Photo: Gadi Dagon
Photo: Gadi Dagon
Navigate to Arts & Letters section

The Afterlife of Hanoch Levin

The late playwright and poet finds himself embraced by the mainstream audiences he spent his life rebelling against

by
Tal Kra-Oz
February 24, 2020
Photo: Gadi Dagon
Photo: Gadi Dagon

Even when Hanoch Levin’s plays transcended geography, moving out of the Tel Aviv shtetl into mythic realms, their psyches were firmly rooted in the mundane. The Child Dreams, inspired by the tragic voyage of the MS St. Louis, had some of the country’s finest thespians playing characters like Spectator Startled by Death, Woman Born for Love, Man Jealous of the Living, and a mute “Messiah” who has no lines and is shot dead by the play’s end. Walkers in the Dark, an existential Beckettian spectacle featured Walking Man, Waiting Man and Evasive Man, but also Vague Thought, Murky Thought, Chocolate Thought, and Pickled Herring Thought. God himself, in the form of a man with a suitcase, tries to deliver a treatise on why he created evil, but his words are drowned out by the roar of a passing train.

Hanoch Levin was born in 1943, to a family of religious immigrants from Poland. He grew up in Neve Sha’anan, a working-class neighborhood in south Tel Aviv. His earliest memories were of rushing to shelter as the Egyptian air force bombed the city in 1948. His father, a grocer, died when Levin was 13. He dropped out of high school and worked as a delivery boy to support his mother, while completing his studies in evening classes. By the mid-‘60s, when he was a student at Tel Aviv University, he had a satire column on the last page of the school’s humor rag, titled “Hanoch Levin’s Posterior.” In 1968, he mounted his first satirical cabaret at a Tel Aviv jazz club, called You, Me and the Next War, with songs and sketches lampooning the euphoria and militarism that swept through Israeli society in the heady wake of the Six-Day War.

For the next three decades, Levin was Israeli drama’s best-kept secret: His work was hardly translated or mounted abroad over the course of his lifetime, even as he rose to become Israel’s preeminent satirist and playwright. By the time he died, in August 1999, at 55, his complete works ran to 16 volumes (an additional volume was published after his death). He wrote 62 works for the stage, only two-thirds of which were produced during his lifetime, and countless pieces of prose and poetry.

In the years following his death, Hanoch Levin is consistently the most produced Israeli dramatist across the globe. His plays have achieved particular success in Eastern Europe, where the Yiddish-inflected names of his characters and their scatological talk of pushkalés and pishpushkalés feel most at home.

So let’s stop for a moment and revel in those names. Solomon Grip. Yaakobi and Leidental. Heffetz. Varda’le. Schitz. Krum. Popper. Yakish and Poopche. Morris Shimel. Ikhsh Fisher. Shozes and Bjijina. Yona and Leviva Popoch, and their acquaintance Gunkel. It’s as if a cast of Sholem Aleichem characters that didn’t quite make the final cut ran off and joined the circus, only to settle in an apartment block somewhere in south Tel Aviv.

Audiences in locales as far away as China, Kenya, and Argentina have received them all with great warmth. But the English-speaking world has remained frustratingly out of reach. The translations don’t seem to work, and the productions are few and far between. With the publication in March in the United Kingdom of a major new three-volume anthology of Levin’s work by Oberon Books, Levin has a new chance with English-speaking readers and audiences.

***

One of the people most instrumental in Hanoch Levin’s posthumous global success is Noam Semel, the chairman of the Hanoch Levin Institute of Israeli Drama. Semel began his career as a producer in the private sector, before managing the Haifa Theatre in the 1980s and Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theatre beginning in 1992; a few weeks after our interview, Semel was tapped by the trustees of Habima, Israel’s long-ailing national theater, to take over its management. When we met in his apartment in Jaffa, he was still enjoying a hectic semiretirement.

Semel told me that his first introduction to Levin, like many of his generation, was in 1970, with Queen of the Bathtub, another of Levin’s satirical revues. Like the earlier cabarets, this one pilloried the militaristic, self-satisfied establishment—the eponymous Queen was Prime Minister Golda Meir—years before the Yom Kippur War painfully called its bluff. But unlike his earlier works, which had played to hip audiences in small venues, Queen of the Bathtub premiered at the publicly funded Cameri. The urbane audience erupted at Levin’s incendiary skits and lyrics. Bomb threats were made. At the time, Semel was working as a production manager for the legendary producer Avraham Deshe. A colleague, Nahum Shalit, was moonlighting in the show, and invited Semel to come see him.

