Profile: Joshua Sobol
It is often the artist who examines the political and moral milieu of his society. Israel’s leading playwright has a celebrated reputation for doing just that.
When Joshua Sobol makes his entrance, it is as though the curtain is going up on a central character in one of his plays. He is dressed in a signature costume—black slacks, black T-shirt and black leather jacket. With his piercing eyes and ruddy face decorated with a neatly trimmed white beard, he looks like a sea captain (which he wasn’t so far from being) or a French intellectual (which he once was).
The encounter with Sobol takes place at Joe Allen, a well-known meeting place for Broadway types on Restaurant Row, on the fringes of New York’s theater district. The subdued lighting, the rounded arches and the red-brick walls lined with theater posters and photos exude an atmosphere particularly conducive to a schmooze about theater.
Sobol, who came to the israeli public’s attention in the 1980’s as artistic director of the Haifa Theater, is in New York at the invitation of the Public Theater. The Public’s annual “New Works Now!” series of dramatic readings, held last October, showcased recent plays by Israeli and Arab playwrights about the intifada. Sobol’s iWitness—based on the life and death of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian who was executed for refusing to be conscripted into Hitler’s army—kicked off the program.
Sobol, 67, explains that when the play—not about conscientious objection to war but, as he calls it, “a much more controversial selective refusal”—was performed in Israel, “it motivated some Israeli pilots to refuse to do battle in the territories. Moreover,” he adds, “the play has something to teach Palestinians and should be produced on a Palestinian stage because it argues against the Arab worship of death in the intifada.” He sees his hero, Franz, an Austrian Catholic, as “a Jew in his response to life. A man strongly, passionately, attached to life.”
When asked how Sobol’s play—which is not obviously about the Arab-Israeli conflict—fit into the general theme of the festival, Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, admits, “the major way is that Joshua Sobol wrote it. He is one of the most important playwrights of his generation and has had significant influence on the theater in both Europe and the United States. So for us it was a great honor just to have Joshua in the building. In addition, this was the play he was interested in putting on here.”
Beyond iWitness, Sobol’s latest achievements include his directing Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in 2002. He approached the play as a Jew, he says, setting it in Venice in 1938 at the height of Mussolini’s Fascist anti-Jewish laws. He chose to portray the relationship of Shylock to his daughter as a positive one, based on a feeling of protective love, encouraging his daughter to save her life by severing her contacts with her Jewish past. And, Sobol fairly boasts, “I did all this without changing one word of Shakespeare’s original.”
Though he has been characterized as a writer of thesis plays (works that promote a certain political or moral argument), Sobol doesn’t think that after having written 50 plays and 2 novels (Silence and Whiskey Is Fine, published to date only in Hebrew) he can be so easily classified. Yet, according to Israeli critic Michael Handelsaltz, writing in the journal Modern Hebrew Literature, “the main body of his dramatic work deals not with abstract questions about the meaning of human existence but rather with current political and social problems.”
A glance at Sobol’s bibliography confirms that Handelsaltz’s characterization has merit. Among Sobol’s many provocative plays—the most famous of which are Ghetto, Jerusalem Syndrome and iWitness—are Soul of a Jew, about Jewish self-hatred, homosexuality and suicide; and Kol Nidrei, in which two haredi Jews have a secret nightlife.
Eustis concurs with Handelsaltz, to some degree. “Although it certainly can’t be said of all his plays, I think [iWitness] has a thesis, proceeding from a very strong premise,” he says. “There’s political resonance with the situation in Israel and here in the United States itself. Any time there’s an unjust war—to put it bluntly—the conflict between the duties of a citizen and the duties of an individual comes to the fore.”
Sobol himself is adamant that all drama has to do in its essence with moral questions. The main problem as a playwright is how to give characters a full human existence and not make them mere mouthpieces.
“It is important for playwrights not to make compromises and become mere entertainers,” he says.
Eustis emphasizes that Sobol’s strength “lies in his ability to isolate the purity of moral intention, to dramatize what happens to society when someone takes a purely moral stand,” he says. “This is not an easy thing to do….”
Sobol also does not mind being considered a provocateur. He likes to say that theater becomes provocative when a society has lost its vocation. If there are arguments in his plays—and there are always ones in and about his plays—it is important for him to show both the good faith and bad faith ones. He loves the Israeli theatergoing public (which he says is probably the most active relative to its size in the world) because they themselves love to argue and, at the theater during the discussion period after a play, they have heated debates both with him and among themselves.
