Helen Gottstein is a hard woman to interview, in a way that makes it likely that her show is likely to be a provocative and revealing way to spend an evening.
She’s contentious and bristly, and she’s also warm and appealing, at the same time and in ways that seem natural rather than forced or contradictory.
Her concern is that too much information about her show — set for September 10; there’s more information about it in the box below — will detract from the viewers’ experience of it. The competing concern — my concern— is that being mysterious about it will sound silly.
That makes writing a story about her show difficult. But I’ll try.
Ms. Gottstein, who was born in Melbourne, Australia, made aliyah a long time ago, although her accent makes her origins clear. She teaches public speaking and has a background as an actress and in improv, as well as in Jewish education. And “I care passionately about this country,” she said over Skype from Israel recently.
“I care deeply about the stories people tell about it,” she continued. “I struggle with oversimplification, and the denial of other people’s reality. I fight against the winner-take-all idea, that there is only one truth.”
Not that she thinks every truth is equally true. “I have limits to my tolerance. Everyone has limits to their tolerance, to what they find acceptable.”
That’s true in every place in the world, and probably across human history. But Israel seems to be a country where competing truths are set against each other with more spittle and rage than almost anywhere else; the fact that there are so many people with so many contradictory stories and beliefs, in such a small tinderbox of a place, with so much history and faith and hatred and dreams, means that conflicting understandings of reality are inevitable.
There also are tensions specific to Jews. “It’s the tension between being an individual and a member of a community,” between the ancient understanding of Jews as being bound together, responsible for each other, and the more modern desire “to seek greater personal agency within our lives.” Both are deeply real, “and perhaps in a different way here than when you are elsewhere,” Ms. Gottstein said.
“When an Israeli is accused of fraud, you feel like the whole country is accused of fraud.” (This also is reflective of Ms. Gottstein’s inclination, both in conversation and during her show, to weave in absolutely current events. The day before we spoke, Israel had announced that it planned to indict a binary options company and its owner for fraud.) “When an Australian is accused of fraud, it’s just about that person, not the whole nation. The more you feel like you are a member of the tribe, the more you feel that the collective is a reflection of you.”
What is within people’s control is how they understand each other, and how they can live with the knowledge that theirs is not the only truth.
How do you put that on stage?
Ms. Gottstein’s show, “The Four Faces of Israel,” is about four entirely different, entirely contradictory views of Israel. They come from a charedi woman, a settler, a secular Tel Aviv resident, and a moderate Arab.
“There is a sweep of history, of emotion, of data, of statistics, and of ideology,” she said. Note the emotion. “I take people on a ride. I have had chairs thrown at me.” (Not often, though. No one should go to the show expecting to duck flying furniture.)
“The show is for people who care about their connection to Israel,” Ms. Gottstein said. “Who care about the vision of the state, care about modern Jewish identity, care about anti-Semitism, and care about their relationship with this tiny annoying country, with this big small nation in the middle of the desert.
“If you love a good argument, then this show is for you.”
That’s not metaphoric. The show is interactive. “If it is not, there is no show,” Ms. Gottstein said. “It is based on audience questions.
“It brings everyone together because everyone will find something they don’t like. The material is tough.” But also — and necessarily — “I am funny. People like me. I have had people coming up to me crying and hugging me at the end of the show.
“‘Helen, I hate you,’” she quotes someone as saying. “‘Give me a hug.’”
She invites her audience to come ready to argue, with their metaphoric boxing gloves on. “Come with questions,” she said. “Get up to date, and get ready to stand your ground. Bring it on!”
The format lends itself to truth-telling, because despite flying words, it’s entirely safe. “There is a particular dynamic, where people are free to ask the really dark questions,” she said. “They can ask them without its having real ramifications.” That’s because they know that the questions are aimed at someone who cares deeply and passionately and truly but also is an actor. “It makes it safe for people to explore what they’re really thinking. It allows for candid, unfiltered, unbridled, direct conversation.
“I did a show about six months ago” — she performs mainly in Israel but has given shows around the world, “and I’ve been doing it since the dinosaurs roamed” — “and an American woman said that we should just bomb them. Gaza. We should just let the army do its job; they could do it in one day and Hamas would sit up and take notice.
“I was able to call her on it in a way that I would never have been able to do if she and I were hanging out, but the context allowed me to.
“And her rabbi reported that this was a watershed moment for her.”
But don’t think that Ms. Gottstein’s goal is to get audiences to think in any one way. That’s not it at all. What she wants is to get audiences open enough simply to be able to think; to allow in new points of view and new information, and to begin to figure out how their own understanding of reality fits in with everyone else’s.
And usually she gets it.
Who: Helen Gottstein
What: Presents “The Four Faces of Israel”
When: On Tuesday, September 10, at 7:30 p.m.
Where: At the Orangetown Jewish Center, 8 Independence Ave., Orangeburg, N.Y.
For reservations or more information: Email ojc. or call Ellyn Cohen (845) 304-4541
Voluntary contribution: $15 at the door