Contemporary portraits of Israel as a seething dystopia run by right-wing ethnocentric maniacs bent on oppressing Palestinians owe a huge debt to the singular Israeli author and critic Amos Kenan, one of the members of the Canaanite movement of the 1930s and ’40s that hoped to displace both Zionism and Palestinian nationalism as the common culture of the land. In his masterwork, The Road to Ein Harod, the protagonist travels through an Israel taken over by a military coup led by fanatic generals. Fleeing to kibbutz Ein Harod in the Jezreel valley, perhaps the last remaining bastion of free society, he sings, “The road to the kvutza is neither short nor long,” an old folk song that was popular with members of Jezreel valley youth movements in pre-state Israel. Both song and tale will receive their grand New York debut tonight at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a play titled Salt of the Earth, directed by Zvi Sahar, and improbably subtitled “An adaptation for puppet, camera, and one thousand pounds of salt.”
Kenan, who died five years ago at 82, had the sort of singularly Israeli biography where life and art are inseparable. He was, often at the same time, a painter, restaurant critic, pop-song lyricist, political columnist, sculptor, poet, satirist, and screenwriter. But he was also a reformed freedom fighter and Canaanite, and a peace activist until the end. The Road to Ein Harod, Kenan’s sole work to have been translated into English, is in many ways Israel’s own homegrown 1984; it was even published that same year. In the novel, an unnamed man who shares much of Kenan’s personal biography is oblivious to the military coup until he happens upon a “Free Ein Harod” radio station. He hides in his apartment as it is ravaged by the army, and plots his escape, swimming up the Mediterranean and then trekking inland, through the valley leading past Har Meggido (or Armageddon) to Ein Harod and salvation.
Ein Harod’s theatrical adaptation begins with the cast members, three men and two women clad in black, dumping some 30 buckets of salt onto a pile center-stage. Soon a video camera materializes, as does a faceless puppet fabricated out of an old military rucksack. The cast members take turns operating the lights and camera (its live video feed projected on a screen at the back of the stage), manipulating the puppet and scooping, sweeping, and sculpting the half ton of salt into the dunes, hills and roads that, interspersed with some pop-up paper cut-outs, make for the play’s surprisingly effective scenery. At any given moment, the audience is witness to at least three disparate elements that make up the story: the spare, almost black-and-white film, its live behind-the-scenes version on-stage, and a monologue recited by the off-camera actor Zvi Sahar, who also directed the play and dreamed up the theater style he calls PuppetCinema.
When I met with Zvi Sahar at a café near his home in Ramat Gan, I was curious to hear how his small and special production, which I loved when I saw its premiere in Jerusalem this past May, would look and sound in English. Sahar seemed similarly incredulous about how Israeli fringe theater would fit in among the global avant-garde. (He’ll be sharing BAM with Pina Bausch’s dance troupe and other luminaries of the venue’s annual Next Wave Festival.) But the performances in Brooklyn are actually something of a homecoming for Sahar’s piece. An actor increasingly frustrated with the limits of traditional theater, he moved to New York four years ago to take advantage of the sort of artists’ residencies that are rare in Israel. It was during his stint at St. Ann’s Warehouse Puppet Lab that his idea of puppet cinema really began to develop. Cheryl Henson, daughter of the late Jim Henson and the president of the Jim Henson Foundation, a nonprofit providing grants for puppetry projects, saw Sahar’s year-end presentation and loved it.
Next up was a fellowship at the 14th Street Y’s LABA (a “laboratory” for Jewish culture). In search of a text at the nexus of Jewish and Israeli culture, Sahar was ecstatic when his wife handed him a copy of Kenan’s Ein Harod. It’s a slender novel, and Sahar read it in one sitting. “It directed itself in my head as I was reading it,” he told me. “It really is a masterpiece, the way it mixes personal and collective histories, the way it blends genres.” Sahar adapted the book into a half-hour play at LABA. Funding from the Jim Henson Foundation followed, and Cheryl Henson personally took it upon herself to get the play to BAM. “But there was no play yet, just bits and pieces” said Sahar. “So, I came back to Israel, put together a team, and turned it into one.”
