12 September 2010

Help! It's August: Kid-Friendly Summer Festivals in Israel

By Helen Kaye

[Helen has been a friend since I directed her in a production of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan back in the ‘70s. Born in Britain, Helen lived in the States for many years before moving to Tel Aviv. We keep in touch regularly and she’s visited New York several times since she made her aliyah. She directs English-language plays in Israel and has written reviews and cultural features for the Jerusalem Post. Helen’s a grandmother, too, so activities and events for children are an interest of hers in both her private and professional lives. She sent me this round-up of children’s performances in and around Tel Aviv this summer and I’m sharing it with ROT readers. ~Rick]

"What are we going to do with the kids?" is a parental refrain country-wide in Israel from the second week in August.

School lets out on June 30 – high school even a bit earlier – so summer vacation in Israel lasts from July 1 to September 1. It's hot, very hot, with never a cooling shower to sluice down the sticky, smelly streets or provide a bit of cool relief to sweltering citizens. If our children revel in two months of freedom, their parents, especially if the children are small and require supervision, are less starry-eyed. Lots less starry-eyed.

True, for some there's a small reprieve.

Where children in the U.S. go to summer camp, children here can attend a kaytana, a made-up Hebrew word that usually denotes a day camp where the children enjoy day-long activities from 8 in the morning until around 4 in the afternoon, when they're collected by their parents, or their grandparents.

But all too soon comes that second week in August when even the most resilient kaytana closes its doors.

Now what?


Israel is a very child-oriented country. Children here are mostly cherished – which is why there's such a huge kerfuffle over the government's decision to deport 400 children born in this country to illegal migrant workers.

Back to vacation.

August is host to a puppet festival, a children's theater festival, a dance festival with programs for children; and this year the Israel Opera has debuted an opera mini-season for children on the main stage. The IO presents hour-long children's versions of famous operas all year long in the foyer of the opera house, but this is the first time they've been on the main-stage. There's also Shrek, the Hebrew version of the successful Broadway musical.

Most of these programs are aimed at the younger set because any child above the age of 10 or so is usually very capable of amusing itself. It's not unusual to see children of 10-12 roaming Tel Aviv (which is where I live), late at night; by and large they are perfectly safe.

I'm not going to this year's puppet festival in Jerusalem because my grandson is still too young to deal with both the trip up to the capital, see a show and then return. It's at The Train Theater, so called because its home was, and still is, a railway carriage, and was founded by four originally minded young artists in 1981. The festival showcases the work of Israeli puppeteers and those from abroad. It takes place at the Train which is situated in the Liberty Bell Gardens and at various venues close by. The performances are mostly for the youngsters, but there are shows for youth and adults as well. The Train Theater's website is www.traintheater.co.il

The Suzanne Dallal Center (SD) in Tel Aviv is host to Magical Tales, a three-day festival of plays, puppetry and dance. This year it includes a musical version of The Wizard of Oz by veteran puppeteer Eric Smith and his long-term collaborator, the actor Yossi Graber.

Mr. Smith, who came to Israel from his native South Africa in 1967, established his puppet theater in 1972, and has taught his craft to generations of local puppeteers. His beautifully costumed, near life-size puppets have enchanted generations of kids. They sure enchanted my grandson and his mother. She said the show was wonderful.

SD, Israel's top dance center, is home base for the Orna Porat Children and Youth Theater, named for its founder. Already a star of local theater, Ms. Porat decided that children also deserved quality theater, and so in 1970 she established the Children and Youth Theater. Its audience is drawn from pre-school to high school, and while never drearily didactic, its repertoire carries a message.

At this year's Magical Tales OPCYT presents Something Wonderful Will Happen Here, a movement theater piece, and a dance theater version of Aladdin. I didn't see the first show, but Aladdin, as in the Disney film, carried the message 'be who you are.'

The Israel Opera, whose children's series in the relative intimacy of the foyer works beautifully, chose to transfer to the main stage The Magic Flute and Rossini's Cinderella, and neither made the transfer well. More or less swallowed up by the stage, hampered by unimaginative direction, and too distanced from their audience, both operas produced fidgeting from and boredom among the kids.

The one production that held its young audience spellbound was the premiere of Alice in Wonderland with libretto and script by David Zebba, an Israeli composer and conductor. Here no expense had been spared with the result that set and costumes were colorful, imaginative and witty. The direction was equally colorful, imaginative and witty. Small wonder that the children were captivated.

The second week in August I took my grandson to Shrek. It was given at the Mann Auditorium which is the home of the Israel Philharmonic and configured acoustically to orchestral playing. Nothing daunted, the Shrek producers had created an apron stage so that some of the action took place literally among the excited children.

Overall this Shrek lacked the snap and crackle of a Broadway production, but the kids, fortified by popcorn, pretzels and other goodies, loved it, my grandson among them. As we walked back out into the blistering afternoon, he said it was wonderful!!

At Magical Tales in the third week of August we walked to our shows through a gauntlet of vendors selling balloons, toys and the usual variety of glittery tchotchkes (A Yiddish portmanteau word for 'all kinds of forgettable trifles’), into the theater. As I mentioned, my grandson loved The Wizard of Oz, was polite about the tediously cute though beautifully costumed Aladdin and enthusiastic about poet Leah Goldberg's gentle A Tale of Three Nuts, another OPCYT show. This one is about the enduring value of kindness.

On Wednesday, September 1, my grandson starts school. Today we're going to a movie – there's lots of kid-friendly movies in August too – this one is Space Chimps II. It's his last August treat.

Whew! Farewell summer vacation – until next year!

[Helen has said she’ll try to send me more reports of things Israeli. (ROT may have a “foreign correspondent”!) I hope she can, because the performing arts in Israel is a fascinating mix of art, Mid-East culture, and politics. (Almost anything that happens in Israel or Palestine has or creates a political aspect.) Helen still reviews plays for JP and attends many of the cultural and theater events, including several festivals, that take place in Israel. Along with her directing, she has a great view of the performance culture in an intriguing part of the world.]

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