Skip to main content Accessibility help

Deconstructing the Biblical Sources in Israeli Theater: Yisurei Iyov by Hanoch Levin

  • Yael S. Feldman (a1)

When in 1981 the Israeli Cameri Theater performed The Passion of Job, written and directed by Hanoch Levin, the leading avant-garde playwrightin Israel (viewed by some as “the bad boy of the modern Israeli stage”),1 public outrage reached unprecedented heights.The scandal was partially provoked by Levin′s staging.His taste for the carnal and the cruel was much too unpalatable for many stomachs to digest.“People actually walked out, while others covered their eyes,” reported a review in the Jerusalem Post.2 No less detrimental, however, was the specific angle from which Levin th? playwright elected to retell the biblical story.For although the Hebrew title of the play, Yisurei Iyov, may be literally rendered as “Job′s Afflictions,” our translation was advisedly chosen: In his version, Levin catapults Job from the fictional land of Uz to Palestine of the Roman era, thereby embedding Job′s ordeal in that later agon between man and God–the passion of Christ.Accordingly, this dramatized Job does not live to hear an answer from the whirlwind, nor does he see his life redeemed.With a dramatic sleight of hand he is, paradoxically enough, the only character in the play who refuses to deny the existence of God–thus condemning himself to the stake.

Hide All

1. Joseph, Herbert S., Modern Israeli Drama(Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1983), p.12.Curiously, this very recent anthology of Israeli drama, the only one in English translation, does not include any play by the leading Israeli playwrights of the 1960s and 1970s, Nissim Aloni and Hanoch Levin, respectively.While in the case of the former some technical obstacles may be responsible (only a few of Aloni′s plays were published), the excuse put forward in the case of the latter is rather elusive.Saying that Levin′s “plays are topical and have not as yet lent themselves to adequate translations” (ibid.), Joseph evades the issue rather than confronts it.

2. Mendel Kohansky, “Levin′s Odd Job,” Jerusalem Post.April 24, 1981.Little did the 1981 audience know the extremes to which Levin would push his succeeding plays.The Great Whore of Babylon(1983) and Everyone Wants to Live(1985) may be readily classified as the “theater of cruelty.”

3. A good selection of Christian interpretations of Job as the prefiguration of Jesus is to be found in Glatzer, Nahum, ed..The Dimensions of Job(New York: Schocken, 1969), pp.2434, 93–131, et passim.For a detailed intertextual analysis, see Ruth Kartun-Blum, “Yisurei Iyov: Hanoch Levin′s Gospel Play,” Moznayim60:5–6, Nov.Dec.1986, pp.14–17 (Hebrew).

4. And see on this point Cohen, Arthur A., The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition(New York: Schocken, 1971).

5. All quotations are my translations from the original script: Yisurei Iyov(Cameri Theatre, 1981), 40 pp.Further references to the play are given in parenthesis in the essay itself.

6. Esslin, Martin, The Theatre of the Absurd(Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1961).All references are to the revised edition, 1969.

7. Derrida, Jacques, Writing and Difference,trans.Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), p.179 et passim.

8. See Esslin, pp.100–105, for the echoes of this rift in the heated controversy between Ionesco and Kenneth Tynan of the London Observerin 1958.

9. N.Gessner, Die Unzulanglichkeit der Sprache(Zurich: Juris, 1957).

10. I am indebted for this formulation to Dr.Bennett Simon′s insightful lecture “Story Killing and the Killing of Children in Beckett and Eugene O′Neill,” given at the Seminar on Discourse in Literature and Psychoanalysis, Hebrew University Center for Literary Studies, Jerusalem, June 1985.A version of this lecture is in HSLA: Hebrew University Studies in Literature and the Arts14 (1986).

11. The most palpable illustration of this new “myth” is Ionesco′s first play, The Bald Soprano.The grotesque, loosely connected dialogue of this play often resembles the inane drills of an English primer (“How Curious!” “This is a floor!” “This is a ceiling!”).Its absurdist charm continues to draw audiences in Paris until this day, as did its recent off-Broadway revival in New York.

12. And see the discussion of the presence of God ex absentiain Waiting for Godotby Gunther Anders, “Being Without Time: On Beckett′s Play Waiting for Godot,”in Samuel Beckett,ed.Martin Esslin (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1965).