The Road to Ein Harod sometimes borders on science-fiction, but it is also firmly rooted in Amos Kenan’s life story. Kenan’s waning years were tough. By the time of his death in August 2009, Alzheimer’s disease had ravaged his memory. He was no longer a regular presence in the newspapers, as he had been in the days when Yedioth Ahronoth’s op-ed pages were nicknamed “Fatahland,” in large part because of Kenan’s regular columns expressing sympathy for the Palestinians—and, in equal parts, animosity toward the Israeli establishment.
A year before Kenan’s death, Israeli audiences rediscovered him. His wife, Nurit Gertz, a professor of film and literature, published Unrepentant: Four Chapters in the Life of Amos Kenan, a biographical novel weaving together fact, speculation, and excerpts from Kenan’s own writing. It was a best-seller. The book opens with Kenan’s youth in Tel Aviv. Amos Kenan was born Amos Levine, son to Yaakov Levine, a veteran of the Labor Battalion, the commune of Russian immigrants to Palestine that was active in the 1920s and established a handful of kibbutzim, including Kibbutz Ein Harod. By Amos’ teens, Yaakov Levine, heartbroken from the frequent clashes of his pioneering ideology with harsh reality, suffered from declining mental health. Kenan, a member of the Hashomer Hatzair youth group, and by all accounts an exemplary product of the Labor movement, suffered his own ideological breakdown. He joined the Lehi group—the underground militia known by the British as the Stern Gang, after its leader Avraham Stern, who led attacks against what he saw as illegal British occupation.
Kenan’s struggles, then, were limited at first to a hatred of the British. He was by then a member of the Canaanite movement, a group of intellectuals and artists that eschewed Judaism for “Hebraism,” leaving 2,000 years of Jewish existence in the diaspora behind in order to return to a Hebraic existence with firm connections to land and language. Zionism, a European import that spoke of Jewish peoplehood and nationalism, was not the solution. What was needed, Kenan and his associates believed, was a Jewish return to Canaanite roots, which would also allow for peaceful existence with other Middle Eastern peoples.
But the British soon left, the War of Independence broke out, and Kenan was drafted into the IDF with the rest of Lehi. The past and future dreamer of peace fought in some of that war’s fiercest battles with the Arabs, including the fight for the village near Jerusalem called Deir Yassin, in what has become more commonly known as the Deir Yassin massacre.
By the early 1950s, Kenan was a Tel Aviv bohemian with a satirical column in Haaretz, but he had not lost his radical streak. Gertz’s book chronicles Kenan’s trial for allegedly tossing a bomb onto the porch of David Tzvi Pinkas, the religious Minister of Transportation who had attempted to abolish driving on the Sabbath. Kenan was acquitted on reasonable doubt, though he would later confess his involvement to confidantes. He exiled himself to Paris, where he romanced the author Christiane Rochefort, who based her book Le Repos du guerrier on him. In 1962, eight years into his Parisian exile, he met Nurit Gertz and returned to Israel with her.
If Israel was never quite ready for Amos Kenan, by the ’60s he was at least able to carve out a niche for himself as a prolific columnist. The limits of conversation in euphoric post-Six-Day-War Israel were wide enough to include Kenan’s talk of a two-state-solution, decades before that was to emerge as the center-left consensus.
When Zvi Sahar approached the Kenan family for the rights to adapt The Road to Ein Harod, he sparked the interest of Amos’ daughter Rona, one of the most beloved Israeli singer-songwriters of her generation. (Soon after her mother’s book was published, Rona Kenan released a concept album titled Songs for Yoel, which could almost serve as soundtrack to the book. The song cycle’s eponymous hero is a clear stand-in for the elder Kenan, and the lyrics echo his experiences.) After meeting with Sahar in New York, she composed the music for one of his adaptation’s earlier versions, and her rendition of the old folk song is prominently featured in the piece.
