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Rabbi's One-Man Show Seeks to Defuse Religious Tension in Israel With Laughter

February 05, 1989|RONI RABIN | Associated Press

JERUSALEM — In Israel's longest running play, the rabbi steals the show.

Rabbi Benjamin Levene takes on the roles of an ultra-Orthodox Jew who has never heard of television, a macho bus driver, a Bohemian painter and a character Israelis think of as a typical American tourist: He is crazy about Israel but would never want to live here.

Levene developed the one-man show as part of the educational program for Gesher, Hebrew for bridge, a movement that is trying to bring together religious and secular Israelis at a time when tensions between the two have brought the melting pot society near the boiling point.

"If we don't understand each other, the rest of the world will just gobble us up," Levene recently told 40 secular Tel Aviv high school students at a seminar on Jewish identity in Jerusalem.

In recent years, secular Jews, who make up about 70% of Israel's 4.2 million population, have clashed in the streets, courts and legislature with observant Orthodox Jews over Sabbath observances and other issues.

Levene, a modern Orthodox Jew who grew up in Jersey City, N.J., and moved to Israel in 1969, tries to ease tensions by making people laugh at, and appreciate, his parade of stereotypes.

In the last decade, he has taken the show to schools, collective farms and army bases, doing as many as four to five shows a week. He also performs in the United States and soon will take the show to Los Angeles and Montreal.

He began a recent performance as an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, dressed in black and flicking cigarette ashes in his vest pocket when he thinks no one is looking.

The 41-year-old Levene takes aim at the holier-than-thou tendencies of some ultra-Orthodox.

"A Jewish state? There's a state with a lot of Jews in it, but it's not a Jewish state," says his character. "Everyone here acts just like Gentiles."

As far as he's concerned, prayer is much more effective than any army could be in defending the Jewish people, and things would be better if people rested on the Sabbath as the Bible commands.

After a short break in his act, Levene returns as Moti, a macho bus driver who wears his army dog tags outside his shirt, which is unbuttoned to his waist. Moti answers most questions in the brusque, clipped style he learned in uniform: "Affirmative. Ditto."

His idea of a religious experience is watching a video of the film "Ben-Hur." He's served in every Israeli war since 1948, even if he was just a cook, and he doesn't care what his children do when they grow up, so long as they don't leave Israel.

While Levene is backstage changing for another character, his straight man, Shimon Siani, takes over and asks the students for their impressions.

The secular teen-agers, many wearing jeans, punk haircuts and oversized earrings, have mixed feelings.

"I like the fact that his family is so important for him, and that charity is a way of life, and mutual help," Orna Gerzner said of the ultra-Orthodox character. "I guess in the secular community we've lost that a bit."

The teen-agers' comments indicate that they are much more conservative than the Levene character Jean-Paul Simone, a Paris-born artist who lives in Israel with his non-Jewish wife and son, Noel.

Simone refused to bear arms in the Israeli military. He is a humanist who believes in justice, world peace and the dignity of man.

One of the funniest characters is the cigar-chomping American Jewish fund-raiser. Everybody knows Harry: He has a sun visor on his forehead, a camera around his neck and a bag full of cheap souvenirs, and he is on his 228th visit to Israel.

Harry repeatedly mentions that he gave $4.5 million to Israel last year.

Although Harry is far from modest and prefers his comfortable American life style to Israel's hardships, he is a fervent supporter of the state and is involved in his hometown Jewish community.

Several high school students said the show made them rethink some of their own stereotyping.

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