13. Frye, Northrop, Anatomy of Criticism(Princeton University Press, 1957), p.60

14. See Shaked, Gershon, The Hebrew Historical Drama in the Revival Period[Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1970).

15. Levi, Emanuel, The Habima: Israel′s National Theatre, 1917–1977(New York: Columbia University Press, 1979) p.206.

16. These plays were: Aharon Megged′s High Season(see n.32) and Genesis(1962; see n.22); A Journey to Ninevehby the poet Yehuda Amichai (1964); and Samsonby writer Yigal Mosinsohn (1969).For the only successful exception, see n.18.

17. This issue has not lost its relevance to this day, except that now the term “Israeli” replaces the old “Hebrew.” However, while earlier Zionism was defining itself vis-a-vis Jewish diaspora culture, today it is beseiged, in addition, by Arab Israeli culture (in Hebrew!).And see the public debate between A.B.Yehoshua and the Arab Hebrew writer Amton Shamas.The most recent installment of this debate was delivered by Yehoshua in a colloquium on “Cultural and Religious Pluralism,” held at the Spinoza Institute in Jerusalem, it was published in Yediol Aharonotas “I am an Israeli!”

18. Nissim Aloni′s Most Cruel of All Is the Kingwas produced by Habima in 1953 and revived by the Haifa Municipal Theater in 1975.For background information on Aloni (and his fiction) in English, see Gideon Telpaz, Israeli Childhood Stories of the Sixties(Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1983), pp.45–86.

19. The Canaanite movement has recently been subjected to extensive scholarly scrutiny, mostly in Hebrew.For its reverberations in contemporary fiction, see Yael S.Feldman, “Zion-, ism on the Analyst′s Couch in Contemporary Israeli Literature,” Tikkun,November 1987, pp.31 –34,91 –96; also in Vision Confronts Reality: Setting the Jewish Agenda (Herzl Yearbook,vol.9), ed.David Sidorsky and Ruth Kozodoy (New York: Associated Universities Press and Herzl Press, 1988).

20. See Feldman, Yael S., “Poetics and Politics: Israeli Literary Criticism Between East and West,” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 52 (1985): 835.

21. See Kohansky, Mendel, Hebrew Theatre: Its First Fifty Years(New York: Ktav, 1969), p.182 et passim.

22. For a good example in translation, see Genesisby Aharon Megged (Habima, 1962), translated as The First Sinin Joseph′s anthology (see n.1).In Hebrew see Ya′akov Shabtai, Keler Barosh,produced by the Cameri Theater in 1969.Representative of the various reworkings of the David cycle are Benjamin Galai′s Sippur Uria(1967) and Israel Eliraz′s Hadov(1966).

23. See Feldman, Yael S., “Zionism–Neurosis or Cure? The ‘Historical’ Drama of Y.Sobol,” Prooftexts 7, no.2 (1987): 145162.

24. Levin′s earliest plays were provocative satires, responding to the political aftermath of the Six-Day War (1967): You, Me, and the Next War; Ketchup; The Bathtub Queen.They are now collected in his recently published book, Ma ′ikhpat lazipor(Hakkibutz Hameuchad and Mo′adon Hasefer, 1987).

25. Shaked, Gershon, “Drama in Israel: A Mirror Up to Nature,” Hebrew Book Review(Tel Aviv, 1974), pp.2223.

26. Hefetz(Tel Aviv: Siman Kxia Books, 1974), first produced by the Haifa Municipal Theater, 1972.An English version was published by the Israeli center of ITI, 1973 (trans.Julian Meltzer).Another version was produced in New York in 1978 by the Theater for the New City; trans, and directed by Rena Elisha.

27. E.g., Ya′akovi and Leidental,1974; Solomon Gripp,1972; Vardale′s Youth,1974; Popper,1977.The first play was presented at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (1983) and at La Mama Theatre in New York (1980).

28. From the closure of Vardale′s Youth,first produced by the Cameri Theater in 1974.Quoted by Gideon Ofrat, Israeli Drama(Gomee, Cherikover, and the Hebrew University, 1975), p.243 (Hebrew; my translation).

