A Jewish country needs a Jewish mother. And during her five years as prime minister of the state of Israel, Golda Meir was not only a tough politician who faced torturous decisions during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, but she was also a Jewish mother who publically grieved for every boy lost in battle. Golda Meir — world leader, tough negotiator and Jewish mother to a fledgling nation – was an idealist, an activist and socialist who fell for a literary-minded dreamer. She was a working mother with indomitable drive. After settling in an Israeli kibbutz, Golda – as she lovingly became known worldwide — became a nation builder.
Tonight award-winning Broadway actress Tovah Feldshuh reprises what she calls the role of a lifetime, playing Meir in Golda’s Balcony, this time for a fortnight at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center’s Theater J.
“This is the only role besides my one-woman concert that I’ve stayed with for more than a decade,” said the actor, whose given name is Terri. “I never met her, but I do remember the euphoria of the 1967 war. I was very pleased that she got to be prime minister; although she didn’t want to be [prime minister]. Levi Eshkol had a heart attack, he died, they had nobody to run the state. They came to her. She was voted into office unanimously and when she was taken to the [prime minister’s] house, her first words were, ‘What do I need this for?’ ”
She was not talking about the office, she was talking about the house, which she felt was far too extravagant. A utopian socialist, Feldshuh said, “She was a Zionist socialist of the first order and she lived in Ramat Aviv in a modest two-family home.”
It’s hard to image glamorous Feldshuh with her New York accent as the plainspoken Midwesterner with practical shoes and a body like a Russian laborer. The actress swept into the DCJCC in February wrapped in a full-length fur, which she draped over her bared shoulders showing off her cut biceps and triceps honed from spending months on a trapeze in the current Broadway revival of Pippin. She took on the role of Israel’s only female prime minister in William Gibson’s dramatic hagiography a decade ago, and it became the longest running one-woman show on Broadway in 2005.
These days it takes Feldshuh about two hours to don the padding, wig, prosthetic nose and sculpt the varicose veins in her legs to portray the physical Golda late in her life. But becoming the character has taken far more than just memorizing the script and applying makeup. Feldshuh traveled to Milwaukee where Meir grew up after emigrating from Russia, and to Denver, where as a teenager the future stateswoman joined her socialist-activist sister and became enamored of social Zionist ideals – and of a young philosophically bent man by the name of Morris Meyerson.
The actress also spent hours each day for weeks on end studying newsreels of speeches by Meir, Kissinger, Nixon, Dayan and other political contemporaries in New York’s Museum of Television and Radio on 52nd Street. She also met Meir’s daughter, who noted that her famous and tough-as-nails mother was not a talker but a listener.
The play, Feldshuh explained, takes place on Dec. 7, 1978, the last night of Meir’s life as she looks back on the formative events, her public successes and private failures and her actions in the Yom Kippur War, which today many Israelis equate with the America’s 9/11.
“It’s the last night of her life,” the actor said, and “she’s seeking to understand and cut her way through this morass of concern and guilt she carries, trying to find her way through the story to justify what happened and why it happened.”
Playwright Gibson, a non-Jewish Brahmin intellectual, Feldshuh called him, was Meir’s only choice to dramatize her life, because she loved his earlier work on Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, The Miracle Worker. In this work, which Feldshuh now holds the rights to, Gibson explores some of Meir’s most difficult and controversial decisions, suggesting that she was on the brink of using nuclear weapons at the height of the Yom Kippur War, although Israel has never confirmed that it possesses such nuclear power.
Why revisit Meir’s life today? Feldshuh noted: “It’s simply a great piece that works.” But she also pointed out that Theater J artistic director Ari Roth also wanted it as part of the company’s “Voices of a Changing Middle East” programming. As a counterpoint to the controversial recently closed Israeli play The Admission, which garnered bands of protestors – and protesters – about the after effects of a fictionalized Jewish-Arab battle during the 1948 war, Golda’s Balcony feels as pro or proto-Zionistic as The Admission was considered destructive to the historic image of the state of Israel.
As staunch an Israel supporter as Feldshuh is – and over the years she has traveled across the U.S. raising funds for Jewish federations and Israeli organizations (not unlike missions Meir tackled early in her career) – she’s equally a support of freedom of speech and expression.
“One thing [Golda Meir, the character] can do today,” Feldshuh stated, “is advocate for this theater. This theater is a home for free speech and the American way. And Ari Roth has decided to try to present all sides of every argument so he wants this play here at this time.”
She added that it was easier to instigate a conflict with AK 47s than to solve one with negotiations, compromise and understanding opposing points of view. “These are adult things that are not so romantic nor exciting but to train little boys in Gaza to become [martyrs] is actually an easier task than to sit down and build a state.”
In becoming Golda, Feldshuh learned much about this exemplary woman’s inner strength and convictions for her “first child” the state of Israel.
“Golda was a mother lioness screaming for peace, and she comes from a basic distrust because of her own background. She started life hiding under the staircase in Kiev and ended up in the halls of the Knesset. That’s some journey.”
“Golda’s Balcony” is onstage through April 27 at the DCJCC in the District. Tickets, $55-$85, are available by calling 800-494-8497 or visiting www.boxofficetickets.com.