Shshsh!...Mime from Morocco
By Kathryn Bernheimer
Intermountain Jewish News. Boulder Correspondent
Education & Culture, Friday, August 11, 2000
In Boulder - Mime artist and teacher Samuel Avital says that he learned the value of silence as a boy growing up in Morocco.
His father and grandfather spoke only when necessary. People in his family never raised their voice. And he never, ever heard anyone take credit for good deeds or generosity.
In fact, he grew up thinking that the Jewish way of giving was to give anonymously.
His mother, he remembers, frequently got carried away with the Shabbat cooking and made far too much. Just before sundown, his father would send him to certain neighbors with the excess, instructing him to tell them his mother had once again made too much for the family to eat.
Only later, as an adult, did he realize that the overcooking was a deliberate act of tzedakah. (charity)
Avital says that the value he learned growing up in a close-knit Sephardic community guided him to his art. Among those values was great tolerance.
A professional career in the theatre was unheard of in his community, he notes, but no one tried to dissuade him from pursuing his goals once he discovered his passion for performing by appearing in Biblical dramas.
"I grew up in a religious family, not fanatic, but religious in the best sense," the Boulder mime explains. "We practiced Kabbalah. I learned French and Hebrew. It was a tolerant religious community that had the true value of community with everyone helping each other."
Avital is carrying on this tradition of community solidarity by performing a benefit for the Boulder Jewish Community Center, August 27. "I thought I'd like to make a contribution if I could," he says of his upcoming solo performance.
Next year Avital will celebrate his 30th year in Boulder and the 30th anniversary season of The International Summer Mime Workshop in Boulder.
Something of a Boulder institution, Avital arrived here in 1971 with impressive credentials and a fascinating story. Although Boulder seems an improbable destination after such a long and exotic journey, he settled here in part because the mountains reminded him of childhood home.
Sefrou, surrounded by the Atlas Mountains, was home to 5,000 Jews in the1940's, when Avital was growing up. The Jews lived in a ghetto with large copper doors that were closed at night.
His family had settled following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. The city was a center of Jewish learning that spawned many of the chief Rabbis of North Africa and numerous mystical teachers and poets of renown.
As a student, he remembers wearing black and red uniforms, which all Jewish children in Morocco wore as a reminder of the Holocaust that was raging beyond the ghetto walls.
Jews in Morocco were not allowed to travel freely without permission and emigration was not allowed. Teenagers risked their lives to find ways out of Morocco, sometimes ending up being caught and sold into the slave trade.
Conditioned to this climate of danger and accustomed to the clandestine nature of Jewish life in Morocco, Avital made the decision to leave for Israel.
"It was a life-and-death decision." He explains, describing how he smuggled himself from city to city, once disguising himself as an Arab prince. "That was my artistic resourcefulness at work," he says.
Arriving to Israel on March 20, 1949, he vividly remembers being sprayed with DDT before being sent with a group of Moroccan teens to Ayelet Hashahar, a kibbutz in the High Galilee.
Because he spoke excellent Hebrew, he took a leadership role among the youth. Within few weeks he began writing and directing a play. Mainly, Avital went to agricultural school in Mikveh, Israel and spent time in the army before gravitating to the Theatre. In 1956, he was a delegate at the International Theatre conference in Avignon, France.
Around that time he began studying mime and saw his first film, Charlie Chaplin's "Limelight." The Sinai war of 1957 marked the beginning of his political awareness, which further informed his art.
In 1958, he moved to Paris and began to study with Master Mime artist, Etienne Decroux. Avital also studied at the Sorbonne and with Marcel Marceau.
Avital remembers standing backstage with Marceau one day when the famed mime, who was of Jewish ancestry and who had been active in the Resistance, posed a question. "He asked me where was God in the Holocaust," Avital remembers. "It was the first time I heard the question."
Avital also remembers Marceau's generosity. "I had no money to pay him, and when I had money he told me to go buy food."
Avital now calls those years performing on bistro terraces and passing the hat in Paris "my epoch of misery and ecstasy."
Just as he had coped with food rationing in Israel by telling himself he was fasting, he survived these times of hunger by remembering how he had been required to fast two days a week in Morocco. He still practices fasting and imposes days of silence on himself and his students.
In 1964, Avital was invited to New York to visit his friend Moni Yakim, with whom he had moved from Israel to Paris and who was now teaching at Julliard.
Although Avital did not speak English, the visit became a permanent move. He spent a few years in New York, where his first performance was at La Mama, and began touring before accepting a teaching position in Texas.
On one of his tours in 1970, he performed in Denver and was taken to Boulder, where he fell in love with the physical environment. The town was open to the arts and Avital found a warm welcome. His first Boulder workshop drew 200 participants.
In 1971, he founded Le Centre du Silence Mime School, which attracted students from around the world. The following year, he created the Boulder Mime Theatre which performed until 1982.
Over the past three decades, he has toured, taught summer workshops, performed and told stories on the mall, written books and articles, created a video tape, and developed a trademarked system he calls BodySpeak™ which uses the art of movement to integrate mind, body and spirit.
The approach is based on a philosophy of honesty, integrity and creativity, and is designed for artists as well as people in the business world who "hunger for creative expression."
In addition to offering BodySpeak™ training sessions to groups and individuals, Avital hosts a biweekly symposia at the Boulder Book Store, called Café-Salon Philosophique, a forum for creative discussion of universal concerns.
Over the years, Avital has also taught classes in Kabbalah and Hebrew and led "ecstatic" Simhat Torah celebrations.
Avital says that through it all he has continually drawn on his cultural and spiritual tradition as his greatest strength and ally.
He hopes that his performance for the Boulder Jewish Community Center imparts that.
"In the very first skit, the audience will see everything I've spent the last hour with you saying," he says, punctuating the thought with a gesture that can't be put into words.
Then he fell silent.