29. Shits(Tel Aviv: Siman Kria Books, 1975).An Execution(typescript by the Cameri Theater, Tel Aviv, 1979).

30. In his essay “Hanoch Levin′s Rites of Beelzebub” [Hebrew] (Proza,January-March 1981, pp.7981), Gideon Ofrat argues that An Executionis Levin′s parodic-sadistic version of a medieval morality play, interpreted by him as a sacrificial rite to the Canaanite god Beelzebub.Ofrat may be right, but one must remember that in this case the Christian and pagan myths function as a latentsubtext.The textual clues for the mythical deep structure are sparse and in no way approach the blatant use of myth in The Passion of Job.

31. Philip Diskin, an American-Israeli director, who has been involved in the Israeli version of “off-Broadway” theater over the last two decades, in a private conversation (New York, January 1, 1986).

32. The one exception, Aharon Megged′s High Season(1967), only confirms the general rule: “The play begins where the biblical story ends,” says Chaim Shoham, in his study Challenge and Reality in Israeli Drama(Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University, 1975), p.139.Megged does not engage in the ideational or dramatic potentials of the Book of Job, but composes an allegorical postscript, an additional act that reflects the topical issues of the sixties: “the question of our relationship with Germany, our right to demand justice after receiving reparations, and the problems of the Jewish return to Germany of a minority that refuses to learn the lessons of the past” (ibid.; my translation).(Cf.Ofrat, Israeli Drama,pp.162–171.)

33. See Shaked, Gershon, s.v.“Drama, Hebrew,” Encyclopaedia Judaica, 6:194207.

34. Buber′s talk was published in the first issue of Bama(January 1939).The following are excerpts from this issue (my translation): We clearly have an original talent for the theater....But just as clearly we lack an original talent for drama.Some would attribute this lack to our indisposition for objectivization....For us there is always someone who is right and someone who is not.In the drama, however, there is no “right” and “wrong”; one feels this way and the other feels that way; one wants this and the other wants that; this speaks in the name of one essential law, and another in the name of an opposing essential law The drawback I have mentioned, our indisposition for objectivization, stems from our greatest possession: our knowledge that the opposition of forces and categories in the universe cannot reach the supreme sphere, and that there is one absolutely just being; that there is someone who is absolutely right....God is absolutely right.

35. Kurzweil, Baruch, in his The Struggle for Judaic Values[Hebrew] (Tel Aviv and Jerusalem: Schocken, 1969), pp.336: “Job and the Possibilities of Biblical Tragedy” and “Tragic Elements in Job.”

36. Kurzweil′s stress on the theological meaning of the narrative frame and the conclusion of the Book of Job stands in a significant contrast to the “existential” interpretation given by his American contemporary Nahum Glatzer.In the latter′s Dimensions of Job,Job is first and foremost a rebellious individual, a daring challenger of authority and accepted dogma, not a resigned man of faith.

37. See a recent study in English: Diamond, James S., Barukh Kurzweil and Modern Hebrew Literature(Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1982).

38. Anatomy of Criticism,pp.41–42.My thanks to Professor Gershon Shaked for calling my attention to Frye′s use of Job as the model pharmakos.For an interpretation of “Yisurei lyov” as a classical tragedy, see Dan Miron, “The Degradation, the Shame and the Pain,” Ha- Doar.I May 1981, LX:24, p.389.

39. See in particular Rubenstein, Richard L., After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism(Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966).More about this below.

40. Cf.Chaim Guri′s “Look, our bodies are lying here in a long, stretched line...” (ca.1948).

41. Quoted by Glatzer, Dimensions of Job,p.36.

42. Ironically, this scene was removed from the stage production a short time after its premiere in Israel.

43. Ecce homo!

44. See in particular his “Death of God Theology and Judaism” and “Religion and the Origins of the Death Camps: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation,” in After Auschwitz,pp.243–266 and 1–46, respectively.

45. The significance of the anal characteristics of the Devil is elaborated by Norman O.Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Interpretation of History(Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1959).

46. The question of “Why now?”, why such a belated Israeli response to negative theology, demands further investigation. See on this point my “Between Theodicy and Politics: The Holocaust in Contemporary Israeli Drama,” to be presented at Remembering for the Future, an international conference on the impact of the Holocaust and genocide on Jews and Christians, Oxford and London, July 1988.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

AJS Review
  • ISSN: 0364-0094
  • EISSN: 1475-4541
  • URL: /core/journals/ajs-review
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed