Reading Hebron, Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, February 2011

On February 25, 1994 the Jewish festival of Purim fell during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and an Israeli settler named Baruch Goldstein assassinated worshippers in the mosque over the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. The significance of the religious holy days is noted in the play, and it’s also worth remarking that while Ramadan is governed by the Islamic calendar, which moves back by about eleven days each year, Purim is dated by the Jewish calendar and is always in March or late February. It does not normally occur during Ramadan. But that is not the only significant aspect of the date, because in 1993 Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo accords on behalf of Israel, and tensions were high. He was assassinated in 1995.

After the 1994 massacre, the Israeli government formed a commission of enquiry to determine whether Goldstein acted alone or with accomplices, and that’s where Jason Sherman starts, and ends, his play. Its main protagonist, however, is a Canadian Jew named Nathan Abramowitz, who is on a personal mission to criticise Israel and recover some self-respect for his own somewhat-lapsed Jewishness. His mother wonders why he won’t bring his sons to the Passover Seder, and won’t he please arrive a little earlier to give her a hand, particularly with so many guests coming!

Abramowitz is confused, manic, and unconsciously angry with aspects of his own life. He goes to Israel, for the first time, and appears before the committee, with his head in the clouds, saying that “Israel is an abstraction”. Is he crazy? Yes, but not dangerous, like Goldstein who was playing out something from ancient Jewish history. It was Purim, explained in the book of Esther. She, whose name is the same as the Babylonian goddess of love, Ishtar, forestalls the planned annihilation of the Jews in Babylonia. Those who read the story will meet Mordecai, whose name is taken from the chief god of Babylon, Marduk. These things are deep with significance, and deeply significant things can lead to murderous actions.

Abramowitz, however, is shallow, though very well played by David Antrobus, ably supported by the rest of the cast: Peter Guinness, Ben Nathan, Amber Agha and Esther Ruth Elliot, playing numerous parts. I particularly liked Ben Nathan, but everyone did well in this intense portrayal of human interactions, directed by Sam Walters. There were some wonderful moments, such as one of Abramowitz’s children saying, “You can feel compassion for people half way around the world, but you can’t feel it for people half way across the room!”

Ben Nathan with David Antrobus as Abramowitz

There is no interval, the action is non-stop, the telephone keeps ringing, but somehow the history comes through, as when Abramowitz’s mother calls him and talks trivialities, but occasionally mentions Hebron: once to say Abraham bought a cave there, again to say the Muslims built a mosque over the cave, and again to mention the massacre. The Passover Seder, with the four sons, also helps in giving a thread through the action, and various well-known people appear at the table, and one of them says to Abramowitz, “You think you’re the wise son, but you’re the son who does not even know how to ask a question”.

This production is well suited to the intimacy of the Orange Tree Theatre, and performances continue until March 12 — for more details click here.

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