We Shall Go Up and Settle: 'Pangs of the Messiah' Premieres in New York
The dark space of the 14th Street Y’s theatre fills with clarinet music as two women step onto the spacious stage. Layered dresses and skirts, colorful headscarf on one while the second fusses around the kitchen, they look like the typical Jewish hilltop-dwellers we’ve all grown accustomed to seeing at bus stops, on Shabbat adventures in caravans, and on the cover of The New York Times.
Israeli playwright Motti Lerner’s script, Pangs of the Messiah, has made its way from the 1986 Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv to the Untitled Theatre in 2011. Despite having traveled across an ocean, language barrier, some recent revisions, twenty-five years, and several wars, the play is eerily as relevant, if not more so, since its first showing.
Directed by Edward Einhorn, Pangs of the Messiah follows a Jewish family living in the West Bank, facing an impending eviction in the year 2014. Rabbi Shmuel Berger (Elliott Mayer), family patriarch, is a councilman of settlements who tirelessly shuttles between government ministers to plead his community’s case. His wife Amalia (Sidney Fortner) frequently asserts her belief in the Almighty and the impending Redemption, while their children grow apart under the duress of the political atmosphere.
Avner (David J. Goldberg), the eldest son and a born leader, is married to secular Tel-Aviv-born Tirtzah and grows involved with other settler activists, adding a rifle to his daily attire. Chava (Gusta Johnson), the Bergers’ heavily pregnant daughter, is left alone with her children by a negligent husband Benny (Paul Murillo), who is too preoccupied with his militia activities to notice his own suffering wife. The youngest son, Nadav (performed by a stellar Max Wolkowitz) is an autistic eighteen year old who spends his day and night building houses in the community.
As the negotiations between world leaders mount, and it dawns on the settlers that their chances of staying in their homes are limited, Rabbi Berger encourages the entire community to rally at the checkpoints, to bring in more convoys and young protesters. “Put down the books!” he entreats the yeshiva students. “Conquering the Land of Israel is more important than Torah. Just before the rally, they become scholars!” He has the local schools bring in buses of first graders, which his daughter-in-law Tirtzah finds disturbing until Chava says, “Well, it’s their home too.” Even Chava, weeks away from childbirth, is told to attend the demonstrations and lie down on the ground to prevent army vehicles from entering; the graying Amalia is injured in a clash by a soldier’s rifle blow to the head. “Let’s break them with song,” Amalia says dreamily in the family living room.
Scoffing at the older generation’s idealism and devotion to peaceful tactics, son Avner and Chava’s husband Benny insist on violent responses. “Every revolution needs radicals to happen,” Avner says somberly to his distraught father. “There will always be bloodshed.”
The play is punctuated by news broadcasts overhead, announcing negotiations, increased terrorist attacks on civilians and drive-by shootings on both sides of the conflict.
Lerner’s script takes place solely in the family home, mostly over the dining room table where characters argue in a series of sleepless nights. Tirtzah, the secular voice of conscience in the requisite pair of jeans, is horrified by the increased radicalism she sees in her own husband. She entreats him to explain Benny’s past crimes and imprisonment in Israeli jails for his attacks on Palestinians. “What was he thinking when he laid those roadside bombs? There were innocent women and children there,” she demands of her silent husband. “[Benny’s] not kidding when he talks about laying the cornerstones of the Third Temple...look what’s happening to you...”
The family members debate whether they should frighten the government or not, and which tactic will work best to keep them in their homes. Most express frustration not at Arabs (who do not appear once in the play), but rather at other Jews, the “flesh of our flesh who want to uproot us from our homes”.
To the Orthodox viewer, there are the expected moments of non-authenticity. The script’s translation is awkward, and it’s probably more fitting to see the play in its original language (allusions to Torah and Talmudic passages are lost on an English-speaking audience). While the religious conflict is somewhat captured (like when Amalia complains that her own daughter doesn’t trust the kashrut of her jam), other religious aspects of the play are forced. Blessings over food are said very loudly and slowly, one after the other (someone needs to tell secular writers and filmmakers that Orthodox Jews actually tend to mutter blessings quickly, quietly, via reflex).
Most of the script’s characters are flat and barely developed. Rabbi Berger is the bumbling, animated activist, a weak King Lear in a knitted kippa. Amalia is a sort of pious Mother Theresa, Avner and Benny are heartless radicals lacking any moral compass, and Tirtzah is the enlightened Tel-Avivian who stands alone in a sea of fanaticism.
Probably the only complicated (and thus most convincing) characters are those who elicit the most sympathy: Chava and Nadav. Chava is shocked by her own husband’s activities, yet tries to defend him desperately, tearfully: “He is a wonderful man, a wonderful husband, a wonderful father. You should see him teaching the children how to pray.” She weeps as the eviction draws closer, insisting that when the army leaves the area, the “Arab bastards” will “kill us all,” and begs to leave before violence escalates. Lerner draws on messianic Jewish beliefs and has Chava’s pregnancy serve as an obvious symbol, both for a suffering under the weight of the future as well as a manifestation of the birth-pangs of the Messiah. Chava becomes a victim caught between the irrationalities of two men, father and husband, between her father’s naiveté and her husband’s ruthless violence.
Meanwhile, innocent Nadav receives death threats from fanatics who warn him against collaborating with the army and who insist that “whoever sells cities of Israel, his life is forfeit.” When eviction notices are distributed, Nadav starts to shake and says repeatedly, urgently, “I want to know what will happen to my house, Abba. I just built the roof. Just planted the flowers in the garden. I want to know what’s going to happen to my house, Abba. I’m not going to leave it.”
As the play draws to a close, the violence hits its climax, with the bombing of the Temple Mount’s Muslim holy sites by Benny and his Jewish terrorist group, and the launching of a full-scale war. “Those men are holy,” Avner says to his father, defending the perpetrators of the attack. “They purified the Temple Mount from the filth that contaminated it... They did it out of necessity.”
“In order to stop negotiations and continue living there, we are committing suicide,” the plagued Rabbi Berger responds, realizing that all his attempts at maintaining calm are crushed. He screams out of despair, “Thou shalt not kill! Shake the heavens with prayer, not with dynamite!”
It seems, until the very last moment of this thought-provoking drama, that the characters’ resolve is steadfast. When Amalia says, “We’ve been waiting for the Messiah for two thousand years; I will wait another two thousand”, her husband responds immediately, “We won’t wait a moment longer. We shall go up and settle.”
Yet when tragedy strikes in the most unexpected of ways, the lights dim, and even those who seemed so unyielding are left broken in the face of fate, torn by their own fanaticism and short-sightedness. “We will live,” are the last words uttered on stage: “We will leave here and live...and maybe the Almighty will have mercy on us.”
Pangs of the Messiah played Oct. 27 through Nov. 20 at the Theater at the 14th Street Y, untitledtheater.com.