December 10, 2018

War Stories

Like any other visitor to Israel, Stephanie Liss has apretty collection of souvenirs from her travels. Jerusalem potteryand metal Judaica decorate her comfortable San Fernando Valleyapartment. But appearances can be deceiving.

The true breadth, depth and danger of her forays into the MiddleEast make her anything but a casual tourist. Liss, a veteranscreenwriter with a long list of credits, including theHolocaust-themed TV film “Hidden in Silence,” has been to hell andback on an odyssey filled with more risk and drama than a paperbackthriller.

She interviewed Abu Jihad in the Bekaa Valley. She shared Shabbatdinner with IDF soldiers at their Lebanon base camp and was peltedwith stones by suspicious Palestinian refugees. Some of the foreigncorrespondents she befriended at Beirut’s fabled Commodore Hotel havesince been killed. So have the PLO operatives she traveled with fortwo months, watching as they traded gunfire with Syrian soldiers ormade their way north to their headquarters in Tripoli.

Liss’s adventurous form of research, conducted in 1983, in themidst of the Lebanon War, yielded fruit. When she returned, she feltready to write “The Vow,” a provocative stage play that recentlyreceived standing ovations at San Diego’s Jewish Arts Festival. OnSept. 20, the play comes to Los Angeles for a one-night-onlyperformance at the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance’s MilkenTheatre.

Liss’s own connection to the tangled web ofIsraeli-Palestinian relations actually began years before herjourney to Lebanon. In New York, she grew up well-versed in the storyof her mother’s Israeli cousin — “Bennie” in the play, portrayed byAlan Rachins. During the War for Independence, in 1948, Bennie was 8years old. When another 8-year-old boy, a Palestinian (“David”), wasorphaned by that war, Bennie’s parents took him in and raised himside by side with their own son. It was a courageous gesture, but onealso destined to make the Palestinian boy an anomaly in a regionfueled by identity politics.

“He was an Israeli Arab with no real Palestinian identity,” Lisssaid in an interview with The Journal. “Bennie’s parents were fromanother generation and another time. When some people ask me why theydidn’t do more to instill a sense of Palestinian culture in him,they’re being unrealistic about the way it was.”

By 1981, according to Liss, Bennie was a husband, father and anofficer for Israeli intelligence. David had become an academic –quiet, conflicted and married to a Palestinian woman who deeplyresented the depth of his identification with Jewish Israel. For herpart, Stephanie was a twentysomething TV writer by that time. Anunexpected stretch of free time prompted by the Writers Guild strikeallowed her to travel to Africa and then on to Israel for her firstvisit and a chance to meet Bennie in person. Liss spent a warm visitwith her cousin and his wife and children, returned to Los Angeles,and maintained a casual kind of phone contact with them until one dayin 1983, when Bennie called. “He was hysterical,” Liss said. “He toldme, ‘I have a story to tell, and I want you to tell it.'”

Bennie’s personal tale of two brothers — one Israeli and onePalestinian — may be unique, but it’s also a potent symbol of thelarger conflict between two peoples who live intimately as neighborsand enemies. According to Liss, when the Mossad needed an IsraeliArab for a one-time reconnaissance mission into Lebanon during theearly 1980s, Bennie nominated David as a reliable candidate for thejob.

“They knew an attack was coming,” Liss said, “and they wanted himto infiltrate the PLO for useful information.” David, a somewhatapolitical professor who was already being hounded on campus by a PLOstudent bent on radicalizing him, finally agreed to the mission aftersome torturous reflection. “Here was a man who had always wanted tobe in the Israeli army,” she said. “A man whose wife was furiousabout his decision. He was aching for an identity.”

Regardless of the Mossad’s objectives, the PLO had its own plansfor David, Liss said. When he arrived in Lebanon, they were waitingfor him — including the militant student who had earlier pressed himfor allegiance to the cause. “They preyed upon his weaknesses,” shesaid, as a way to co-opt him and turn him against the Israelis. “Theylied to break down his defenses. They told him his father was an Arabfreedom fighter. That Bennie’s family and their ilk had killed him.And they threatened to put David’s wife and child in a refugee campwhere he would never find them.”

This was just the beginning of Bennie’s long-distance tale, whichhad the brothers on a collision course that is equal parts love andwar. (Any more would spoil it for “The Vow” audiences.) For Liss, thewriter, her cousin’s remarkable story is what convinced her to go toLebanon. “I needed to go there to get the feelings as well as thefacts,” she said. “I made a pact with myself a long time ago that Iwould never write anything I hadn’t researched and, if possible,hadn’t lived through too.”

