Israeli dramatist Hanoch Levin’s ‘Yaacobi & Leidental’ in U.S. premiere
From left, Sera Heywood-Rakhimova, Michael Redfield, and Ilia Votok / Jenny Graham

LOS ANGELES — Dear Reader, please indulge me for a moment to tell you my favorite Jewish joke—and it won’t be the only time in this review that I’ll be bordering on the politically incorrect:

Two Jews meet on the street. One says, “Hey, would you believe it? My father just turned a hundred years old!” The other replies, “So what?! If my father had lived, he’d be a hundred and seven!”

Do they have to be Jews? you ask. Okay, I guess they could be anyone. But I call it a Jewish joke because to me it reflects so much of the ethos of a people who’d been pressed down for so long that at any opportunity they get, they simply have to one-up the other guy, get the better of them. (A lot of Jewish jokes use that meme—don’t get me started—you know, the priest, the minister, and the rabbi.)

The Israelis have a word for that. Don’t be a frayer, they say (pron. “friar”). A loser, a sucker, a shnook. Don’t let them take advantage of you. Without overly generalizing (heaven forfend!), it’s as close as you can get to a national trait. In part, it helps explain why so many Israelis have been trained to be so hateful and abusive of the Palestinians—who had the khutspe, the gall, to be living on a land that, after 2000 years of exile from Jerusalem, the Jews would choose to return to as their ancestral homeland (something of a default position, in many people’s view, including my own, because the rest of the world didn’t want to take in the survivors and displaced after the horrors of the Holocaust and where else were they to go?).

Nisha Sujatha Arunasalam / Jenny Graham

This is the dark and tragic vision that the late Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin brings to his hyperrealist play Yaacobi & Leidental, now enjoying its U.S. premiere courtesy of the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. Levin coats that bitter appreciation of the Israeli mentality with provocative irony, humor, bawdiness, and odd topical songs by Alex Kagan, a frequent collaborator with Levin, accompanied at the piano here by Nisha Sujatha Arunasalam. The show betrays many of the earmarks of Levin and Kagan’s essays in cabaret, a seat-of-the-pants kind of place where with a few props and a witty song the pretenses and miscreants of society could be knowingly skewered. Theatre as resistance, you could say.

Israeli audiences, many of them coming from that Central European cabaret culture, flocked to Levin’s plays as the one place, in a darkened room, where they could laugh at themselves and take truthful note of the country’s ills. One of their collaborations in particular got them into a certain amount of trouble, the scandal following their prophetic cabaret show You and I and the Next War, staged in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War. The artists knew that war was not the answer to all of Israel’s difficulties, and it would certainly not be its last.

That play “sharply scorned Israel’s euphoric reaction to its victory in the war,” says writer Mulli Meltzer, “and shattered the ethos of heroism and patriotic sacrifice. Levin was one of the first Israeli voices to criticize Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, and its dire consequences for both sides. As a result of the cabaret, as well as two others that followed, Levin began to gain a reputation as a talented but controversial artist.”

The New Jew

Part of the guiding ideology of Zionism was that the citizens of this new nation, founded in 1948, would never again hover in ghettoes, not bow to bullies nor yield to challengers. Israel would create the New Jew—proud, virile, strong, tall, tan, Hebrew-speaking, heroic, armed, and unapologetic. If an issue could not be settled by force, well, then, it needs more force! By creating characters contrary to type—nebishes, shlepers, maladroits, insecure zhlubs, decaying braggarts whose only mission in their boring, inconsequential lives is to somehow get someone to pay them a little respect—Levin pricked the balloon of that ethos, and the public knew he was onto something it was important for somebody to be saying. Even in his casting, says the Israeli Tel Aviv-based director Yonatan Esterkin, Levin often chose actors with a speech impediment, an accent, or they were short and out of shape—the very antithesis of the New Jew.

Jenny Graham

“It’s as if a cast of Sholem Aleichem characters that didn’t quite make the final cut ran off and joined the circus, only to settle in an apartment block somewhere in south Tel Aviv,” wrote Tal Kra-Oz in a Tablet article about Levin’s work. And indeed, the scenic design for Yaacobi & Leidental picks up on that: a soiled, worn red and white checkered linoleum floor, and swaths of red and white circus banners flowing from a knot in the center, as if we’re in a Big Top tent, movable props designating a balcony, a café, a beachside, beds.