“I was at the fifth or sixth performance,” Semel said. “People were throwing tomatoes at the stage. They stopped the play, and evacuated the audience in the middle. Then they allowed us back in and finished the show. I was very excited. I recognized Levin’s talent, though I didn’t know then just how talented he was.”

The Cameri eventually bowed to public pressure and pulled the plug on Queen of the Bathtub after just 19 performances. In response to the controversy, Levin published a brilliantly sardonic statement:

Honorable Minister of Defense, heads of municipalities, public figures and people of high esteem, bereaved parents’ organizations, print, radio and television journalists, distinguished citizens, deeply ashamed, but also deeply grateful, I stand before you today.



Your sincere and tireless efforts to take down the play Queen of the Bathtub opened my eyes and made me reconsider what I wrote. Now that the play has been taken off the Cameri Theater stage, I can confess with my head bowed down: I was wrong. I took advantage of the principles of democracy and freedom in order to undermine the public morale, to disparage and denounce Israel’s wars, and to sow animosity and embarrassment in a united nation.



I retract every word and character I wrote. I ask you, in a quiet voice, to blame my mistakes on my young age and the poor education I received in my parents’ home. And with the request of forgiveness, I continue to hope that I will be given another opportunity to prove myself as a very useful citizen, for the glory of the state and nation.

Throughout the 1970s, Semel produced countrywide tours of Levin’s plays, but the two men didn’t work closely until Semel assumed directorship of the Cameri, where Levin mounted his final, legendary productions, and which became a sort of informal Royal Levin Company.

In 1996, in the wake of the Western Wall Tunnel riots, which left 17 IDF soldiers and 100 Palestinians dead, a distraught Levin called Semel at his home. Following the Bathtub commotion, Levin had segued into writing less blatantly political—though no less controversial—plays (he also stopped giving interviews). He had made one exception in 1982 with The Patriot, a satire written in response to the Lebanon War and which ran afoul of the state’s archaic censorship board but had otherwise remained nominally apolitical.

As the nascent Oslo peace process appeared to go up in flames, Levin’s instincts kicked in. “He had tried to organize a protest meeting at the Tzavta club, but only three people showed up,” Semel told me. “He called me up and told me he was going to tie himself to one of Habima’s pillars in a show of protest. I told him to write a play instead.”

A couple of weeks later, Levin dropped off his new play, Murder, at Semel’s office on Dizengoff Street. The title page displayed the Hebrew word for murder, retzach, and the Arabic word, qutil. The play tells of a series of murders: retaliation upon retaliation comprising a never-ending cycle of violence. It premiered in 1997, in the midst of a wave of terrorist bombings.

The terror of the biblical Aqedah—Abraham’s binding of Isaac—is a constant theme in Levin’s plays. Queen of the Bathtub even included a skit called “The Aqedah.” “Great, great, that’s really what I deserve at my age,” Abraham berated his only son. “Put all the blame on me if that’s what suits you, on me, on your old broken father who must, at his age, climb the mountain with you, tie you to the altar, slaughter you, and then tell everything to your mother. Do you think I have nothing to do at my age?”

That skit was followed by a song sung by a dead soldier to his father:

Dear father, when you stand above my grave,
Old and tired and very lonely,
And you see how they bury my body in the dirt,
And you stand above me, father



… don’t say you made a sacrifice,
Because the one who sacrificed was me,
And don’t speak any more high-flown words
Because I’m already very low, father.

When Queen of the Bathtub was performed, the long-forgotten War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt was still raging. Almost 400 Israeli soldiers were killed in that war, and the son’s damning words to his father sent chills down the spines of anyone not busy hurling tomatoes at the stage. In Murder, the song appeared again, sung not by a soldier but by an Arab youth who was killed by soldiers, to his own father.

Semel had anticipated that Murder would face at least some protests, but instead found to his surprise that he had a sleeper hit in his hands. Audiences were finally ready for Levin’s merciless form of shock therapy. Twenty years later, Semel’s daughter, Ilil, directed a bilingual version of Murder, in Hebrew and Arabic. It is still chilling, and still depressingly timely.

***

The final productions Levin worked on at the Cameri were Requiem, a deathly swan song based on three short stories by Chekhov, and The Lamenters. Requiem is by now the stuff of local lore. “You can put me in front of any tribunal, and I won’t budge,” Semel told me. “The two pillars of Israeli theater are Habima’s Dybbuk and Levin’s Requiem.”

Twenty years later, Requiem is still performed occasionally at the Cameri, mostly ahead of tours to festivals abroad, though many of its original cast members have departed the production. The actor Dror Keren worked with Levin on both Requiem and The Lamenters. “It was very important to us to preserve it,” Keren told me. “It’s his living testament. The last play he directed.”

