A Little-Known History Comes to Life on Stage in Israelby Sybil Kaplan July 27, 2017
For three nights in Israel this spring, a gripping chapter of history played out on stage at the Hirsch Theatre in Beit Shmuel. Slides projected on the back wall of the stage replaced actual scenery. The story began in the Sinai desert after the Six-Day War of 1967 with Arabs telling soldiers there is a palm tree marking the area they called “the Jew’s grave.” Dates from Avshalom Feinbeg’s pocket had produced the tree, and his bones were found underneath.
In the Encore Theatre production of “Intrepid: The Saga of the Nili Spy Ring,” the story of Aaron Aaronsohn and the Israeli spy group NILI (acronym for Netzach Yisrael Lo Yishaker – “The Eternal One of Israel will not be false”), this is where the story flashes back to 1915, long before Avshalom is buried under a tree. Avshalom is informed by his friend Aaronsohn of his plan to set up a Jewish spy ring to assist the British in conquering Palestine from the Ottoman Turks. From there, the story unfolds chronologically, following Sarah, Aaronsohn’s sister, as she becomes involved while the spy headquarters at the Agricultural Experimental Station in Atlit grows and the group awaits British ships carrying supplies.
Later, they begin to use carrier pigeons to send messages. It works for a very short time, until one messenger lands near a Turkish officer, exposing the spy ring. Spy members are revealed, two are hanged; Avshalom is killed while trying to reach Egypt via the Sinai, to deliver information to the British; Sarah is arrested but will not give the Turks any information; before being sent to Damascus prison, she is allowed to go home to change clothes. While there, she chooses to commit suicide rather than be taken to prison. Aaronsohn survives but dies in a plane crash in 1919.
The operatic presentation of Encore’s production is dramatic and meaningful and the lyrics and songs are respectful to the seriousness of the plot. A goal of all Encore productions is to present original musical works based on Jewish and Israeli themes. Since this was the centenary of the NILI spy ring, the group decided to present this saga which is so significant in early Zionist history.
I have been familiar with the Aaronsohn story for many years, as part of my own knowledge of Israel and its history. Sarah Aaronsohn is such a special heroine, when last chol hamoed Pesach, we took a trip up north and stopped in Zichron Yaacov. On previous trips we had been unable to go through the Aaronsohn homes. This time, we took the tour. Upon returning, I read the book about the Aaronsohn family and the spy ring, Nili, and created a lecture to present at the senior citizen residences where I teach. It was there that I saw the notices for the English-language theatre company, Encore, and their presentation of “Intrepid.”
Robert Binder wrote and directed this production; Paul Salter composed the music.
Binder has been involved in the creation of educational media for Israel television, the JNF, and other places. As artistic director of Bimadaf (“Page on the Stage”), he produced and toured in puppet-and-people performances of Jewish tales throughout Israel and in North America and Great Britain. He is a founder of Encore Educational Theatre Company, for whom he wrote and directed countless plays with an educational focus.
Musical Director Paul Salter is a graduate of the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England, where he won several prizes and scholarships in piano accompaniment. Salter has performed widely, with concerts in Manchester, London, Antwerp, and Strasbourg. For several years, Paul was musical director of Manchester’s Jewish Theatre Group, for whom he conducted eleven shows.
Speaking with the Times of Israel, Binder explains why they created the play:
“A number of years ago, I made several visits to Zichron Yaakov for a project I was doing at the time, and I visited the Aaronsohn house. I was very much taken with the story of Sarah Aaronsohn and especially that of Avshalom Feinberg buried in the desert …
“We met with a patron of ours, the late Sam Sylvester, who told us that he too was intrigued by the story and had one time written a film script that he was unable to sell. But we both had the same idea of starting the story with the discovery of the palm tree in the desert. That led us to do some more research and writing on the project, and after Sam passed away a couple of years ago, we spoke to his family about creating a living memorial to him by writing this story as a serious musical.”
The Sylvester family commissioned “Intrepid” in Sam’s honor.
While it only played for a short run in Jerusalem, a country-wide tour of the production would help those who don’t know this significant history to become acquainted with it in a vibrant and thrilling way.
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, lecturer, book reviewer, author and food writer. She is the creator of Shuk Walks in the Jewish produce market, Machaneh Yehudah, and leads weekly walks. She syndicates features to North American Jewish newspapers. She lives in Jerusalem.
*Photo by Brian Negin