Rona Kenan, 35, was a child when Ein Harod was published. She first read the book in her teens, when she began tackling her father’s oeuvre, and has witnessed multiple adaptations of it, including a 1990 Israeli-American film co-production starring Tony Peck. I asked her what made the text so compelling. “There’s something about it that people keep coming back to,” she said. “I hate to use the word relevant. But the dystopia in the book is a menace that still lurks today, maybe even more than when it was first written. The timing for this story is always right, because things here go from escalation to escalation, from one violent outburst to the next.”
Nurit Gertz told me that someone had graffitied Ein Harod’s opening passage on a wall on Shenkin Street in Tel Aviv. “The book expresses a desire that is very much alive today, the need to escape, to return to our roots, to see where we went wrong,” she said. “Ein Harod wasn’t an arbitrary choice. Ein Harod is where it all started, for Amos, it’s where his father worked, it was one of the roots of Zionism, that dream to create a new man, a new land, a new society. Amos and his father dreamed of a socialist society, or at least of an egalitarian society, or at least a vaguely liberal one. And that dream is fading away. The book is about the fear that soon those dreams will disappear.”
Kenan would go on many hikes around the country and knew it well, Gertz told me. “Amos would say, ‘I’m a Zionist through my legs.’ It wasn’t a Zionism of words and catchphrases, it was more about the fields, the wind, the plough,” she said. But this was more than just a love of the land. “If your Zionism is through your connection with the earth, you feel connected to the other people that lived here. Today what we think of as our past is our ancient past, but Amos lived all of history, he refused to erase parts of it. That is also why he split with the Canaanites. He did not believe in erasing 2,000 years of Jewish history. But he also remembered the Turks, the Muslims—eras that we like to skip through today. Many peoples and religions loved this land. Amos saw history here as one long stream with many different nations as partners, and so he knew they could be partners here again.”
Rona Kenan recalled growing up in a home full of history books and encyclopedias, with a dad who took pride in knowing large parts of the Bible by heart, especially the Prophets. “He felt that you could love the land without necessarily claiming ownership of it. That was the source of his big dispute with the supporters of the settlements,” she said. Kenan seems to have been physically incapable of mentioning a place name without evoking its history both modern and ancient, never willing to gloss over the past like the more traditionally Zionist writers, enamored as they were with the project of sculpting a new Jew. When Ein Harod’s hero reaches the shore at Sidna Ali, “a mosque with the tomb of a saint on a tiny cape jutting into the sea,” he remarks that “these small capes on the shores of Eretz-Israel were the places where the enemy always came out of the water to conquer the land, and where the enemy fled to on the last boat when the land overcame him,” before rattling off its chronological history.
At its best, Kenan’s prose is at the very convergence of the historical and the personal, with biblical echoes that no English translation can do justice to. Toward the end of Ein Harod, Kenan writes (translation mine):
If it weren’t for my madness, I would have given up long ago. And if it weren’t for my madness, I think now, I wouldn’t have set off to conquer Vaheb, back in those long ago days. I would not have shot at British soldiers in the streets of Jerusalem, in broad daylight and at night. I would not have laid a landmine on the road to Bethlehem. I would not have marched arm in arm with death in a thorny field in Romema on a starry night. I would not have denied my father and mother and brother and sister and would not have placed Zion Jerusalem at the height of my priorities, because what is Zion what is Jerusalem compared with life and what is greater than life and what is lower than Zion Jerusalem when it’s a matter of dying or conquering the mountain. And I conquered a mountain and then a valley and then another mountain and then another valley and with my sword I struck left and right and I dispossessed the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Jebusite and the Guirgashite and I did not pity Amalek and showed no compassion for Edom or for the sons of Ketura. I struck them like lightning and marched onward walking and striking walking and weeping, but always onward and I stopped only when Vaheb fell slain and the storm passed, abated as if it never had been, and I remained alone, empty and hollow like Chekhov’s revolver that had fired at the end of the last act.
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Tal Kra-Oz is a writer based in Tel Aviv.
Tal Kra-Oz is a writer based in Tel Aviv.