Israeli mime uses acting, humor to teach Judaica
In the span of one hour, Ofer Goren transformed himself from King Ahashuerus, to Haman, to Mordechai — and all without saying a single word.
Not bad for one of Israel’s few, and perhaps best known, pantomime artists.
Goren was in the area this week for four shows: the first one came Monday at Temple Shalom in Wheeling, W.Va., in which he acted out a belated Purim spiel with audience participation. The second show came Tuesday at Beth Shalom; on Wednesday, he gave performances to Yeshiva Boys School and to Community Day School.
The Agency for Jewish Learning sponsored the Pittsburgh appearances; Beth Shalom co-sponsored the program at its synagogue. In Wheeling, Goren appeared as part of Soul Train, a program that brings Jewish educational and entertainment programs to small Jewish communities.
Following the Wheeling performance, Goren, now dressed in a corduroy hat and a T-shirt that looked like a tuxedo, reflected on his 25 years as a silent performer. He said he originally gravitated to the art form because of a stutter he had as a boy.
One year, he played a mute in a stage performance for his seventh grade class. The experience changed his life.
“I got the feeling I could speak even without saying any words,” he said, speaking in Hebrew through an interpreter. “In truth it wasn’t acting, it was really me.”
He went on to give other performances. During his stint in the army, he entertained his buddies with gags and impromptu skits.
Finally, he sought his rabbi’s approval to be a mime artist. At the time, he said it was considered inappropriate for an Orthodox Jew to be an actor.
But his rabbi blessed Goren’s career choice, saying he could use his talents to teach Jewish values and history.
That’s exactly what Goren did. He has choreographed skits about the various Jewish holidays, the history of Jews, prayer and even weightier topics such as man’s relationship with man.
These days, though, he makes his production more humorous and fun. He considers it part of his mission to bring joy into people’s lives. One way he does that is to bring the members of the audience on the stage and make them part of the play. As a result, every performance is different, he said, because these impromptu co-stars bring their own thoughts, emotions and body movements to the act and he must respond immediately.
“It’s like it says in the Torah,” Goren said, “to be in the moment.”
He tries to create dilemmas and pose questions with his acting, such as “What is a slave?” For that question he portrays a man walking a dog. Who is the slave, one can ask: the dog at the end of the leash or the man who gets pulled along by his big, excited pooch?
All the time, the 45-year-old Goren said, he tries to feel what he is acting, and communicate that to his audience.
That isn’t always easy, he said, such as the time he performed a piece about Holocaust survivors.
“It wasn’t deep,” he lamented about his performance. “It was on the surface.”
Though Goren makes his living as a pantomime actor, much of his work is volunteering. Since 2000, he has given more than 180 performances on three continents for Soul Train. He takes no money for those shows.
He has another mission, too: teaching pantomime. With only nine known mime artists in Israel (Goren claims to be the only Orthodox mime) he plans to open a pantomime school in Tel Aviv this summer; he’s currently lining up students and teachers to spread his craft to new people.
“I want to build the next generation,” he said.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)