What do you get when you mix a determinedly dovish Israeli playwright with a stridently hawkish Russian-Jewish theater audience here? Apparent miscommunication.
That is what seemed to play out at the opening night performance of the Gesher Theater’s production of “Momik” last week at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center.
“Momik” is a searing Holocaust drama based on a segment of the novel “See Under: Love” by the Israeli novelist David Grossman. The novelist’s tragically ironic message? That the Holocaust so traumatized Jews that they unconsciously imitated their Nazi tormenters by adopting military force as Israel’s sole means of salvation.
The Russian audience at the March 20 performance apparently didn’t see it that way.
According to Yevgeny Aryeh, artistic director of the Tel Aviv-based Gesher Theater since its founding in 1991 by newly arrived Russian Jewish olim, audiences in Cleveland, Chicago, Toronto and Boston responded with tears and applause to Gesher’s just-completed North American tour with a Russian-language version of “Momik.”
Yet the New York audience’s vociferously positive response to the climactic moment of “Momik” — when the title character, a 10-year-old son of Auschwitz survivors growing up in Jerusalem in 1959, vows that the Jews will someday avenge the Holocaust by “flying overhead in our jet planes … destroying [enemies] and spitting in the face of the whole world” — suggested that many appeared to miss Grossman’s point.
“See Under: Love,” as written by Grossman in 1990 and brought to the stage by Aryeh as “Momik” in 2005, is a psychologically intricate study of how powerful memories of the Holocaust devastate the lives and distort the thinking of survivors and their children decades after the cataclysm.
During a discussion of the play at the University of California-Santa Cruz in 2003, Grossman, a longtime critic of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians, said that Momik as an individual and the Jews as a people are “trapped in the terrible paradox of survival. …When history suggests to us the rare opportunity to stop merely surviving and to begin to live our life by making use of the enormous military power that we have gathered to create a political solution that is strong and generous, we are unable to do this with the initiative and courage required.”
Yet when asked whether they thought the play was a warning to Jews not to extol force above more life-affirming values, members of the New York audience sounded off.
Bella Perlova, a former resident of Odessa who was evacuated to Central Asia as a small child in 1941, said, “What the little boy in the play said was absolutely right. We have to be strong in order to overcome the monsters that would rise up to destroy us.”
Feliks Frenkel, a Kiev-born arbitrageur in his early 50s who serves on the UJA-Federation board of directors, remarked, “This was a brilliant and mesmerizing play with a very clear message: ‘The next time we won’t go quietly. Never again!’”