Israel’s national theater takes to New York stage

Gila Almagor stars in the Habimah production of Kaddish L’Naomi. Israel’s premier national theater, Habimah, will be taking the stage this week in New York City, presenting its expressionistic multi-media interpretation of a play based on the poem of American …

Gila Almagor stars in the Habimah production of Kaddish L’Naomi.

Israel’s premier national theater, Habimah, will be taking the stage this week in New York City, presenting its expressionistic multi-media interpretation of a play based on the poem of American icon, Allen Ginsberg.

The theater was invited by Symphony Space for the one-year residency in which it will present Kaddish L’Naomi (Kaddish for Naomi) the drama based on the American poet Allen Ginsberg’s classic poem, Kaddish.

The play, which will be performed from September 18-21, depicts Ginsberg’s boyhood and the gradual decline into madness of his mother. The Habima production blends drama and the harrowing coming-of-age story of the sensitive child of an American Jewish family living in the shadow of personal and national traumas.

Ginsberg wrote the classic long poem Kaddish. three years after his mother’s death in 1956. His mother’s steadily worsening paranoia and deteriorating mental state dominated Ginsberg’s childhood.

“It was Symphony Space that chose this particular production to bring over. And it seems natural – after all, Allen Ginsburg is an American cultural hero, and one of the most important writers of the Beat generation. This Israeli interpretation of the story of an American Jewish family is a unique bridge between the two cultures,” Habimah spokesman Koby HaCohen told ISRAEL21c.

Videotapes, still photographs and video art with the dramatic events occurring on the stage, together with a cast of fourteen actors.

The play stars Israel’s leading actress, Gila Almagor, who is well-known in New York due to her extensive film work: a retrospective of her movies was presented last year at the Museum of Modern Art. The production is a revival of the same play, directed by the same director, Hanan Snir, back in 1976.

“The trauma of his mother’s mental illness ‘in a way contributed to his development as a poet. Moreover the play also locks into its period, Thirties America, the time of the Depression, and the rise of communism and left-wing socialism,” explained Snir in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.

“Ginsberg wrote the poem as a mature man looking back at his childhood and young-manhood,” Snir said. “The process from poem to play is one of objectifying, of distancing, and therefore communicative to an audience. What’s universal here is coping with the abnormal, a task which fragments the family. Madness is here a metaphor for anything that is exceptional to the norm.”

Almagor’s performance has drawn raves during the run of the play in Israel. The play, one reviewer wrote, gave Almagor “one more chance to demonstrate her unflagging vivacity and irrepressible tenacity on Habimah’s illustrious stage.” Her theater portrayal of Ginsberg’s demented mother is uninhibitedly crazed and chaotic.”

One of the most influential companies in early-20th-century theater history, Habimah was founded as the first Hebrew theater in the world in Moscow in 1918 by Jewish actors in the rush of new hopes raised for the Jewish people in the incredibly open and productive early revolutionary period, attracting luminaries like Konstantin Stanislavsky and Yevgeny Vachtangov.

Habimah left Moscow in 1926 to tour all over Europe with The Dybbuk, and never returned. While in the United States in 1927, the company separated, and a handful of its original members went to Palestine in 1928 to establish what is now known also as the National Theater of Israel.

Isaiah Sheffer, artistic director of Symphony Space, told The Forward that credit was bringing the production to New York was due to the New York-Israel Cultural Cooperation Commission with a major seed-money grant, which was essential to attract further funding from the Israeli government and from individual donors. He is hoping this will be the first of many such presentations at Symphony Space.

In addition to Kaddish, Almagor will be treating New York theatergoers to her one-woman show The Summer of Aviya.

The play has a common theme with Kaddish L’Naomi – it is Almagor’s autobiographical play about her difficult childhood with a mentally ill mother who had lost her family in the Holocaust and her policeman husband to an Arab sniper. Almagor spent years in orphanages while her mother was in a mental hospital – she never knew her father.

Almagor wrote the autobiographical book published in 1987, which has gone through 20 editions and translated into 10 languages. Already Israel’s most acclaimed actress, it was natural for her to adapt the book into a one-woman show, and she has performed that show more than 600 times. The show became a film that has won prizes at film festivals in Germany, Holland, Italy and Yugoslavia.

Her follow-up memoir, Under the Domim Tree travelled the same path – from book to the stage to the movie theater, winning numerous awards along the way.

Both plays will be performed in New York in Hebrew, with English supertitles. Those who want to learn more about the production will be able to attend will present a special conversation with actress Gila Almagor and director Hannan Snir to be held on Tuesday, September 16 at 8 pm, prior to the opening night of Kaddish L’Naomi, the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan.