Secrets of Israeli mind-set exposed to broader audience

Ofra Daniel says that her South Bay community theater group, and its latest production in particular, offer insights into the Israeli mind and society. Now, for the first time, English speakers in the audience, not just Hebrew speakers, will be able to understand what’s being said.

Daniel, the executive and artistic director of Jewish Circle Theatre and Bama Ivrit, its Hebrew-speaking branch, will present her collection of three one-act plays, “Secrets Behind Closed Doors,” in Hebrew with English supertitles.

“Secrets” opens Jan. 23 at the Starbright Theatre in Campbell.

The Hebrew-language productions have played to sold-out audiences — especially Israeli Americans in the South Bay — since their inception several years ago in Palo Alto. To accommodate the demand, Bama Ivrit changed venues two years ago, moving to the Starbright, a 144-seat theater offering twice the capacity of the previous one. “We needed a bigger space for our growing audience,” Daniel said.

Ofra Daniel photo/arnona oren

Now, with the addition of English supertitles, they can reach an even wider audience. “We have been getting more and more requests from the [English-speaking]  and Russian communities who heard about our shows and would have liked to see them had they been in English or had English supertitles,” Daniel said. “Our vision as a company is to reach a broader audience.”

To that end, they hope to bring their first English-language play to the stage in the fall. The plan is to phase in the changes, Daniel said, “so we don’t lose our Israeli followers. Our plan is to gradually expand to a broader market. We believe that good art should be accessible to all.”

“Secrets Behind Closed Doors” is based in part on Daniel’s childhood musings.

“I was fascinated growing up in an apartment building in Bat Yam,” just south of Tel Aviv, Daniel said. “You could look out and see the lights in the windows of other apartments and silhouettes of the people inside, and you’d know there was a life going on behind each window. It’s the universal aspect of our being, the similarities between people that we’re not even aware of.”

Daniel set “Secrets” in a Tel Aviv apartment building — one act each on the first floor, the eighth floor and the penthouse.

While the three acts are not directly connected, the people on the eighth floor want to buy the penthouse and are pushing their way up, Daniel said. Each short play also begins with the same four lines, which came from a real-life exchange between Daniel and someone she took a class with, but whose name she never knew.

Those “same four lines have a different meaning depending on who’s saying it,” Daniel said. “I look at it almost like a musical piece — they’re three plays, but one experience.”

In each play — “The Exit,” “Alternative Sex” and “Truth & Lies” — a secret is revealed, challenging the characters to rethink their choices. As described in an online synopsis, “the stories entangle power struggles between characters who are searching for meaning, order and universal humanity.”

Daniel, who lives in Berkeley, formed her theater group in 2009 after teaching an adult acting class in Hebrew in Palo Alto.

“I found there’s a big thirst within the [local] Israeli community to experience creativity in Hebrew,” she said. That acting class has grown over the past six years “and out of it grew a different class to train for the ensemble.”

About a dozen actors regularly perform in the productions that Daniel writes and directs for Jewish Circle Theater. Though some of the actors are American Jews, Daniel said most of her group is comprised of Israeli Americans.

And it’s not just actors.

“They’re all immigrants — mostly high-tech people,” Daniel said, “so all the graphic designers, set designers, fashion designers, photographers, every musical instrument I need played, I can find among those brilliant high-tech people. It’s been a tremendous community project. It’s an exciting pioneer theater with so much passion.”

This helps explain the company’s growing popularity, Daniel said.

“I think the theater is answering a community need. And once theater finds its community, it’s an encounter,” she said. “People come not just because it’s good, but because it’s connected to them. They come because they see themselves. It’s part of their history. They see themselves in a completely different light.”

Daniel said the group wants to do one English-language production each year in the hope of allowing a different demographic in on the experience. And in the fall, she added, they plan to offer English-language acting classes in Berkeley and Palo Alto.

Her overarching goal, she said, is “to reach a wider audience and connect the Israeli community and the Jewish American community. We can offer content and material you can’t get anywhere else. You can look into Israeli culture through these plays — into the society, the peoplehood.”

“Secrets Behind Closed Doors,” Jan. 23, 24, 30, 31, Feb. 6 and 7 at Starbright Theatre, 1770 W. Campbell Ave., Campbell. $30-40.

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

A wife and mother of two grown sons, Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist, columnist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County."