In a newspaper editorial celebrating the tenth anniversary of Tel Aviv’s most beloved satiric cabaret, Hametateh, poet Leah Goldberg begins by quoting the following saying: ‘The wounds which a lover inflicts are full of loyalty.’ She then explains: ‘this phrase applies perfectly to our self- directed satire which is created here, inside our country.’ Goldberg, a lyricist and comedic sketch writer for Hametateh, writes:
‘As Jews, we know… just how much a desire to harm is an essential part of all the criticism coming at us from the outside.And perhaps this is precisely why we need to criticise ourselves, to drum up laughter which comes from the inside, and which emerges from a love for our people, written in our own language and executed in our own style.’
Avigdor Ha’meiri and Arthur Koestler, two penniless arrivals from Hungary, decided that ‘Tel Aviv is a city without humour, particularly political humour and social commentary. It is clear that we must quickly alter this situation.’ Both Koestler and Ha’meiri were both strongly influenced by the satiric cabarets of their birth city, Budapest. When they decided to found a cabaret in Palestine they soon rallied several Hungarian actors around them to the cause.
In forming Tel Aviv’s first cabaret, Ha’Meiri and Koestler chose the name Ha’kumkum, from a Yiddish saying, ‘Don’t speak nonsense into the kettle.’ Ironically, the choice of name itself seems to indicate a permission to speak nonsense, and thus to disguise the Kumkum’s particular brand of aggression and judgment within humour and play.
The choice of Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem as the site of the Kumkum was an obvious one. Tel Aviv had already become a cultural centre, boasting Palestine’s first opera house, ballet and museum. The British presence was also much less obtrusive in the ‘first modern Hebrew city’. The British governmental offices were in Jerusalem and, though British soldiers could still be spotted walking the streets of Tel Aviv, they were usually there as tourists rather than as law enforcers. Cabarettists felt free to create biting political satire, without fearing undue disruption from the British censor. Moreover, the majority of Tel Aviv’simmigrant population were European and somewhat familiar with satiric cabaret. Tel Aviv’s cabarets, alongside a number of other performance genres, might never have succeeded without the 4th and 5th aliyahs, or mass immigrations to the Jewish settlement of Palestine; the 4th aliyah brought huge numbers of young eastern Europeans to Tel Aviv (such as Ha’Meiri), while the 5th brought German Jews to the city, together with their hard capital, affinity for Weimar cabaret and hunger for sophisticated nightlife.
Through its satiric cabarets, tel aviv offered the yishuv an outlet for its socially unacceptable emotions
In 1929, actors from Ha’Kumkum split from Ha’Meiri’s original troop and founded the Ha’metateh, which ran until 1952 and became the most popular ‘Teatron Ammami’ or folk theatre in Jewish Palestine. Usishkin, a highly respected Zionist leader, was said to have claimed,‘If I want to know what is going on in populist Israel, I simply go to the Metateh.’The songs of the Metateh were among the most well known of the period, and (after the founding of the first Israeli radio station, Kol Yisrael, in 1936) were played on the radio constantly. Many of them subsequently became part of the canon of Shirey EretzYisrael—the songs of the early State of Israel.
Subjects for satire included corruption in the munici- pality and tension between various ethnic groups in the Yishuv (the Jewish settlement in Palestine): for example the song Shir Hateymaniyot which Natan Alterman wrote in 1934 for the Metateh, based on a traditional Yemenite Shabbat song. In Alterman’s re-imagining of the song, a cleaner complains to the audience of her experiences scrubbing the floors of Tel Aviv’s municipality and interacting with the governmental officers who work there. At the opening of the song, she proclaims: ‘A fire burns in my eyes; in my body there’s a trembling. Don’t hate me because I am dark!’ with the Hebrew text echoing the Song of Songs.
Alterman’s cleaner goes on to sing about her scrubbing techniques and the constantly expanding city of Tel Aviv, all the time with a cleaning brush in her hand.While this caricature may have offended some, the female protagonist regales us with her attitudes in a loud, empowered, voice. Moreover, the song functioned as part of the larger cultural meeting taking place in theYishuv between various ethnic groups, a meeting in which the satiric songs of cabaret played an essential part.
Alterman was not the only cabaret writer who employed existent songs such as the Teymaniyot melody to new ends; composers such as Ha’meira, Wilensky, Ha’Roosi and others all did the same.This musical grafting technique is inherently satiric, creating a gap between the original song and the newly penned one, thus commenting on both the old version and the new. In the case of Shir Ha’teymaniyot, Alterman makes use of the traditionalYemenite melody to denote a new kind of Yemenite woman;she sings the same old religious melodies, but instead of singing them around the Shabbat table, she sings of Tel Aviv.
