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This Old House

Shmuel Hasfari’s long-running The Master of the House is a smash hit in Tel Aviv. Can it make it in the O.C.?

Margy Rochlin
April 19, 2007

Early in Shmuel Hasfari’s The Master of the House, an argument begins to boil between Yoel, a middle-aged bear of a journalist, and his attorney wife Nava. Nava would like a top-to-bottom remodel of their crumbling Bauhaus-style apartment; Yoel, who grew up in the apartment, wants nothing touched. Soon the comedy of marital discord turns to tragedy—complete with unraveling secrets, crushing guilt, and a death in the family. Richard Stein, who is directing the play in its American premiere at the Laguna Playhouse, felt as if he’d gotten two plays in a single package. One begins as an updated Honeymooners (“To the moon, Nava!” you can almost hear Yoel thunder). The other is an “unvarnished, unflattering portrayal of Israelis and Israeli life,” as Stein puts it, set in Tel Aviv circa 2001, during the Black March raft of suicide bombings.

At 53, Hasfari is regarded as one of Israel’s finest writer-directors; The Master of The House won the 2003 Israel Theater Academy Award for Best Play (the equivalent of a Tony) and is still running at Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theater, after more than 700 performances. The third child of Polish émigrés, Hasfari grew up religious in Ramat Gan, and was studying Jewish philosophy at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University when he found himself spellbound by a play a friend of his had directed. By the next day, Hasfari was making plans to skip town and enroll in theater courses in Tel Aviv. In 1984, the curtain rose on Kiddush, his professional writing-directing debut; the production ran for eight years.

Politically, Hasfari dabbled in far right circles, even briefly befriending Rabbi Meir Kahane. Then, after serving as a combat soldier in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he swung so far in the other direction that his warts-and-all plays about Israelis have sinced caused the occasional uproar. His 1986 satire, The Last Secular Jew, was initially banned by the Israeli Censorship Board, then allowed to run with particular scenes cut. The public protest that followed soon led to the end of such censorship by the Knesset.

For better or worse, the only outcry that The Master of The House has elicited since traveling to California involves its length. The Los Angeles Times called it a “restlessly inquisitive piece,” though at two and a half hours it could have used some trimming. The Orange County Register concluded, “while it’s got its flaws and eccentricities, The Master of the House seems like a newly opened window that reveals a world both familiar and strange.”

Recently, Hasfari, who is married to actress Hana Azulai and has three sons, spoke to Nextbook by telephone from the study of his rented, expensively remodeled Tel Aviv house. Inspiration perhaps? “Yeah,” replied Hasfari, explanation over.

Describe the first time you saw The Master of the House performed entirely in English.

It was so exciting. Everything, the blocking, the reactions of the audience, everything, was exactly the same as the Israeli production—but totally different. The evening before I left for California, I went to see the play here in Tel Aviv. Then, the day after, I met the cast in California. It was during the first week of rehearsals and when I entered the room, I looked at the table and I knew exactly who is who. Then we started reading it. It was unbelievable. It’s the same tune, the same lyrics, but in another language.

Laguna Beach isn’t exactly a Jewish hub. Were you concerned about how an upscale, politically conservative, possibly gentile theatergoer might respond to your depiction of high-decibel Israeli home life?

I think this play is about a family and about a couple trying to cope with their own tragedies. At the end of my career of more than 25 years and more than 20 plays, I’m not a professional writer. You cannot commission a play from me because I write the play for myself. I’m the audience. In Tel Aviv, the Cameri Theater director asked me, “Please can you please sweeten the medicine at the end? Can you please write a happy ending?” But I never did. I’m not able to write the piece that will be able to explain [using an exaggeratedly dramatic narrator’s voice] “the beautiful face of Israeli society.” It’s boring…and I don’t know how to do it.

Richard Stein suggested to me that the Nava-Yoel remodeling debate is a metaphor for how Israelis disagree about the occupation, about relinquishing land versus preserving the status quo, about who has the right to decide about that space.

