For those living far from Israel, it is easy to forget that beyond the media intensive coverage of the friction between Jews and Palestinians, there is a grinding schism within the Jewish community.
It pits secular chiloni and ultra-Orthodox charedi against each other, pulling in everyone in between into emotional confrontations on everyday living.
Israeli theater artist Robbie Gringras has distilled the spectrum of emotions, opinions and reactions emanating from that conflict into a 45-minute one-man show. Shabbes! is a work he has performed over 300 times around the world in both Hebrew and English, often to mixed groups of these same chiloni and charedi in an attempt to bridge the differences. It was presented to the students at Northwest Yeshiva High School on March 21.
Drawing on interviews he conducted with participants in three specific situations in 1998-99, he portrays nine separate characters ranging from the skeptical hard-line secular Israeli to the unquestioning believers.
The characters move through Jerusalem’s Bar Ilan Street, the site of violent demonstrations over closing the thoroughfare for Shabbat, to squabble over closing a Tel Aviv shopping center for Shabbat and a quarrel in the residential streets of the Neve Rotem neighborhood in Pardes Channa. The Haifa suburb that has been the scene of clashes between chilonim and charedim as the religious demographic character of the area has shifted.
In each setting, they bluntly express the truth as they see it, in ways that while sometimes seem stereotypically cartoonish. They also evoke from the audience a nervous and uncomfortable laughter borne from recognizing painful realities and some all-too-familiar personalities.
“There is no doubt that this program has the ability to make people laugh and be angry at the same time,” said Gringras. He gives that warning to the audience in the short introduction to the performance, along with descriptions of the factions each character represents.
Gringras plays out the dynamics of the conflicting views on a stage bare of all props except a street barricade that serves as a soapbox for the ever-changing characters that he channels. Each character is represented only by unique facial expressions and vocalizations.
The back and forth between the characters presents a picture of a people who not only are conflicted, but suffer from a seemingly organic inability to listen to each other.
“It struck me when I came to Israel that there is not only a right to speech, but an obligation to listen,” Gringras told the students during a question-and-answer period following the performance. “But people are not listening.”
Through animated monologues, the characters express disdain for each other, self-doubt of their own beliefs, and the realization that they may be more alike than different. The show ends with the melding of the voices of each character, as they come to the realization that they really are one people.
During the question-and-answer session, students asked Gringras about his own beliefs and practices, something he does not disclose. The British-born actor does think that as someone who did not grow up with the issues as a part of his daily life, he sees some of the causes more clearly.
Gringras points out that the problems being faced in Israeli society stem from the dream of one faction being the nightmare of the others. He does say that in terms of fundamentals in the differences of opinion in Israeli society, he does see hope.
“Shabbat is important to everyone,” he said. “To find places of argument is to find a small place.
“The center ground has grown, so there is room for agreement,” he added. “There is a workable solution out there. Seventy percent of the population has come to a consensus on how to deal with issues such as those presented in the performance. The issue is getting that consensus implemented.”
Gringas, 40, emigrated to Israel 11 years ago. Despite the cracks in Israeli society that he has witnessed firsthand, he still feels that leaving Manchester and coming to Israel was the best thing he ever did. But he says it still has not given him insight into how to solve the issues facing modern Israeli society.
When asked if he is a social commentator, observer or agent for change, he laughs and says “all three.”
Gringas’ appearance at Northwest Yeshiva High School was his first in Seattle. He had performed a different work the evening before at the school’s annual gala.