For the first time in its modern history, Israel faces no imminent strategic threat, its generals say. If Israelis should be feeling more confident about their security and optimistic about the future, then why have they been flocking to a play based on an adaption of To the End of the Land, David Grossman’s award-winning, deeply pessimistic novel about Israel’s future?
The play is the eighth co-production between Israel’s Habima, the national theater, and the Cameri, which owns a well-deserved reputation for cutting-edge work. Hanan Snir, a veteran director who worked with Grossman for two years to adapt his novel to the stage, compresses but faithfully renders the novel’s complex tale of love, flight, the impossibility of escape. The plot revolves around a triangle among Ilan and Avram, two best friends who love the same woman. Ora, the novel and play’s anchor and narrator, is a mass of contradictions—emotional and calculating, mystical and pragmatic, capable of great love and indifferent cruelty. Ilan is tough but brittle, a bit nerdy and deeply needy. Avram is highly intelligent and impulsive.
The drama opens with their fateful meeting as teenage patients in a hospital as the ’67 war begins. The prospect of tragedy looms large—for Israel, where they speculate about whether Nasser and King Hussein are sipping coffee on Dizengoff Street and for them personally, since all three are battling life-threatening fevers. Ora suppresses her fear of war and death by singing Israeli songs at the top of her lungs at night, while Ilan confesses his fear of dying young. “I’ve never even kissed a girl,” he tells Avram.
Ora loves them both but marries Ilan. Together, they have a son. But a few years later, Avram is captured and tortured by Egyptians during the ’73 war. Partly to comfort him and restore his broken spirit, Ora sleeps with him and becomes pregnant. But Avram, tormented by the past and his guilt over having betrayed Ilan, wants nothing to do with his old friends, or even his own son, Ofer. So, Ilan raises the boy as if he were his own child.
Years later, Ofer is about to complete his military service. With Ilan (Amnon Wolf) and her elder son overseas, Ora prepares to hike across the Galilee with Ofer to celebrate his imminent discharge from the army. But Ofer is called up—or volunteers, actually, just as his service and the war in Lebanon are ending. He doesn’t want to miss a “kick-ass” mission with his unit, he confesses. Brimming with warrior intensity, Ofer tries to reassure his mother. But she is furious, a fury that masks every soldier mother’s worst fear, a premonition that her son will not return.
Rather than wait at home for the most painful of Israeli traditions—“notification”—the appearance of two officers at the door with the news all parents dread, a blood-chilling portent in the play, Ora decides to flee to the Galilee, hoping that the trip she had planned with Ofer will enable them to escape their fate. In what passes for Israeli magical thinking, Ora wants to believe that if the “notifiers” cannot find her, Ofer cannot die. She becomes, she jokes grimly, a “notification refusenik.” From that point on, Ora is in constant motion. Director Snir has her walk, trot, run ever faster in one large circle, a simple, but powerful symbol of the futility of her flight.
Even strong-willed Ora, compellingly played in all her complexity by Efrat Ben Zur, decides she cannot face the journey alone. She recruits her long-lost lover Avram to accompany her. On their walk, she talks and writes about their lives and about his son Ofer; she and Avram relive painful moments together, and apart. One of the play’s most powerful scenes is Avram’s flashback of his torture at the hands of the Egyptians during the ’73 war. In an eruption of memory, Avram (Dror Keren) describes how his toenails and fingernails were ripped out, how he was hung like a slab of meat in a dank, darkened cell, how the Egyptians forced him to dig his own grave, mocked and photographed him as he prepared to be buried alive.
The Israelis, however, are not alone in their suffering. Ora’s Palestinian driver Sami has a cameo role. Simulating driving while seated in chairs covered in various faux furs (anyone who has ever taken a taxi in East Jerusalem or the West Bank will chuckle), Ora instructs him to drive her and Ofer to his military registration point. It is left to Ofer to point out the supreme insensitivity of what she has done. And rather than use Sami simply for comic relief, Snir has him erupt at that insensitivity and his own nation’s plight in an impassioned outburst.
Ora’s and Avram’s hike thru the Galilee is interrupted by images of young Ofer with his unit in Lebanon. The soldiers’ joy, songs, and solidarity, as well as their fear, punctuate the play’s minimalist staging, making their mission, and this story’s inevitable ending almost unbearable.
The play alternates performances between the Cameri and the Habima. Though it is sold out, the play has upset some Israelis who have lost children to war or terror; some have hesitated to see it. Israeli audiences, usually a tough crowd whose cell phones are prone to interrupting the most dramatic of performances, have been unusually quiet during this play, which runs over two and a half hours. Most know that Grossman’s son Uri was killed on the last day of the 2006 Israeli offensive in Lebanon as this novel was being written. No Israeli can read his book, or see this play, without being cognizant of the unbearable pain with which it was written.
Since then, Grossman has become among the most outspoken Jewish Israeli voices against war and occupation. He has frequently protested the demolitions of houses in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In interviews, he often describes writing as a means of survival, an antidote to his despair over Israel’s seemingly intractable conflict, anxiety that is widely shared among Israeli intellectuals. That, too, contributes to his novel’s almost mythical status within Israel and the play’s enormous emotional punch. But can it be successfully translated for a non-Israeli audience?
Deborah Harris, Grossman’s long-time agent, said she was initially skeptical about whether Snir, or any director, would be able to adapt her client’s novel to the stage. “But we were all amazed when we saw the result,” she said. “David loved it,” she said. Since the play’s opening this spring, she has received numerous expressions of interest in translating and staging the play abroad—from Poland, Germany, and England she says. She is now optimistic that the play will be staged in Europe, the United Kingdom, and perhaps in New York.
However universal in its themes, the play will remain a deeply Israeli work. As the director Snir observes, Israelis understand their nation’s existential fragility, no matter how seemingly invincible their military, robust their economy, and ostensibly secure their borders may be. Memories of four wars in 68 years and the loss of so many in a country where everyone knows someone who has lost someone do not fade. Fear of the next potential slaughter haunts Israeli society. This smoldering contradiction—Israel’s success and its desire to project strength and confidence while coping with continuing vulnerability and profound, often paralyzing sorrow is at the heart of this gripping drama, and indeed, Israeli life.
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Judith Miller, Tablet Magazine’s theater critic, is a former New York Times Cairo bureau chief and investigative reporter. She is also the author of the memoir The Story: A Reporter’s Journey.