(New York Jewish Week) — For the three weeks between the first day of Rosh Hashanah and the end of Simchat Torah, it’s hard to get anything done in Israel. With so many holidays in rapid succession, businesses open sporadically, bureaucratic necessities remain pending and many cultural events are put on hold.
In New York, though, a community of Israeli artists is overflowing with activity: Throughout the month of October, the Israeli Artists Project (IAP) is hosting the Stav Festival: A Celebration of Israeli Arts and Culture at the 14th Street Y. Featuring dozens of artists working in an array of media, festival events include performances by standup comics and musicians alongside productions of award-winning Israeli plays. Artists will provide workshops on everything from folk dancing or belly dancing to painting.
Named for the Hebrew word for autumn, the Stav Festival was originally slated for May 2020, when it would have been the Aviv (or Spring) Festival, but the COVID-19 pandemic meant that it had to be postponed. In his opening remarks at last week’s kickoff event, IAP president Yoni Vendriger said that the more than three-year delay may have been for the best. “We’ve had plenty of time to curate a month of events that bring together artists from so many walks of life,” he said.
Among the many and varied events is the New York debut of “The Holylanders,” an original play by Moria Zrachia. Originally commissioned and presented by Israel’s Cameri Theatre in Hebrew as “Shalom Lach Eretz,” this new, English-language version was adapted and directed by her brother and longtime collaborator, Matan Zrachia.
Moria’s work presents four stories of Israelis who have left their homeland, seeking their fortunes in various locales. In Matan’s version, the storylines remain intact but the locations are all in the United States. The couple who opened a hummus restaurant in Berlin are now in New York; the techie start-up crew trying to sell their company to a sheik in Dubai are now in Silicon Valley.
“I kept a lot of the original text because the humor itself is universal,” Matan Zrachia told the New York Jewish Week. “It doesn’t matter if a person has immigrated from Israel, or Mexico, or Guatemala, or Berlin — the feeling of strangeness is common to everyone. It’s about experiencing a cultural divide, relinquishing certain habits or customs because they’re no longer acceptable in a new place — all of that is the comedic engine of the original, and I left that as it was.”
While it’s true that any immigrant experience is one of foreignness, “The Holylanders” is not just any immigration story — it’s a very Israeli play. The protagonists are passionate, hotheaded, loyal to a fault — all character traits that were important to Matan to portray. “The jokes are, first and foremost, based on myself and my friends,” he said, explaining that he especially wanted to “accentuate the emotional way in which Israelis speak.”
Each of the play’s four scenes is a standalone story; together, the individual “episodes” seem to tell a tale of a generation having an identity crisis. None of the characters feel at home in their chosen American city, though all are handling these feelings of displacement in different ways. In the final “episode,” a group of four young women are in Atlanta, where they’re conning unsuspecting Americans into buying more Dead Sea skincare products than they need, when one of them, Michi, becomes overwhelmed with a longing for Israel.
It’s Yom Kippur and the secular group of friends had been planning to go to the swimming pool. Michi insists on going to synagogue, despite having no connection to religious practice, just to feel a connection to home. Across a cultural divide, they find a connection to the American Jewish community once they join the praying community in the sanctuary.
“What we see with that interaction is how, even though there are cultural differences, when a Jewish person sees another Jewish person, there’s a click. That connection that Jewish people have is unlike any other I’ve seen,” said Michael Kishon, a lead actor in “The Holylanders.”
Kishon, who was raised in Manhattan by Israeli parents, said that, above all, the play is about connection. “In that first scene, which takes place in New York, you see how the couple is full of warmth, offering food and wanting to be themselves even though they also want to fit in.”
With their play, the Zrachia siblings aim to raise questions about identity, belonging and cross-cultural understanding. “Looking around, I see more questions than answers, both in the community in the U.S. and in the community I left behind in Israel,” said Matan, who has lived in Brooklyn for more than five years. “We’re trying to figure out how and why to go forward. Why is the second or third generation born in a country that was dreamed of for 2,000 years getting up and leaving? I think it’s important to represent the questions we’re asking through cultural events, and I think that can best be done through humor.”
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There are no tense, quiet moments in “The Holylanders” — all interactions are aggrandized to the point of satire. The exaggerated comedic language also extends the American characters in the play: The dreamy Angeleno in episode three is fashioned after every stereotypical rom-com hero. The kindergarten teacher from New York is overly polite and cloying as she tries to wrangle Israeli parents into a conversation about their son. The rabbi from the synagogue in Atlanta might as well be a Christian pastor, standing in white robes and orating on seeking one’s way back to oneself. The effect is not one of viewing a reflection of Israeli and American interactions, so much as one of peering at the relationship in a fun-house mirror.
At a time in which Israel itself stands at a crossroads over its government’s effort to weaken the judiciary, among other controversial policies — trying to decide how and why to go forward — the play is a fascinating glimpse into the identity crises of those who choose to put down roots elsewhere.
“There were a lot of identity questions, especially in the Yom Kippur scene,” Bar Tenenbaum, an Israeli audience member who has lived in New York for three years, told the New York Jewish Week. “Who am I? Who am I missing? Am I Jewish? Am I an American all of a sudden? It felt like watching my group of friends — with all the secular Israeli culture. Usually when you go and watch a show about Judaism and Israelis it’s a different population, more religious, than the one that’s being presented here.”
Other notable events at the Stav Festival include a second New York run of “Best Friends,” a captivating take on the complexities of female friendship written by acclaimed Israeli playwright Anat Gov. The play, which won the 1999 Israeli National Theater Award for Best Comedy, had its NYC debut in March of 2023 to a series of sold-out performances, leading the cast to reprise their roles as part of the festival. Musical events run the gamut from the experimental, indie-jazz vocals of Chanan Ben-Simon and Noa Fort to traditional Yemenite music brought to stage along with intimate storytelling by Shlomit Levi. The calendar reflects an effort to curate a diverse experience that showcases the spectrum of Israeli creativity.
As Yael HaShavit, Israel’s Consul for Cultural Affairs in North America, indicated at the festival’s launch, there is no such thing as a monolithic Israeli culture — it’s complex and textured. “Our culture is the best form of diplomacy we have,” she said.