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    Sins of the survivors

    "Two," a serious post-Holocaust drama built on a series of Hebrew lessons, thoughtfully explores the Jewish mind and the postwar Jewish world.


    A woman walks into the basement apartment of a music teacher in postwar German, begging to learn Hebrew. She urgently wants to learn so she can go to Palestine in a few months and join the war to establish the state of Israel. She's come to the right place, in the sense that this music teacher was a rabbi before losing his faith at Auschwitz, and he still gives the occasional Hebrew lesson in-between teaching Beethoven on the piano.

    Written by: Ron Elisha.
    Directed by: Bernice Rohret.
    Cast: Mark Hammer, Tibor Feldman, Irene Glezos, Jane Cho (piano), Steven Zynszajn (violin).
    "Yes," he admits to the woman, "I teach Hebrew to the blue-eyed sons of the butchers. One must admit that the Germans are the most civilized barbarians on the face of the earth."

    He speaks as if he knows that this woman is a fellow Jew, but she has her own wartime secrets, and the rabbi is in for more than one surprise from this mystery guest.

    What follows is a language lesson that's more than a language lesson — the first half of the play uses the Hebrew language as a wedge for exploring the entire Jewish mind. This is not just an artful device — even the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are more complicated than they appear. Learning even one letter involves learning about its shape, its numerology, its meaning in words, its significance in the Torah and in the Jewish mind. You don't need to know anything about Hebrew going in to come out having learned something about the complexity of Hebrew language and Jewish thought.

    In the second half, the play turns increasingly to the two characters' predicaments, their wary relationship with each other and their struggles with Judaism in this historical moment between the mass annihilation and the founding of the Jewish homeland.

    There are times when "Two" feels to me like the simplistic school plays we used to put on in my Jewish grade school, meant to arouse healthy Zionist feelings in our young minds. Founding the nation of Israel is an important ambition, and yet, as I came to realize in adulthood, a more complex prospect in human terms than we were ever permitted to understand as kids. In "Two," the complexity of the characters' experience in Germany is not matched by a complex view of the founding of Israel in Palestine.

    But it's also a very thoughtful play in many places, not least because of the skillful way that the drama is built on the exploration of language. Music — Jewish and German — is also a strong theme throughout, with a live pianist and violinist supplying a key element to the play. And the play contributes to our thinking about one of its central issues, the question of who is a Jew, which is an issue that increasingly divides Jews today. Both characters are grappling with these problems of definition, alienation, obligation, piety and the loss of faith in their own time, just as we are today.

    OCTOBER 21, 2001

    Reader comments on Two:

  • [no subject]   from , Aug 15, 2004
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