Interview with Evgeni Mestetschkin “In Jerusalem, different worlds live side by side”

“Our dropouts paid a high price”: scene from Out of Mea Shearim
“Our dropouts paid a high price”: scene from Out of Mea Shearim | Photo: Uri Rubinstein

How do the people in the ultra-orthodox Jerusalem quarter of Mea Shearim live? And how do they manage to leave it when they no longer want this kind of life? That is the subject of the documentary play Out of Mea Shearim. We spoke with director Evgeni Mestetschkin.

 

The Jerusalem quarter of Mea Shearim is the home of ultra-orthodox Jews. Largely isolated from the outside world, they interpret the laws of the Torah very strictly. The quarter is a microcosm that usually remains closed to outsiders. The German-Israeli theatrical production Out of Mea Shearim by the Jerusalem artist Yulia Mestechkin and the Hamburg director Evgeni Mestetschkin offers us a glimpse into the lives and religious practices of these people. It is based on the biographies, stories and thoughts of eight dropouts who dared to make the radical break and cross Jaffa Road, the street that separates Mea Shearim from the rest of the city. Together with the directors, they explore this new world in the theatre as outcasts, as immigrants in their own land. Among them is Yossi, the son of a well-known rabbi, who writes about his experiences with leaving on Facebook. Another is Racheli, who lived a double life for many years and now works for an insurance company. The performance produced together with the Goethe-Institut was created as part of the fifty-year anniversary of German-Israeli diplomatic relations and was shown first in Jerusalem in early April and soon thereafter in Hamburg. In this interview, director Evgeni Mestetschkin explains how the project came to be.

What’s the history behind “Out of Mea Shearim”?

My sister Yulia happened to meet a young man who had left Mea Shearim. We were fascinated by his story and met other dropouts through him. After we had decided to write a play, we launched a call on Facebook through Hillel, an organization that supports these people. The response was overwhelming. There were a number of group and individual meetings and a first theatre group was formed.

This was not the current ensemble?

No, only one remained from the first group, all the rest left for a variety of reasons. The second group also fell apart. But this third group has existed since April 2014; these are the eight people seen in the play today. It was hard work for them to live through their stories once again. I am delighted at how well they managed it all. They changed a great deal this past year; they’ve become entirely different people. To see it is very moving.

Are the life stories that the eight dropouts from Mea Shearim, the quarter of ultra-orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, bring onto the stage completely autobiographical?

Yes. Everyone plays their own story. We edited them and choreographed them, but did not write any fictional words. The words they speak are literally theirs.

How had you perceived the orthodox Jews before this?

Street scene in Mea Shearim: “We are not here to vilify the religious practices of the ultra-orthodox” Street scene in Mea Shearim: “We are not here to vilify the religious practices of the ultra-orthodox” | Photo: Yulia Mestechkin Every time I am in Jerusalem, I see two worlds living side by side, people dressed in secular and ultra-orthodox clothing in the cityscape. Not until our encounter with the young dropout did a little door open to a different world. I knew that many people return to the religion and move to Mea Shearim. But I did not know that there were so many dropouts.

Did your image of Mea Shearim change?

It turned the images and perceptions I had upside down. Suddenly a lot of things were completely different. It is a very multi-layered, complex and complicated world. We have enough material for countless projects.

What are the main reasons that people drop out?

Usually it’s the family situation, the strict rules and constraints. Some leave it mentally for a long time, but remain there physically because it is a safe community to live in. There are disadvantages, but there are also advantages to having your entire life planned for you. You know where you will study, where and who you’ll marry, what you’ll be doing in 20 years and in 40 years and where you’ll be buried.

What are the reactions like from Mea Shearim? Are you treated with hostility?

No. Some ultra-orthodox people even came to the performances in Jerusalem, they even laughed in some places. For most of them, the theatre as such and therefore our play is entirely uninteresting. But there isn’t one ultra-orthodox group; they are very different people with different rules and tendencies. And we are not here to vilify the religious practices of the ultra-orthodox.

How are dropouts treated by the community?

Director Evgeni Mestetschkin: “I’m the German part of the project” Director Evgeni Mestetschkin: “I’m the German part of the project” | Photo: Thomas Röbke Our dropouts paid a high price and left the community amidst major clashes with their families. The mother of one of our protagonists said, “It would be better you had died.” But right now, they are all coming back together; that’s an exciting process. They are beginning to respect one another. It’s no problem for them to visit Mea Shearim.

What is more difficult for the dropouts? To cut their ties or to find their way in their new environment?

It’s harder to find their new way. These people know nothing about normal everyday life, human relationships and communication in the secular world. They are very unprotected, like grown children.

The play was performed in Hebrew with German supertitles. You don’t speak Hebrew. How did that affect the rehearsals?

We rehearsed in Hebrew, Russian, German, Yiddish and English. My sister speaks all five languages; we understood each other quite well. Actually, it was all very easy-going. The entire team got along well. It was also the first time that my sister and I worked together, but it worked very well.

How did the cooperation with the Goethe-Institut happen?

We proposed our project and the Goethe-Institut was very open, very interested and gave us wonderful support.

The project was part of the fifty-year anniversary of German-Israeli relations...

...and I’m the German part of that; I think that’s very symbolic. I came to Germany twenty years ago from Ukraine. I have a German passport, but you can tell from my accent that I am not really German. But what’s “German”? What’s “Israeli”? When you hear “German-Israeli” the first thing that comes to mind is the Holocaust, when you hear “Israel” you think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Our project has nothing to do with either. It is an example of how something completely new can be generated in cooperation between Germany and Israel.

Thomas Röbke conducted the interview

Rehearsal scene: “It turned the images and perceptions I had upside down” Rehearsal scene: “It turned the images and perceptions I had upside down” | Photo: Uri Rubinstein