Songs targeting the British were encouraged—such as Tzik Tzik Boom/Zeh Lo Tov (It’s Not Good)—as well as songs which mocked the capitalist values of Tel Aviv. Titina, a 1932 satiric song by Chaim Chefer, is based on a Charlie Chaplin melody that the famous comedian performed in City Lights. In Chayim Chefer’s reimagining of the melody, a pioneer couple—Titina and Ephraim—are trying to find a home for themselves inside British Palestine. Ephraim is content to stay on the kibbutz, digging ditches and draining swamps, but Titina has other plans in mind. As a result of her constant nagging, the couple eventually set up shop in Tel Aviv, where they quickly make large amounts of money and surrender to a life of carefree, capitalist decadence. Of course, the Tel Aviv audience enjoying this mockery-in-song were, for the most part, people just like Titina and Ephraim. By laughing at these characters, they were also laughing at themselves.
Attending a cabaret became an ideological act, proving that the Hebrew language was perfect not only for political speeches but also for topical satire
Ha’kumkum and Ha’metateh’s satiric performances had clear boundaries in terms of subject matter. British censorship forbade the portrayal of Arab characters on stage and Jewish cultural constraints were equally strict; I challenge you to find a single cabaret song from 1930’s Tel Aviv which questions Zionism, or a song which upholds Yiddish or German as the real language of the Jewish state, or one which promotes life outside the Yishuv. I have also not encountered a single yearning or nostalgic song for a home left behind in Paris,Vilna, or Berlin. Such songs simply don’t exist in this repertoire, although they form an important part of the Yiddish Theater of the Lower East Side.
Moreover, the cabarets were limited by the injunction that they only perform in Hebrew. In some of the satiric songs and sketches there are snippets of Yiddish or German, as well as English—particularly when a British officer appears in a song. But aside from these interruptions, all sketch and song material was performed exclusively in Hebrew. Attending a cabaret became a kind of ideological act, proving that the Hebrew language was perfect not only for political speeches but also for topical satire.The challenge to write and perform exclusively in Hebrew tested the talents and ideological fervour of many a cabaret artist, most of whom arrived in the Yishuv with virtually no Hebrew. Even Ha’Meiri, who was well versed in Hebrew before arriving in Tel Aviv, could be found at times scribbling in Hungarian in the margins of a song or sketch. Sometimes he wrote new lines in his mother tongue, which would later be translated into Hebrew.
Though satiric cabaret material became hugely popular and much loved by the mid-thirties, it did have dissenters, particularly at the start. A 1976 article from the newspaper Al Ha’mishmar reflects back on the times, and writes: ‘Already in 1928 the Kumkum…was performing programs which angered critics and the establishment in general.’ By the heyday of the Metateh, however, the act of creating satire in the Yishuv had been assimilated into the mainstream, turning the act of satiric performance into an essential expression of Israeli identity. As Leah Goldberg reminds us: ‘This is the first time that the Jewish capacity for irony, which became a fixture of the exile, returns to its roots, healthy, deeply planted in the ground.’
Musing on the function of satire, scholar Friedrich Max writes:‘That satire is an attack is probably the least debatable claim that one can make about it. In such attacks we have on public display some of the least socially acceptable emotions: anger, indignation, frustration, right- eousness, hatred, and malice.’Through its satiric cabarets, Tel Aviv offered the Yishuv an outlet for its own socially unacceptable emotions: disillusionment, frustration, anxiety, and rage. Through the satiric expression of these emotions, presented on stage, Tel Aviv’s cabarets guided audiences, ultimately, towards a love of nation, language, and land.
Rebecca Joy Fletcher is New York City based playwright, actress, and cantor; she is also a scholar and perform of international Jewish cabaret. Recent achievements include: the hit one woman show Cities of Light, which has been touring cabaret venues and synagogues across the US, as well as venues in London, Paris, and Warsaw. Next fall the Piven Theatre in Chicago premiers the theatrical run of Cities. Rebecca guest lectures and teaches at universities around the world and serves as a Vice President of the Association for Jewish Theater. For the on-sight, archival research she’s done into Tel Aviv’s cabarets Rebecca is indebted to the assistance of the Confidence Foundation. www.RebeccaJoyFletcher.com