Liss dyed her dark hair blond, obtained a visa that listed her asa student at Lebanon’s American University, and took a harrowing AirFrance journey to war-torn Beirut. “It was this huge Air France planewith only 12 people aboard,” she said. “When we entered Lebaneseairspace, we were escorted down by six helicopters — two from theU.N., two British and two French.”

While Liss did tell people her name and that she was a writer –“I always stated that up front so that I would never be caught withmy pants down” — when she was among PLO militants, she portrayedherself as a Western sympathizer and kept her Jewishness a secret. Ofthe three months in the region, two were spent accompanying the PLO,which was constantly on the move. The other month accounted for thebrief periods when she stayed with the IDF or at her base ofoperations at Beirut’s Commodore Hotel.

“I was in constant danger,” she said, “and I saw some horrificbehavior. At one point, my driver was beaten to a pulp and my paperswere taken away. Among the PLO terrorists, there was a certaincruelty in their behavior — even toward each other. They were filledwith hate…. I must say, I trusted no one. The only times I breathedeasy were those times I was with the IDF, because I knew I couldrelax.”

Her play, Liss makes clear, “is not trying to offer any answers,but it is an attempt to be responsible to the truth.” The support shehas received from the Jewish Center for Culture and Creativity — ofwhich Liss is an artist-in-residence — “allows me to explore Jewishthemes and artistic interests that I could never express in mycommercial career.”

While Liss may still translate “The Vow” onto film one day, fornow, she and her cast of veteran actors (which includes Rachins,Nicholas Guest and Pam Guest) have their hearts set on a stageproduction. “Nothing,” she said, “compares to when the house lightsgo down, the stage lights go up, and the magic begins.”

“The Vow” will have a one-night-only performance on Saturday,Sept. 20, at 7:30 p.m., at the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance’sMilken Theatre, 22622 Vanowen Street in West Hills. Admission: $7.50in advance, $10 at the door. A reception follows the performance.Call (818) 587-3200.

Alan Rachins (left) stars in “The Vow,” StephanieLiss’s new play based on her insider experiences with the PLO.

Stranger than Fiction

Stephanie Liss’s forays into the war-torn city streets and remoteborder regions of Israel and Lebanon have given the screenwriter aboundless store of anecdotes that range from darkly comic to thebrutal stuff of war stories.

Below are a few of them in her own words:

“The PLO I traveled with in Lebanon never knew I was Jewish, and Ididn’t tell any of the foreign journalists I met in Beirut either.But one day, early on, I was talking to some correspondents in thelobby of the Commodore Hotel. Then Maj. Barry Sewersky, who was incommand of a large number of IDF forces based in Lebanon, gestured meover to his table. When I approached, he said to me quietly, ‘Tellme, what’s a nice Jewish girl like you doing in a hellhole likethis?’ I’ll never forget that, and to this day, I don’t know how heknew.”

“Once, in southern Lebanon, I accompanied the Israeli army intothe refugee camps. There was an Israeli major who went into the campsevery night and sat and drank Turkish coffee with the old Moslem menthere. He brought them food and medicine, and, sometimes, he stayedall night. This kind of stuff is never publicized. Anyway, he begantaking me with him. The old men were very welcoming, but the womenhated him, and they hated me too. When they saw me, they would throwstones and turn their children away. But for this one boy, I began tobe like the Pied Piper. He didn’t speak English, but we would makefaces at each other, and I would make him laugh. One day, he said tome, “I love you,” and I told him I did too, and I gave him a hug. Thewomen became angry and pulled him away, and the major took me aside.But then an old Moslem man pressed some prayer beads into my hand andtold me that I had given the children something to laugh about in aplace where there really was only hate. Still, as we were leaving,that same boy stood with the women, spitting in my direction andyelling that he hated me too. It was a humbling experience.”

“At one point, I was in a trench with a flak jacket on, along withIsraeli soldiers on their side of the Israel-Syrian border. For somereason, every day at about 4 o’clock, the shooting on both sideswould stop and it would grow very quiet. One day, I heard a soldierdown the line from me sigh, ‘Oh, what I wouldn’t give right now for acorned beef sandwich from Art’s.’ I couldn’t believe it! He wastalking about Art’s Deli in Studio City. We got to talking, and itturns out that he had visited some relatives in the Valley and hadeaten there. I took his name, and I must say, when I got back home, Itold Art this story, and he sent a planeload of corned beef to theIDF addressed to this guy’s attention.” — Diane Arieff Zaga,Arts Editor