An elderly mother disappears from her modest, government-subsidized apartment in the southern Israeli town of Netivot, and her four estranged daughters band together as a de facto search party. Interestingly, their reunion coincides with the eve of Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—Judaism’s holiest day on the calendar. This is the intriguing premise of Hanna Azoulay Hasfari’s play “Days of Atonement.”
In a recent interview with JewishBoston, Azoulay Hasfari asserted that each of the four sisters in “Days of Atonement” symbolizes a particular aspect of her life story. Malka is an unhappily married housewife who spends her days obsessing over her husband’s infidelity and her children’s welfare. Fanny was a wild child who was thrown out of her house at 16 because of her sexual escapades. She returns as a successful businesswoman who made a fortune in Silicon Valley. Evelin was sent away to boarding school, where she became an ultra-Orthodox Jew. She’s the doting mother of eight daughters. Not surprisingly, she’s also conservative in her worldview. The youngest sister, Amira, is a film student in Tel Aviv and has returned home amidst a personal crisis.
“In a natural way,” said Azoulay Hasfari, “these sisters also represent the different women in my family. At various times, I have been each of the four sisters or I was afraid of becoming one of them. They all exist in me.” She elaborated that Malka was modeled on her sister, whom she described as a homebody. “When I was young I was afraid to become her,” she said. “Fanny is a sexy feminist who is very complicated and smart. I think she is one of the more complicated characters in the play. Amira is me as a young filmmaker. Like me, she learns that if she does not connect to her past she cannot write about the present.”
Azoulay Hasfari said that setting the play on Yom Kippur enabled her to delve deeply into familial relationships. “Sometimes you choose a situation to write about and other times it’s unconscious,” she said. “Yom Kippur is a very important day in our country, whether you are religious or secular. It is a day when your mind is focused on your relationships with those you are closest to. These sisters have had a rough time with one another and that was very evocative for me.”
Guy Ben-Aharon, the founder of Israeli Stage and the play’s director, agreed that anyone who has had a sibling will connect with the play. “This play is about a mother who has disappeared and about these four women who don’t know each other, even though they grew up in the same house,” he said. “This is the first time they are reconnecting after 25 years, and they go on to have such different experiences.”
Ben-Aharon added that his deliberate casting of minority women in the play also grapples with “the experience of Moroccan-Jewish women in Israel, and in this case the experience of women coming from an immigrant family. We wanted to make sure that the American cast reflected that.”
As a result, an Israeli actor shares the stage with other actors who are Cape Verdean and Jamaican immigrants. Ben-Aharon emphasized that it was important to spotlight the personal experiences of his actors while also paying homage to Azoulay Hasfari’s work. “Hanna,” he noted, “is somebody who has pushed for the Moroccan-Israeli experience in Israel. In honor of that type of work, we wanted to celebrate the experiences of immigrant women in an American context.”
Azoulay Hasfari confirmed that she intended to train a lens on immigration in “Days of Atonement.” She explained that the play, in part, tells the story of Sephardic immigration in Israel through the Moroccan-Jewish experience. “When Moroccan Jews came to Israel in the 1950s, they were spread out through Israeli society,” she said. “The four sisters represent different parts of the society, and they also represent the immigration issue in general. They come from the Eastern world and adapt to the ways of the Western world. It’s a big step for these sisters. In a way, the whole world is struggling with similar immigration issues.”
As Ben-Aharon said, “The audience engages with these sisters on stage as they wrestle with their own truths, and therefore we gain a perspective on our own lives. Audiences will surely transcend the specificity of the Moroccan-Jewish experience in Israel to confront their own familial relationships.”
For tickets to “Days of Atonement,” click here.