“Absurdist” is not a word Esterkin prefers for this tale about a love triangle gone wrong. He is also a teacher of theater history, and that term doesn’t quite cut it, he explained in a post-performance talkback on March 19. For in Yaacobi & Leidental, the characters say exactly what’s on their minds all the time. There’s no dissembling, nothing untruthful spoken, no hidden meanings or metatext in this comic escapade through the failings of friendship and love. The three characters uninhibitedly insult one another, and at the same time are also plagued by profound knowledge of their own shortcomings.

Even as we laugh at the antics of the brash Yaacobi (the Kiev-born Ilia Volok), the timid shlemiel Leidental (Michael Redfield), and the not-as-sweet-as-she-looks Ruth Shahash (Sera Heywood-Rakhimova), we are reminded of our own shared human frailty in the face of desire and suffering. The cheerful songs stand in stark contrast to the sadomasochistic cruelties visited on one another. It’s clear they are only out to use each other any way they can to get what they think they want—to count for something ultimately, to belong.

“The Brechtian style and cabaret-like music are great fun and typical Odyssey fare,” says artistic director Ron Sossi. “The Odyssey has always been internationally oriented, so this play is right up our alley. It’s an exciting piece that’s hard to typify, falling somewhere between Samuel Beckett and Woody Allen.”

The new translation by Naaman Tamuz, recently commissioned by the Levin estate, presents the artificiality of these over-the-top commedia dell’arte personas, never descending into rank slang or clichés.

“The high ‘sad clown’ theatricality of the text hones in on our inability to find happiness, love, and satisfaction—and just how funny that is,” says Esterkin. “It’s what’s unique about Levin’s writing. The play is very Jewish and Israeli in its outlook and humor, but the themes are universal.” Perhaps in a similar way to Fiddler on the Roof—very culturally specific, but hailed all around the world for its broader themes of tradition, social change, oppression, the problems of parents and children.

A product of the ’70s?

Levin, who died of cancer in 1999 at the age of 56, remains one of Israel’s most prolific and controversial playwrights. His artistic legacy includes 56 plays and political satires, two books of prose, two collections of sketches and songs, a book of poems, and two books for children. Yaacobi & Leidental premiered in 1972 as a co-production between Tel Aviv’s Tzavta and Cameri Theatres and was the first of Levin’s plays that he directed himself. Since then, it has had several revivals in Israel and has been produced in Germany, France, Spain, England, Poland, and Romania. Now the U.S.

Who knows? Maybe the play is in part the working out of some autobiographical “issues.” “Levin was married three times and is survived by four children,” according to Meltzer. The crude manner in which Itamar Yaacobi and David Leidental lust after Ruth Shekhash’s abundant derriere (tukhes in Yiddish and Hebrew—there’s a whole song dedicated to it) and packed torso reveals much about their own limitations as male animals. The way Ruth, in turn, sizes up these guys competing for her attentions also reveals everything about a woman’s need for economic security and physical comfort. There’s almost no level too low for these purposeless characters to descend to on their hunt for a warm body, someone they can have and hold, another human who will help make their lonely, humiliating, and delusionary existence worthwhile.

It would be easy to discount Levin’s unabashed lewdness as a product of the 1970s—the play is, after all, 50 years old. But it would only beg the question if in many places things are really so different today. Men and women both assess one another for their marketplace, mercenary value. It’s been reported that Melania was asked by an interviewer if she would have married Donald Trump if he weren’t so rich, to which she responded, would he have married her if she weren’t so beautiful? I don’t believe it myself, but I’m sure lots of people ask if the war of the sexes is in the end just some mad carousel we can’t get off of.

The creative team for Yaacobi & Leidental includes scenic designer Pete Hickock, lighting designer Michael Blendermann and costume designer Denise Blasor. The stage manager is Christa Troester. Beth Hogan produces for Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. Click here to read bios of the artists.

Performances take place through April 30, Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. In addition, there will be three performances on Weds. at 8 p.m.—March 29, April 12 and 26; two performances on Fri. at 8 p.m.—March 24 and April 14; and two performances on Mon. at 8 p.m.—April 3 and 10. The Mon. dates are Pay-What-You-Will (reservations open online and at the door starting at 5:30 p.m.). Post-performance discussions with the artists are scheduled on Weds., March 29, and Weds., April 12, included in the ticket price. Fri., March 24, and Fri., April 14 are “Wine Nights” with complimentary wine and snacks and the opportunity to mingle with the cast after the show.

The Odyssey Theatre is located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles 90025. For reservations and information, including up-to-date Covid-19 safety protocols, call (310) 477-2055 or go to

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.