I asked Keren how he relates to his work with Levin two decades after his passing. Keren quoted the lyricist Jonathan Geffen. “‘The days pass by and so do you.’ I don’t need an anniversary to remember Hanoch,” Keren said. “He’s part of my blood stream. I’ve never stopped performing him, reading him, thinking about him.”

We met at a café near where Keren was rehearsing a new Levin project, called Ishel and Romanzka, which I saw a few weeks later. Based on a short story by Levin about an ill-fated blind date, it’s been brilliantly reimagined by Keren and the composer and frequent Levin collaborator Yossi Ben-Nun as a work for chamber orchestra, actor, and soprano (Goni Knaani). “How rich his language is,” Keren answered, when I asked him what so moved him about Levin’s play. “When he writes about falafel, he uses the phrase oy lanu ki hushbarnu. I had to google that one. It’s something that appears in Orthodox bereavement notices. Those connections he made between religious and secular, heaven and earth. He writes about tzfiei falafel. That’s a biblical word for dung! For a performer, it’s an absolute delight. It validates my profession. It gives meaning to what I do.”

Levin’s characters are inwardly and outwardly grotesque, and at best indifferent to the suffering of others. At worst, they cruelly subject their friends and family to awful degradations. But the utter mercilessness with which he treated his creations as they trudged through the labor of life betrays, upon closer examination, an ardent humanism.

“He saw very deeply into our souls,” Keren said. “Those lines of his in funeral scenes. They’re very Levinish, but really, they’re exactly who we are. ‘What a beautiful woman. And she’s a widow now!’ Those contradictions that accompany every moment of our short existence. The ways in which we terrorize each other.”

Keren first worked with Levin as a young actor, on Walkers in the Dark, where he played Evasive Man. Levin was a self-taught director. Even though he only directed his own plays, he approached them with few preconceived notions. “We never stopped experimenting. The actors were full partners in the search,” Keren remembers. “The production started off as a blurry photo that would slowly gain focus. And it would be perfectly sharp just in time for opening night, reaching Hanoch’s perfect balance. One eye shedding a tear, another laughing.”

For actors like Keren who worked with Levin when he was at the height of his powers, the man was both prophet and prankster. “He would crack me up,” Keren said. “He was crazy about Buster Keaton. He’d give me videotapes of Keaton movies for inspiration. We’d play one-on-one soccer games during breaks in rehearsal.” Yet at the same time, Keren never forgot who he was working with. “When he was creating things like Queen of the Bathtub, it was Hanoch, alone, against the theater, against society,” he said. “Like the protester standing opposite the tank at Tiananmen Square.”

***

A visit to an Ibsen research institute in Oslo gave Noam Semel the idea to launch the Hanoch Levin Institute of Israeli Drama, which since 2000 has worked to translate contemporary Israeli plays, and hosts marathons of productions for international groups of artistic directors (the institute doesn’t limit itself to plays by Levin, but does give him special focus). Before long, Requiem began touring the world.

“It was wonderful,” Dror Keren said. “Here we knew how great he was. But with Requiem we opened a window to the world. You could see what it meant to audiences. And they began asking for more. We took the play to Poland. Three tours in China. We were told not to be offended if the audience wasn’t particularly warm. It’s a different culture, after all. But they were rapturous. Pickled herring is completely universal, it turns out.”

Semel, who served as Israel’s cultural attaché in New York for four years beginning in the late ’80s, has strong opinions on why Levin has yet to take hold in the United States. “I think America is narrow-minded, and very provincial when it comes to world culture,” he said. “Levin is a poet of the stage, and his heroes are people who missed out on life. His characters’ names are strange. He didn’t like to work with the best-looking actors. His themes are often scatological. I’m not sure Americans are ready for him just yet.”

Evan Fallenberg is an American-Israeli novelist and translator. Together with Jessica Cohen, he translated five of the Levin plays in the Oberon anthology. “For the world he offers a truly original voice,” Fallenberg said. “This strange mix of straightforward, funny lines, yet with so much hiding behind that and so much nuance, thought and introspection. There’s a book of Levin quotes, I keep meaning to get my hands on a copy. One of the editors told me that when they were putting it together, in some plays they’d highlight every other line.”

The team of Fallenberg and Jessica Cohen was approached by Levin’s widow, the actress Lillian Barreto, who knew of their pedigree. Cohen shared the 2017 Man Booker International Prize with David Grossman for the English edition of Grossman’s A Horse Walks into a Bar. Fallenberg is responsible for translating beloved writers like Alon Hilu and Meir Shalev (his translation of Shalev’s A Pigeon and a Boy won the National Jewish Book Award).

