The Holylanders Review. What Israelis find funny

In “Hummus NYC,” the first of four stories in “The Holylanders,” a play by Moria Zrachia about Israelis living in America, Amir is outraged by what happened to his son Nuri. But the story does not go anywhere near where we might be conditioned to expect given the news over the last few weeks.

Nuri told Amir he was being picked on by a fellow five-year-old after Nuri started wearing glasses; Amir now wants to march into the kindergarten class and confront the kid. 

Yoni, Nuri’s other father, objects: That’s unacceptable behavior in the U.S. “This is not Israel, thank God.”
“Ah, Yoni, do I need to remind you what happened to our people just a few years ago? “ Rachel pipes in. She is an employee at the hummus restaurant in Brooklyn that Amir and Yoni own.
“What!?” Yoni replies. “He’s not picking on him because he’s Jewish… he’s making fun of his glasses.”
“It starts with ‘ha ha ha glasses’ and before you know it World War Two.”
“Haven’t the Jewish people suffered enough?” Amir adds.

The self-mockery here struck me as something close to astonishing, and is typical of all four stories, which are largely played for laughs. The show is intended to be light – the bilingual six-member cast gather around the piano for a bouncy musical number at the start of the show, and then cast member Yochai Greenberg presents a new tune in-between each of the scenes. But there is something deeper at play as well — a fascinating glimpse into Israeli culture, including some intriguing moral dilemmas, and laced with an implicit, often harsh (if comically presented) critique. 

 “The Holylanders” finished its brief run earlier this week, as part of The Stav Festival, which is billed as a celebration of Israeli arts and culture. The festival was supposed to run from September 28 to October 29 at the theater at the 14th Street Y on First Avenue. But they shut down for a week after the attacks on October 7. 

That they resumed the festival itself says something about Israeli culture. On an obviously low budget, without much publicity, the performance I saw was packed — mostly with people who didn’t need the English captions for the third or so of the show that’s spoken in Hebrew.

Like the stories to follow, there is a twist to the first one, “Hummus NYC.” Nuri actually started it – by using a racist slur against his classmate’s younger brother.

The second story, “Going Up” takes place in Silicon Valley – or, more precisely, in an elevator going up to the top of the tallest building in Silicon Valley. Udi, Carmel, and Golan, founders of a tech company, are about to meet the “Sheikh” who is planning to buy their tech start-up for $150 million. But then the elevator stalls; what ensues are complications, comedy and controversy. Udi (Michael Kishon) has an irrational fear of elevators, which makes him convinced he’ll never get out of the elevator alive, and adds some comic punch to the failure of the building manager to fix the problem right away – a manager, the trio discover quickly, who is also an Israeli-American, and who spends his time blabbing away in Hebrew (with projected subtitles) about, among other things, how much he loves Trump. 

  The closest connection to current events is the e-mail that Carmel gets from an ex-boyfriend, written in code, that indicates the Sheikh might be a spy for Iran. This makes Carmel (Yuval Benit) want to scotch the deal: “We are talking about something that might compromise our future and, worse, the future of Israel.”  Golan (Yair Ben-Dor) disagrees: “Carmel, this is our dream, we are about to sell our company, after we worked our asses off for three f—ing years, we served our time in the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces], we pay our taxes… my father lost his arm in the f—ing ‘82 war, so what? What more do you and the great state of Israel want from me.”  It says something about the hardships that Israelis routinely endure that the back-and-forth between Carmel and Golan is not presented as any kind of climactic moment, and the scene shifts right back to comedy: Udi takes time out from freaking out about the elevator to obsess over  why Carmel’s ex-boyfriend has communicated with her, since he’s her current boyfriend.

The third story is “Holonia Boulevard,” which is an increasingly chaotic farce, about an Israeli woman, living in Los Angeles, who is thrilled to have gone on a date with an American, and is hoping it will turn into a romantic encounter at her apartment tonight. (“Do you know how hard it is to get a date with an American guy in LA?…I’ve lived here for three years, and so far I’ve been asked out by two Lebanese guys, three Tunisians, and the Pakistani guy from the Deli downstairs.”) But her apartment starts filling up with Israelis from her hometown of Holon who commandeer her television set to watch a basketball game.  

In the last scene, “Kippur in Atlanta,” four young Israeli women, who compare themselves at one point to the Kardashians, lounge pool-side in Atlanta, Georgia during Yom Kippur, until they start feeling guilty and travel to the nearest synagogue. But the member of the congregation at the door , Jeremy, (Kishon) says they needed a reservation.

“Listen, do you know that we’re from the Holy Land?” one of the women says (a line, we were told earlier, they often use to impress Americans, and gives the play its irreverent title.)  “We were  in the army….We defended our people.” 

“Thank you for your service, I guess,” the congregant replies, “but I’m so sorry, we are completely booked for tonight since it’s a high holiday.” 

But the women won’t take no for an answer. They try one tack after another

“Listen, do you know the Kardashians?”
“Yeah… “
“Do you know what is the most important thing for the Kardashians?” 

Finally they say: “The problem here is that you see us, and you see yourself, and you think that we are separated. But it’s not true. Because we were all there together on Mount Sinai when we received the LUCHOT HABRIT [the two tablets with the Ten Commandments] All the people of Israel. And they separated us. Throughout history – Pharaoh, Haman, the Romans, the Maccabees, Nebuchadnezzar. Do you want to separate us? Do you want to be that person, Jeremy? And on Yom Kippur? – Do you want to be like Nebuchadnezzar? “

It’s a brazen approach, both by the quartet of characters, and also by the playwright, because it summarizes centuries of misery visited upon the Jewish people  but does so in a way that could easily be taken as cynical, manipulative. But it works. It works for the characters – Jeremy lets them in (“Damn… I don’t want to be like Nebuchadnezzar.”) It also works, surprisingly, for the playwright, because it leads to the final moments set inside the synagogue. The rabbi (Yair Ben-Dor) offers a thought-provoking sermon that revisits that same Jewish history not as one of misery but one of searching.  Then he leads the congregation in a song by the Israeli poet Ehud Manor – a song joined in by the four characters, and by members of the audience –  and you didn’t need to know Hebrew, or know how you feel about what’s going on in the world outside the stage, to find the moment moving.

The Holylanders Show
part of theThe StAV Festival, at the 14th Street Y
Written by Moria Zrachia
Adapted and directed by Matan Zrachia
Costume design by Doran Malka, lighting by Peter Kordonouris, sound design by Isaac Damon, set design by Trevor Munch
Cast: Yair Ben-Dor, Yuval Bent, Yochai Greenfeld, Michael Kishon, Rosie Moss, Maya Shoham

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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