Nava's Two Names

By Nava Semel

Nava Shean and I shared the same name. I remember my amazement when she introduced herself to me one day in Haifa in the mid-1980s. We bonded immediately, in spite of the age gap. She was the oldest "Nava" I ever knew, since this name was typical for Israeli-born daughters of the first-generation. "Nava" in Hebrew means "Fair" and this compliment is a quote from the "Song of Songs," the most romantic book in the Bible.

In my notorious curiosity, I began scratching the Israeli coating and soon enough her original name was revealed: Vava.

Israel's archaeology of names reflects the conflict of identity and the pendulum shifting fiercely between past and future. The new Israelis chose Hebraic name, particularly those with affinity to the Bible and ancient Jewish independence. By this choice Israelis turned their backs on the Diaspora, the horrors of the Holocaust, and the dismal Jewish existence which preceded Zionism and the State of Israel. Hebrew became the window of opportunity to mold an entirely new identity that faces the future.

"Vava" - the name not only concealed a lost world but was soon joined to a chain of other names - all were carriers of memory and loss. They were also rolled on my tongue following my acquaintance with Nava Shean. Prague, Terezin, Auschwitz - the three places that carved their scars on her soul, representing the burden she carried her entire life, even when disguising herself under the robes of other characters on stage. And there was another foreign name - Hubert, the man who waited for her for decades and vowed to shave his beard only when she returned his love. The ploys of their relationship were as though taken out from a book by Tolstoy or Jane Austen.

From Vava to Nava - this exchange facilitated temporary forgetfulness, separation from bleeding memories, and the beginning of healing. The new name became a barrier between the intense, compelling Israeli present and the weight of the gruesome memories pulling down. In Vava's case, it only required the exchange of one letter, so little - yet so much.

When we first met she was already open to share the events that shaped her life and to wear the "glass hat" together with me. It was the title of the book I wrote about the Second Generation of Holocaust survivors, the book which connected us in the first place. For Nava it was a sign of change in the Israeli attitude towards survivors. She rightly claimed that my generation shut themselves off from their parents and refused to listen to the testimony of the survivors.

Soon we became friends. Nava used to joke that I was her youngest friend and I was proud of the friend who was even older than my mother. We were laughing when people mixed us up because of the same name.

I accompanied Nava in her monodrama Requiem to Terezin which she performed all over Israel: in kibbutzim, villages, small towns, as well as big cities. For years she traveled in her bumped car to the remotest of places, playing on dinning room floors, sometime without lighting and props. She was totally committed to the text about the cultural survival in the Ghetto of Terezin. She did it with determination and persistence, in hope that here another spectator and another will join the chain of those who choose to remember.

I also accompanied Nava when she played Paula Zimmerman in the radio drama Hunger she herself adapted from my Glass Hat. She identified with Paula completely, understanding my character much better than I ever did. It was she who explained Paula's motives for starving herself to death so her children could achieve a small portion of happiness.

It won't be an exaggeration to say that the theater was Nava's entire life. She belonged to a generation of giants who were willing to make personal sacrifices for the theater.  Family and children took second place, because the theater was also a central pillar in the enterprise of national revival. To be an actress meant to take part in the great Zionist mission, not just to satisfy one's personal ambitions. The passion for the theater remained intact, regardless of disappointments or too small roles. Nothing was beneath her. "I want to die on the stage," she often declared with matching dramatic gesture.

But I responded: "You must write down your life's story." At first she was reluctant. Writing was not a substitute for the stage, she argued. Being used to the limelight and intoxicating applause, she found it difficult to be satisfied with the life of a writer, who is hidden backstage like the lowliest stagehand. Little by little she was convinced. Later she became completely immersed in writing her biography. Her story returned to her in all its force, as she observed the landscape spreading before her in retrospect, dwelling on the intersections that molded her personality and her fate, facing bravely the moments of failure and horror, as well as those of exaltation.

At Beit Tzvi, the National College for the Performing Arts in Israel, where each year we give out a scholarship in honor of Nava Shean, I tell the students about the triumph of the spirit. On a stage in Israel I try to invoke another stage and Nava - the main actress in the real drama in Terezin - as she faces the Nazi officers, performing Jean Cocteau's immortal play The Human Voice. Nava could easily pay with her life for her daring and subversion, for who had the guts then to raise a defying, fearless voice against the tyrants?

Later I accompanied Nava - I never called her by any other name - when Hubert - who always remained Hubert, joined her. The romantic Czech man who followed her to a faraway country, choosing a life of exile in a small town by the Mediterranean called Haifa, which did not resemble Prague at all. Hubert did not learn to speak Hebrew, except for one word - Vava's new name, which he rolled on his tongue with special pleasure. I never managed to understand when he chose to call her this and when that. Nava or Vava, under any name she enchanted him.

In my Tel Aviv home, stands an old, hand painted cabinet which Hubert brought from Czechoslovakia to Israel when his beard was shaved. The vow he made to Vava came true when Nava finally returned his love. Before departing from this world the couple gave me the cabinet which traveled across borders and time. They wanted their love to be present in my life and accompany me when they were gone. In this cabinet - one of the most beautiful and precious gifts I've ever received - I keep photo albums and my family documents. Each morning, I watch the Israeli sunrays pour over the European old wood - its paint faded long ago. Sometime it seems that, in the sparkles trapped in the floodlight I detect Nava's shadow. In a moment she will step forward to the front of the stage...

Introduction to the book "Nava Shean, To Be an Actress", translated by Michelle Fram Cohen, Hamilton Books, 2010.

© All rights reserved to NAVA SEMEL 2017