Helen Gottstein sits at the head of the room with her legs crossed and a scarf draped over her head. She tells the Philadelphia audience seated before her that she lives in Jerusalem and is a mother of 10 children, none of whom she wants serving in the Israeli army.
“Should my children serve in an army that supports desecration?” Gottstein says. Should they support a country that allows people to drive on Shabbat?
She looks and sounds like an average haredi Jerusalemite, because she is one.
That is, until she isn’t.
Participants in the Israel360 young professionals program gradually become more incensed at Gottstein’s brand of Orthodoxy, at her statements that Israel is not a Jewish country, that “the land is not being treated by Israelis as it should be.”
Then Gottstein makes her most incendiary remark of the night, disparaging the acceptance of homosexuality in Israel. Several people spring from their chairs and make for the exit.
“I’m leaving,” one woman says. “Are you kidding me?”
Stopping the angry audience members is a staffer with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Israel360 program who informs them that Gottstein is an actress, that she was playing a role. that the statements were the view of her Orthodox female character.
Gottstein removes the scarf from her head, confirms that she’s acting and slides into her next persona, a woman with a Southern twang who talks about “MOOslims.”
Gottstein, 48, has performed the one-woman act, Four Faces of Israel, for more than 10 years, she said in an interview after the show. The Australian native who moved to Jerusalem in 1988 can choose among the 11 different characters she has developed, but on most nights she keeps it to four: the Orthodox woman, the right-wing American immigrant from the South, a liberal from Tel Aviv and a Palestinian woman.
During this tour of the Northeast — which included shows for the Israel360 group as well as Federation’s women’s philanthropy — she performed eight shows in 11 days.
The act is meant to convey that there are no simple answers to questions that plague Israel, said Gottstein. By slipping into each character with minor prop and accent changes, offering sharp, impassioned retorts to anything the audience says, the actress pushes for a back and forth that she hopes makes people question their snap judgments.
“Anyone who says they have a simple solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict is probably a pretty simple person themselves,” Gottstein said.
At about half of her shows, Gottstein said, audience members stomp toward the door in the middle of the performance. The subtle beginning of the show prevents the audience from knowing that she is acting rather than talking as a guest speaker. Gottstein said she always makes arrangements with someone before the show to act as a “catcher,” anticipating that people will become angry and want to leave.
Gottstein said the audience should care because the characters she plays are real. The Orthodox character, for example, is based on a Jerusalem acquaintance who, among other things, does not believe that dinosaurs existed, that the idea of them is just a test from God.
Each of Gottstein’s character appears carefully crafted.
Wearing a hijab and playing the role of a Palestinian woman, Gottstein says, “If you want an apartheid state, you can have apartheid. You are very close to this right now. We have so many examples of institutionalized racism.”
In sunglasses and with an Israeli accent — the Tel Aviv woman who says beseder frequently — she argues for patience on Iran. “If we are only prepared for war, we will have war.”
“You fly down the roller coaster, you get hit in the head with hijabs,” the redneck Gottstein plays says of her experience at Euro Disney.
The real Gottstein is an observant Jew with a husband and three children, and she is active in anti-discrimination efforts in Israel. Earlier this year, she was in downtown Jerusalem as Adele’s Rolling in the Deep started to blare from speakers
On cue, Gottstein and more than 200 other women moved to the center of the street and tossed off black head coverings. It was a choreographed flash mob, she said, to protest incidents of young girls being spat on and harassed in Bet Shemesh.
“One of my goals is to show that Jews care about discrimination,” she said. “Not just when it affects Jews, but when it affects anybody.”