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Tzivi Chats with Motti Lerner

Israeli playwright Motti Lerner came to Chicago in 2006 when the Victory Gardens Theatre presented his play Hard Love. Now he’s back with a new version of Pangs of the Messiah, sponsored by the Silk Road Theatre Project.

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Bernie Beck and Susan Adler in Motti Lerner's Pangs of the Messiah at Silk Road Theatre Project, directed by Jennifer Green.

Israeli playwright Motti Lerner came to Chicago in 2006 when the Victory Gardens Theatre presented his play Hard Love. Now he’s back with a new version of Pangs of the Messiah, sponsored by the Silk Road Theatre Project.

Pangs of the Messiah is set in a religious West Bank settlement. The year is 2012, and after years of negotiation, the Israeli government is just about to sign a peace accord. As soon as the agreement is official, all the members of the settlement will be relocated, and all the land, including the settlement, will become part of a new Palestinian state.

Jan met with Motti Lerner on Feb. 2, the first day of rehearsals with his new Chicago cast.

Jan Lisa Huttner: Welcome back to Chicago, Motti. Please tell us more about Pangs of the Messiah.

Motti Lerner: Pangs of the Messiah is a play that was written in 1986, after the discovery that a Jewish right-wing underground was active in the “Occupied Territories.” They killed Arab mayors by bombing their cars; they attacked several schools in the West Bank and killed students and teachers; and they prepared explosives in order to blow up the mosques on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

The explanation for blowing up the mosques was, for me, a real epiphany: they had this idea that the Messiah was about to come, and the way to accelerate the process was to create a terrible disaster—force God to send the Messiah. I was really shocked, so then I started to do research. I went to the West Bank; I met with settlers; I met with rabbis.

Gradually, after about two years of research, I was able to get to know the settler movement, not from the point of view of the media, but from a more personal point of view. I visited their houses. I talked to the men, to the women, to the children. They had, surprisingly, opened their doors for me. And after two years, I wrote my play, and it opened in 1987 at the Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv.

The settler movement had started with great idealism, in a constructive way, to create a new Israeli society. Of course, it differs from my idea of what the new Israel should be, but I respected that. I respected the fact that these people wanted to create a revolution, but Israeli society had to be very alert. The play was written in order to warn Israeli society.

So that was the beginning of this journey for me. The play was done, and was quite successful. It didn't change the reality in Israel. Israeli society is not aware of the danger that is so inherent to this movement. In the last two years, after the disengagement from Gaza, I think that they are now more aware of the danger that lies in this segment.

But what about Yitzhak Rabin? He was assassinated in 1995.

Right, Rabin was assassinated, but when you talk to the settlers about it, they say it was only one man (Yigal Amir). They reject the idea that this was an assassination that was supported by rabbis and was supported by the population.

So my play was done in Israel in 1987. Then a few years ago, before the Gaza disengagement, Theatre J in Washington, D.C., became interested in Pangs of the Messiah. But I thought to myself: Israel has changed so much; the world has changed so much. The play has to be rewritten, adapted to the new reality. So we did it in Washington, and it was extended beyond their expectations because it got amazing reviews.

This play, Pangs of the Messiah, is not a provocation. It's written in order to create a discussion, not a provocation. It’s not written from hatred for the settlers. It doesn't describe them as monsters. The play describes a family of settlers on the eve of a peace agreement when they know that they're going to be evacuated [from their home].

What do they do? There are different options. One family member is an extremist. He does things behind the back of his father. The father, the leader of the settlers, is a serious and responsible person. He's aware of the fact that whatever they do, the settlers cannot endanger the survival of the State of Israel. But his children have different opinions. Many settlers think that the State of Israel is only a step toward what they call "Kingdom of David."

Some people in the West Bank think that the State of Israel is full of sinners: don't keep Shabbat; don't eat kosher; don't study. So this is not the state that God promised the Jews. When you ask them: "Bombing the mosques on Temple Mount? Don't you realize that the whole world would turn against the Jews everywhere?" They say: "Yes, but we can see to the far future. Afterwards God will create, finally, a holy kingdom.”

So every religious group has its fundamentalists? And Jewish-Americans need to understand that some fundamentalists are Jews?

Exactly. American Jewry must play a much more responsible part in the political life of Israel. American Jews must know what the settler movement is, and be aware of the dangers that lie inside the settler movement. Otherwise we, in Israel, will pay the price, and every Jew will pay the price. We together, you and us, American Jews and Israelis, we have to be much more careful with our fundamentalists so that they will not provoke such a terrible disaster.

Pangs of the Messiah will run from Thursday, March 19 through Sunday, May 3 at The Historic Chicago Temple Building at 77 W. Washington St. For tickets, call (312) 857-1234 or visit

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