. From this point on, I am now starting to write the review.

The performance is good. By definition, it is a musical, and absolutely complies with this genre. It is dynamic and vigorous, and reaches a successful proportion between fragments with dance or song with verbal acting. Musical fragments flow into dramatic ones and vice versa, smoothly and naturally.

Sassy Keshet is a well known Israeli actor performing in Hebrew and in Yiddish. As Benjamin, he is truly good. His look is impressive, and so is his acting. He is as convincing while quoting out of holy books or expressing his high expectations, especially as well as when his hero is tired, disappointed or full of sorrow. But most impressive is his singing; he is gifted with a special voice and uses it skillfully.

To say about Yaakov Bodo that he is a popular Israeli Yiddish actor says nothing. Actually, he is the incarnation of the Yiddishkeit on the Israeli stage. His Senderl is very folkish, very "at home" in the atmosphere of a small Jewish town, and his cues are full of common sense and humor. With this, Bodo never exaggerates and never gets out of proportion.

The female characters presented by Irma Stepanov as Zelde, Benjamin's wife, and Anabella as Kreine, the wife of Senderl, are colorful and full of temperament.

Every one of other Other actors and actresses performs a few different characters. For instance, talented Gera Sender transforms himself – and does it well, indeed – from a bandit to a boatman and from a boatman to a gipsy.
Everybody communicates well with partners, and thus, the entire ensemble looks like an entity. This phenomenon exists while characters are speaking and while they are singing or dancing.

I would like to praise the music and musical directing of the production by David Krovoshey, a well known Israeli composer and conductor. Also, I would like to praise the excellent lyrics written by Yankele Halpern, the famous Yiddish actor and author, who also translated this play from Hebrew to Yiddish.

With such creators and singers the song performance is very good, and solos are interwoven organically into group songs. Nevertheless, here I have some criticism. I already mentioned that in the whole performance the proportion between different fragments is kept well, but there is one exception. The gipsy song, wonderfully performed by Monica Vardinon, who is as talented as her beauty beautiful, is too long and gives impression that at this point we have a recital, rather than a whole performance.

Now I’d like to discuss the dancing and movement. As I promised myself and my readers, I make no allusions to the past. I would just like to mention that taking after my mother (Zuskin's wife Eda Berkivskaya, actress of the same Moscow Jewish Theatre, who also used to be there dancer and assistant choreographer), I am quite critical about any dance or movement on stage. When I see some clumsy movement or a dance out of a given rhythm – and unfortunately, this happens in our theatres – it makes me suffer. In this Yiddishpil performance there is nothing of the kind. In addition to the good choreography by Gilad Kimkhy, every one of ensemble dancers performs with full congruence with the music and rhythm. Each character moves extremely clearly and groups move so in sync, that all together it is as if it were one person, not a group of different characters.

Benjamin and Senderl are "traveling" from their small town and through Russian villages with a vain hope to find the place of their dreams. The desperate looking of the both characters for a way to the Land of Israel is the theme of the novel, the play and the performance. The performance presents this theme very clearly. On the other hand, this was not the case of the Moscow performance. Once more, I am not comparing, just mentioning. In the Moscow performance such a theme was somehow clouded. It could not be otherwise in the oppressive atmosphere of Soviet Russia, and perhaps because of this atmosphere the performance was rather sad and even tragic, rather than cheerful.
Here in today's Israel, Yiddishpil interpreted the novel from the point of view of the cheerful spirit of the Jewish people. This point of view justifies the chosen genre - the one of a musical, which is colorful and festive.

Overall, the performance is a success.

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Ala Zuskin-Perelman

Mendele Mocher Sefarim ( 1836- 1917 )

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