I’m sure everybody can see the political meaning of the play. Of course, Yoel is a writer from Tel Aviv. He’s secular, not Orthodox. He’s not an activist; he’s a pacifist. He’s like a prototype of a left-wing Israeli: If you asked him what he thinks of the Orthodox extremist settlers in the West Bank, Jerusalem, or the territories, or about Rabbi Kahane and about how they explain that there shouldn’t be withdrawing from Hebron or Jerusalem because they’re so connected to old memories and traditions, he would be truly against them. But it’s different when it comes to HIS house, to HIS sofa, to HIS toilet. This is how the right wing criticizes the left in Israel. They are connected only to their own property, to Tel Aviv, to the center of Tel Aviv. That’s it. [laughs] They are even ready to give away the south of Tel Aviv because only poor people live there.

Let’s talk about the gender politics. In Master of the House all the female characters are assertive to the extent of being entirely unsympathetic. Meanwhile, the men in the play are all—

—infantile. In this play, I write about the [Ashekenazim], the monolith of Israeli society—the founders of Israel who came mainly from Europe. Chaya, Yoel’s father, he was a socialist and an idealist. He came from Eastern Europe before the Holocaust because he was a Zionist. [The third Aliyah] wanted to be normal, to be like other people—not all these Jewish professions, being a doctor, a lawyer, and so on. Yoel and his two brothers, I mean, I don’t want to insult you or me, but they are writers. They’re not productive. They build nothing. They’re not farmers or builders. They don’t work in the industry or live on a kibbutz. They just write. One is a sports journalist, another brother is an author, the other is a writer about architecture nostalgia. When you look at them they are like noble families of European royal houses. Blue bloods. They became weak. They are not strong like they used to be.

You’re saying this play is a microcosm of Israeli society?

I can’t tell you that all the women in Israel are so strong and all the men are so weak. But I think, maybe it’s a reflection of my thinking that women are stronger. I mean, I’m not a professor at the university, but this man, Yoel, he lives in the apartment he was born and his study is his childhood room and he behaves like Nava is his mother, not his wife. He’s like identifying with the memory of his child, which is not his child. It’s like the child is him.

You tell a story: On the way to your entrance exams for the theater department at Tel Aviv University, you bumped into your mother and she said she wanted to give you a blessing.

She told me, “I hope you fail.” [laughs] “It’s not enough that you are not a doctor or a lawyer and you went to study philosophy and now you go to study theater to be a clown.”

That sounds like something out of The Big Book of Jewish Mother Jokes.

Not only Jewish. I don’t think anybody in the world, any mother or father, really wants children to be actors. It’s unreliable, this profession. You are willing to admire actors, to love them, to respect them maybe, to pay to watch them. But nobody wants an actor as a son-in-law. One minute you are John or Bob and in a minute, you are Richard III and you kill people. Can you rely on a person that can change identities in a minute, that can lie so beautifully and so truthfully?

Have you had any exchanges that clarify just how many cultural universes Laguna Beach is away from Tel Aviv?

Somebody asked me, “How can you live in Israel?” I told him, “Listen, I understand that in California it’s very quiet, but what about the tectonic situation, the earthquakes and so on?” They looked at me, like, “What are you talking about?” We are reminded every day about our situation, but you’re not. We know it’s possible, but it’s in the back of our minds, not on the surface.

Why do you think The Master of the House has been so successful in Tel Aviv?

Theater is very popular in Israel. That’s why Master of The House, five years after opening night, is still running. We have theaters all over the country, in each town, not only in big cities. One reason theater is so popular is because the Israeli reality is so complicated. There are so many layers, so many questions. There’s a struggle to stay normal amidst this crazy situation. In Master of the House there’s this line where Yoel comes back from a soccer game in Cyprus and says, “Don’t you know that we won?” And Nava says, “I heard people shouting in the streets but I thought maybe it’s another suicide bomber.” Her answer—it’s a huge joke with Israeli audiences. People laugh in Laguna, too, but not as much as in Tel Aviv. This is the line that tells you why people love the play. I think this combination of the danger, the catastrophe, the loss, the tragedy and the grief together with soccer games and remodeling and demolishing, for people in Israel this is life. Because it’s so specific and so detailed and it’s about people, maybe this is why people like it in Israel—and maybe some of the audience in Laguna Playhouse, too.