Sobol has translated many plays from French into Hebrew—including Dreyfus, by French Jewish playwright Jean-Claude Grumberg—and has also directed several productions, for example his own iWitness and his 1984 masterpiece, Ghetto, about the conflicting reactions to the theater that flourished in the Vilna Ghetto. Ghetto has been translated into 20 languages and performed in 25 countries, earning Sobol awards for best play of the year in Israel, Germany, England and Japan. Despite its time and place, he has never considered Ghetto—the first in a trilogy about the Vilna Ghetto that also includes Adam and Underground—a Holocaust play, but rather one that uses theater as a parable in which to raise moral questions.
Fluent in Yiddish thanks to his grandmother, Sobol has written three plays in the language. Two of them—a bio-musical, Mensh, and A Liebe far a Groshen, about Yiddish legendary folk poet Mordekhai Gebirtig, composer of the song “Unser Shtetl Brent”—have been produced at the Yiddish Theater in Tel Aviv. He is currently writing a play in English called Charmed Life, about the international pharmaceutical industry.
Sobol’s academic career has included teaching theater aesthetics at the Actors Training School of Seminar Hakibbutzim in Tel Aviv and leading playwriting workshops at the Beit-Zvi Drama School in Tel Aviv. He has also taught documentary drama at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.
The playwright’s early life provides few clues to the intellectual path he would pursue. After a childhood in Tel Mond and military service in Nahal, the pioneer youth branch of the Israel Defense Forces, he went to live in a kibbutz where, for five years, he worked as a fisherman in the Galilee (fishing not for Christian souls, he points out, but Jewish carp).
In the mid-1960’s, he and his wife, Edna, decided to complete their education at the Sorbonne in Paris. Edna received a degree in art history and Sobol earned degrees in philosophy and computer systems’ analysis.
It was in Paris that his love of theater blossomed. Living on the Left Bank and soaking up French culture, Sobol became a “frantic theatergoer,” attending the Comédie Française and the Théâtre National Populaire. He read a lot of plays and was especially moved by Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which he freely admits influenced his 2001 play, Crocodiles. “I became a great admirer of Sartre and Camus and was influenced by existentialism and la littérature engagée,” Sobol recalls of his time in Paris.
On his return to israel in 1969, he devoted his life to playwriting. After only one year back at the kibbutz, he and his wife moved to Haifa. Edna turned to theater herself, taking on costume and scene design—a field in which she has become one of Israel’s leading practitioners, designing some 80 productions during her career.
Sobol remembers the 1970’s in Haifa as one of the most important eras in Israeli theater. “Prior to that time,” he notes, “Israeli theater was mainly about translations into Hebrew.” He credits Oded Kotler, the Haifa Theater’s artistic director at the time, for encouraging and developing contemporary Israeli playwrights.
In 1971, Sobol’s first play, The Days to Come, was produced. It is a socially conscious look at the plight of old people in Israel.
Between 1984 and 1988, he served as artistic director of the Haifa Theater, a position he left when Jerusalem Syndrome caused a major scandal, inciting violence and evoking rabbinical injunctions against the theater.
“The Jerusalem Syndrome” is a modern psychiatric term describing foreigners who come to live in the city and are mysteriously overtaken by messianic hallucinations. Sobol adopts the term to propose a historical analogy between the self-destructiveness of the Jewish Wars described by Josephus that caused the ruin of the Second Temple and the modern-day lunacy of messianic yearnings that may lead to the undoing of the modern State of Israel. Sobol explains his resignation by saying that, like his hero Franz in iWitness, he “refused to bend his neck in the wind and bide his time until the storm passed over.”
He and his wife currently live in Tel Aviv. Their daughter, Neta, 36, an expert on the Zohar, teaches Kabbala in the Department of Jewish Philosophy at Tel Aviv University. Their son, Yahli, 34, is a rock singer and writer whose second novel, Key Money (published in Hebrew only), is a current best seller in Israel.
Sobol is sometimes astonished at the variety of interpretations his plays evoke, but, he says, “a play is a mirror that reflects the face of the people who look into it.” He was early made aware of the richness of Jewish history and this is reflected in his plays, many of which are obviously the result of serious historical research. But his upbringing was both cerebral and emotional. Being a Jew, for him, entails integrating these contradictions.
“To be a Jew,” he says, “is to be Yes and No at the same time.” He believes that “living at a crossroads of so many contradictory tendencies, you have to be a Jew to keep all these things together.”