I and several hundred others were treated to an unforgettable experience last night.
It was the opening event of the 19th Storytelling festival in the Givatayim Theater.
With Shimon Peres, Israel’s 9th president, sitting on his left and Guri his incorrigible son on his right, Yossie Alfi, the inimitable and consummate man of theatre, told a palpably excited audience that when he came up with the idea of “Mesaprei Sippurim” (story-telling) publicly he received a thumbs down from most of his friends and associates.
“Who will want to listen?” they said. However Israelis did, and every year the festival has grown to the extent that when story tellers from abroad are invited to perform they are stunned by the whole enterprise.
On any night of the Sukkot holiday, people of all shapes and sizes, young and old, are constantly up and down the stairs queuing at the ticket office eating, drinking, chatting and listening to a bevy of semi-professional trained story-tellers in the lobby.
This night, this event was unique. The incumbent president of Israel was to tell his stories.
Peres was not a stranger to either the festival or the Alfi family whom he has been close to for many years. Like others, from moguls of industry and media, politicians of very hue, generals, pilots, criminal lawyers, authors, judges, scientists, as well as representatives of Israel’s diverse ethnicity, Peres had been in various story-telling sessions in the past.
The evening opened with David De’or singing “Me ha-ish?” Peres then spoke of his childhood and early days in Israel, where as a teenager he had met Ben Gurion, who was his mentor and whom he venerated all of his life. A letter was read which BG had written to the committee at Kibbutz Alumot where Shimon and his family lived (“call me Shimon,” he said to Yossie when the questions began) to ask for them to release him from his duties in the refet so that he could appoint him deputy head of the Defense Ministry.
Then Sari Alfi sang “Lu Yehi” to Peres, saying that she had been the only one of the Alfi children whose wedding he had been unable to attend, and that because she had always grown up in the belief that he would bring peace she had chosen that song.
Shimon then launched into the Entebbe story, one of the most momentous events in Israel’s history, and reached the point when the planes had finally taken off to rescue the 100-plus Israelis who were held captive by Idi Amin.
At that significant moment there was a flash, maybe a blown fuse, and the stage was plunged into total darkness. The mind boggles at what the audience felt at that moment, but then the emergency light kicked in and those on the stage could see us, but we…nada. The TV crew called out: “Don’t carry on talking as we cannot film you.”
I would say “only in Israel”; there was no panic, only good humor, and when the lights came up Shimon said with a big smile, “I bet there were some of you who thought I look better in the dark.” For a man in his 90th year he actually looked amazing.
Then the stories flowed fast — even the Idi Amin tales were fascinating — and everything came to life.
While singing his praises, Yossie brought up Peres’s periods as prime minister, his relationships with Yitzhak Rabin and other leaders and colleagues both in Israel and abroad, his dealing with the rampant inflation in the ’80s, Oslo, the Israel Aircraft Industries, and more than once his involvement in Dimona.
Having been described as “an extraordinary man of his time,” Shimon responded: “I am not an extraordinary person; I am a part of an extraordinary people.”
He left as he had entered, to a standing ovation.
You can watch the recorded version on Channel 10 on Erev Simhat Torah.