Zelda Harris
Five on the 100 aliyah from UK list!

Theatre of real life

Jesse Cohen is the incongruous neighbourhood in Holon, the city which presents itself as an oasis of culture and education and Israelis have a propensity to hitch on to nicknames which, become an integral part of everyday jargon and one is never quite sure why? Outstanding examples have to be Boogy,Raful,Ghandi and neighbourhoods not withstanding. So,what does the name Jesse Cohen evoke and who is or was Jesse Cohen?

Holon, once a sandy outpost is today the centre of a host of fascinating museums and other cultural and educational attractions. Also home to a thriving arts centre and the dynamic, under funded hospital which bears the name Wolfson, in memory of Lady Edith Wolfson, a wonderful lady whom I knew well. Added to which it has Israel’s only deaf and blind experience through which thousands, have passed chastened!

A mere drive through the tree lined entrance to the city interspersed with colourful sculptures, is enough to whet the appetite.

However, Jesse Cohen is far removed from that environment even though it is only a heartbeat away. Jesse Cohen is a poor rundown neighbourhood one could say a slum, where one  would be hard pressed to find an environmental sculpture. The officialdom must be deaf, dumb and blind to the high rate of crime, violence, angry unruly youngsters and “no hopers”. Those, the remnants of the summer of “Social Justice” refused to leave their squats some weeks ago because they really had no where else to lay their heads.

As we, drove towards the Lazarus Community Centre, these thoughts were racing through my mind.

We, were invited to see the premiere theatrical event of the Jesse Cohen youth theatre, whose players were for the most part, untrained, untamed, youth.

The project is the fruition of an initiative by Lecturer and Community Theatre Director Peter Harris of Tel Aviv University and Sgan Gondar Levana Levi Shai. I asked him how it all began “‘The youth theatre is the final leg of a program in which rehabilitating prisoners studied community theatre practices with the purpose of becoming guides and mentors to youth at risk. Community theatre is their instrument for empowering the young people. The rational for the training which included theatre and education classes was to equip the prisoners with artistic-social craft. This as a means to ease their reentry into society as contributing citizens, with a new improved self image as ‘theatre artists’.”The sprouting community theatre trainee directors had the support and guidance of the head of the educational branch of  the prison authority Sgan Gondar, Levana Levi Shai. The directors, were prisoners whose many years of incarceration in Massiyahu jail in the neighbouring city of Ramle, were coming to an end.

They participated in year long course in Community Theatre directing. This will enable them to return to their normal life with skills which will empower them to help youth at risk in a therapeutic and inspirational way.

Lazarus Community Centre the focal meeting point in the Jesse Cohen neighbourhood was bubbling with excitement. The lobby was packed with unruly boys and coquettish girls of all ages. Some accompanied by parents but most chatting with young blue shirted Hashomer Hatzair volunteers and helpers from the “Bayit cham”(warm house) organisation. There was a sprinkling too of blue uniforms. Eventually, we hustled and bustled into the hall to find our places on white plastic chairs,  laid out in rows, facing a simple stage. No slick and palatial multi million shekel, National Theatre here. This was the theatre of real life.

Peter along with Yossie who heads the Matnass (Lazarus community centre), Mor coordinator of youth activities and Ouriel an expert in group processes from the Bait Cham Shelters, jumped on to the stage. In the backdrop was a slide show of pictures portraying the months of preparation, beforehand.

No silent audience here, the kids laughed and yelled when they recognized themselves or their friends on the screen. After various attempts to tone them down the three males began to sing:

At the end of the summer

Came the idea of drama

and directors appeared in our lives.

Four groups were started

Bad news departed

Theatre had entered our lives

People didn’t believe

Nor could conceive

that any good would result in the end

But from week to week,

The spirits rose and everyone had a friend.”


Reprise‘Jesse Cohen, Jesse Cohen’

We all had a dream but no one believed it would work


At first no one came in there

And we searched the streets,

While instructors pulled out their hair

We chewed sweets

Some threw eggs, others lobbed stones

We locked the doors and all had our moans.

We didn’t give up and didn’t lose hope

We rehearsed in the street.

With no time to mope


Jesse Cohen, Jesse Cohen we all had a dream…….…….


The opening playlet was ”Nobody understands me” in which a young boy yearns for caring parents. He tells of “a father who never worked, hardly spoke and smoked endlessly and a mother who was always shouting”. “Black on white” which dealt with discrimination and bias was acted by teen age girls whose background was ethiopian, playing themselves and role playing others with “paler skins”. It was indeed profound.

Another, “Guilty” touched on distrust, suspicion and peer loyalty and finally one which dealt with the preferential treatment given to boys over girls, in the family.These stories of life as it is lived in “Jesse Cohen” moved the audience no end and brought forth cheers. The bond that had grown between the players and those who had nurtured them was palpable. Each playlet had two directors. Through, what was for the kids an alien process, they had achieved, love, trust unity and respect for each other.

During the performances the young audience continued bouncing in their seats, clapping and cheering and sometimes throwing their caps in the air.

At the end,14 year old Michael who represented the actors spoke“ We love the prisoners, we want the prisoners to continue with us for without them we would have remained on the street and drifted into bad habits” The chanting ”We want the prisoners was deafening”

The choking voice of the spokesman for the prisoners said it all “We have between us, served more than 100 years in jail. What a terrible waste that has been. This experience has done so much for us and will be put to good use when we soon return to normal life. We have all learned so much from these children, they have not judged us, but accepted us as friends and mentors.”


The evening ended with the presentation of certificates to those who took part, including special ones for the graduating trainee directors and floral bouquets galore.

While waiting for Peter to extract himself from the kisses and hugs, I spoke to some of the directors and asked them where they lived. One was Mahmud,who came from a beduin town which I had visited several times.I asked him if he could remember a visit in the 80’s by the then Prime Minster Shimon Peres? He was surprised that I had been there. He told me that he had been a schoolboy in the second grade- Kita Bet and remembered the visit with pride. Leaving the hall with mixed feelings it was evident that kids at risk in at least eight towns in the Galil,Negev as well as centre, will benefit from this impressive and heartwarming initiative. These fortunate kids can look forward to an enhanced childhood in a safe and stimulating environment, as a result of a unique and inspiring project.

I can only guess what the donors, Jesse Cohen and his wife and the Lazarus family would have thought of it all.

 Last week over 600 prisoners were  given early release ,due to the overcrowding in our prisons.Some of those on the trainee directors course were among them,not all.

About the Author
Zelda Harris first came to Israel 1949, aged 18. After living through the hardships of the nascent state, she returned to England in 1966. She was a founding member of the Women's Campaign for Soviet Jewry. In 1978, she returned with her family to Israel and has been active in various spheres of Israeli Society since. Together with the late Chaim Herzog, she founded CCC for Electoral Reform, was the Director of BIPAC in Israel, and a co-founder of Metuna, the Organisation for Road Safety, which received the Speaker of Knesset Quality of Life Award for saving lives on the roads and prevention of serious injury. She is now a peace activist, blogger for Times of Israel and is writing her life story.