The wail of a siren fills the darkened room. The sound swells, painfully loud. Some spectators cover their ears. Four figures stand motionless on the empty stage. A minute goes by before the descending siren is cut short by a snap of floodlights that brings us back to reality. The play goes on as if nothing had happened.
We are observing a scene from „Minute of Silence“ (in German, „Schweigeminute“), a play by Hila Golan and Ariel Nil Levy, which premiered last May in Berlin, and subsequently won first prize at the 2010 Acco Festival of Alternative Israeli Theater. In an hourlong sequence of monologues, vignettes and musical interludes inspired by episodes from the biographies of the actors – three Israelis and one German – the play sheds light on the ways in which a new generation of Israelis and Germans view the complex relationship between their countries.
„We wanted to address the German- Israeli relationship in a different way, in a way that breaks down accepted models,“ says director Hila Golan. „Many on both sides have an unclear, stereotyped notion of who the other is. For example, until recently, the Israeli mainstream still approached Germany as a country of perpetrators – an attitude that is obviously no longer tenable today,“ she said in a phone interview following a performance of the play in Berlin in July.
Golan’s remarks reflect what has become a much-discussed phenomenon over the past several years: The dramatically growing number of young Israelis who take up residence and even citizenship in Germany – their preferred destination being Berlin. Although Getting to know each other: actors at Berlin’s Theater Thikwa Doing Away With Stereotypes A Growing Number of Young Israelis is Taking Up Residence in Germany the official number of registered Israeli residents given by the German capital’s website, berlin.de, is 2.861, unofficial estimates, which include temporary visitors and those who registered with foreign passports, place the total between nine and ten thousand.
Equally significant is the number of Israeli tourists who flock to the city each year. According to the Berlin-Brandenburg State Statistical Institute, that number has more than tripled since the year 2000, reaching a record of 47,321 last year – the largest group of visitors to arrive in Berlin from any non-European country after the United States.
The theme of emigration and tourism – or more precisely, the virtual „space“ this movement between the two countries has created – is a leitmotif of Golan’s and Levy’s play. „The experience of having emigrated, of having voluntarily changed homelands, is the common ground between the four of us and provided the inspiration for many of these scenes,“ Levy, a native of Tel Aviv who is now a German citizen living in Berlin, explained after the performance in the Thikwa Theater. „All of us have lived through that experience, and it is only because we have felt it on our own skins that we could approach it ironically.“
That irony is evident throughout. In one particularly memorable scene, Israeli actor Niva Dloomy takes center stage as a tour guide in Berlin. Speaking in English with an exaggerated Hebrew accent, she invites the spectators to „see Berlin through Israeli eyes.“ And she reassures them that Israelis are no longer afraid of Germany: „We don’t think you’re Nazis anymore. Now, it’s you who think that we are Nazis. We’re even!“ she proclaims with a didactic air, drawing laughter from the crowd.
As to the theme of emigration: in a succession of monologues performed about halfway through the play, Anke Rauthmann, the German member of the group, offers the audience a scathing parody of conventional models of identity. Speaking in a melodious, elegant German (a stark contrast with the accent-tinged dialogues heard previously), she confesses to her deep attachment to her native language and her longing for her grandparents‘ vanished homeland, Silesia, a formerly German-speaking region of present-day Poland.
Then, after a brief interlude, she reenters and begins to recount in flawless Hebrew, the story of her emigration to Israel and her marriage to an Israeli Jew. Soon, the speech escalates into a tirade against her own „Israeli identity“; she begins to shout right-wing, anti-immigration slogans: „Israel for the Jews! This is no country for immigrants!“ Only after that line – as if to drive home the point even further – does the speech briefly slip into German. „Dies ist kein Einwanderungsland!“
As Golan explains, this central moment of the play brings together various themes that bear directly on the essence of the Israel-Germany issue. „While Anke’s first speech, which opens with a quote from Goethe’s ‚Faust‘, evokes the question – much discussed in Germany today – of what constitutes German identity, her second monologue reflects the complexity of Israeli society – specifically, the problematic nature of its education system and „memory culture“ as symbolized by the siren that sounds several times throughout the play – an allusion to Israel’s annual Day of Remembrance for its fallen soldiers. These foment the nationalistic worldview which is among the reasons why many young Israelis leave the country,“ she says.
„The point we are trying to make is that the Germans are not the only ones susceptible to the perils of nationalism. It is time for us to come to terms with the situation in Israel and to ask ourselves how, if at all, our society is to continue“ she soberly concludes.
Practical reasons vs. ideological considerations
The fact that many young Israelis choose Germany as their country of refuge certainly adds irony to the situation, and carries clear historical overtones. But in many cases, that choice is actually motivated less by ideological considerations than by practical and personal ones: Life in Berlin is, quite simply, more affordable than in Israel. And for many, the calm, cosmopolitan character of the city, which has become a focal point for ‚outsiders‘ of all stripes and nationalities, offers welcome relief from the charged political atmosphere in Israel.
This lighter, apolitical aspect of the Israeli presence in Berlin sets the tone for „Schweigeminute“ – a tone evident from the picture on the cover of the program booklet, which shows the four actors, with their naked bodies draped by a German and an Israeli flag. As the highly emotional reactions of audiences in both Israel and Germany suggest, it is precisely this irreverent approach, which parodies all political standpoints, that allows the play to touch the heart of issues of fundamental importance for all sides. It was this directness that convinced Gerlinde Altenmüller, artistic director of the Theater Thikwa, to host Golan’s and Levy’s production. „As soon as I saw the dress rehearsal, even without the subtitles, I immediately understood what they were getting at,“ she said in an interview conducted a few days after the last of the show’s three performances. „These are the same questions I have been asking myself for years now, with reference to Germany: What does it mean to live truly in the present, in the here and now?“ „Is there a way to confront the past without letting it dominate our lives?“
By Ben Niran