Translating Levin together, the two would alternate between roles: One would read the text in Hebrew and the other would type in English. They’d sometimes squabble over the finer points of Levin’s naming conventions, and his wildly fluctuating language register. “He can be so scatological and silly,” Fallenberg said. “So clearly you wouldn’t be reaching for a high register. But then he’ll knock you sideways, with a single word sometimes. We really tried to mimic that. I don’t think we would have succeeded if we hadn’t been working together, out loud. That was the stipulation when we took this project, that we had to be together for every word of every play. Not doing them alone and then duking it out.”

The new anthology’s translations by and large do justice to Levin’s qualities as poet, down to his liberal use of line breaks. But they are intended for the stage, and that will be their ultimate test. “All you need is one good director, with one good translation, to open the door,” Dror Keren said.

***

In 1972, shortly before he ceased granting interviews, Levin was surprisingly candid as he shared his philosophy on playwright-audience relations with a writer from Yedioth Ahronoth. “My goal was never to delight them,” he said. “Theater is a boxing match between the stage and the auditorium. I want to punch them. To make them feel bad. … To show them just how bad they are.”

Now Levin is embraced by the mainstream audiences he spent his life rebelling against. Dror Keren’s Ishel and Romanzka is playing to packed houses. In January, a heretofore unproduced Levin play, The Constant Mourner, premiered at the Cameri. It’s the first stage play directed by Ari Folman, the acclaimed Israeli film director whose animated documentary Waltz with Bashir won the Golden Globe for best foreign language film. Folman worked closely with his collaborator on Bashir, the illustrator David Polonsky, to turn Levin’s dark fairytale, about a king driven to ritually reenact his son’s death year after year, into a delightfully Fritz Langian danse macabre.

The roots of Israeli audiences’ unbridled enthusiasm for Levin can be traced back to the premiere of Requiem, 21 years ago. Requiem was still bleak, yet it was also beautiful. For once at least, Levin’s characters might not have found redemption, but they were finally granted some compassion, some grace. Levin hadn’t mellowed—he was dying. The play’s premiere was a living wake.

Levin had been seriously ill throughout rehearsals. “I knew we were on borrowed time,” Dror Keren told me. “But Hanoch was as sharp as can be, and we rose to the occasion, to be there for him. At the premiere, Noam Semel invited everyone who had ever worked with Hanoch and was still around. Everyone there knew what his situation was. People were crying on his shoulder. At one point someone said, ‘Hallo, he’s still here!’ But it was a farewell.”

Levin wasn’t quite finished. Though he had been hospitalized soon after the premiere of Requiem, he still wanted to direct The Lamenters. “When they called me up for that, I was in denial the size of the Grand Canyon,” Dror Keren said. “‘Yes, he’s back!’ I came to see him. He was as thin as the foot of this chair I’m sitting on. But still, razor sharp. As if his body had given up, but his mind and soul weren’t going anywhere.”

Noam Semel secured an impromptu rehearsal space in the Tel Hashomer hospital. Nurses would wheel Levin out on a gurney to direct his faithful troupe of actors. To add to the surrealism, The Lamenters is a play about three terminally ill patients in a Calcutta hospital, who are treated to a play-within-a-play by their medical staff: the tragedy of Agamemnon by Aeschylus. Levin’s actors dutifully rehearsed in a hospital a play about a play in a hospital.

“One evening, I came to visit him,” Noam Semel said. “I asked him how he was doing. ‘Wonderful,’ he told me. ‘I’m going to die.’ And then we had a long argument about who should do the lighting for The Lamenters. And the next day, he died.”

When Dror Keren was a young man taking his first steps in the theater world, every year would bring a new play written and directed by Hanoch Levin. Tel Aviv was something of a cultural backwater then, not yet the flourishing city it is today. But at least in one sense, Tel Aviv was a cultural capital of the world, because one of the 20th century’s greatest playwrights, Hanoch Levin, was writing and directing plays here—even if hardly anyone outside of the country knew it. “As a young person, those were gifts,” Keren told me. “Like a new album that you’d listen to, and study the liner notes, and try to figure out what they were trying to say.”

***

You can help support Tablet’s unique brand of Jewish journalism. Click here to donate today.

Tal Kra-Oz is a writer based in Tel Aviv.

Support Our Journalism Today

The Jewish world needs a place like Tablet where varying—even conflicting—viewpoints can exist side by side. Our times demand an engagement with big ideas and not a retreat from them.

Help us do what we do.