Volume 17, Number 52 | May 20 - 26, 2005

Knock on Wood
13th Street Repertory Theater
50 West 13th Street
(212) 352-3101

Photo courtesy of DARR Publicity.

Samuel Calderon, playwright and performer in “Knock on Wood” at The 13th Street Repertory Theater.

Israeli soldier breaks 20-year-silence

Writer/performer of one man show confronts the past

By Jerry Tallmer

Too many coincidences. Enough to block and then, many years later, to unblock memory. Memories of a war. Memories of what can happen in a war.

In the fall of 1973 a 23-year-old actor named Samuel Caldeeron — “Shmulik” to family and friends — is playing a soldier named Jonathan in a play by A.B. Joshua at the Haifa Theater in Israel. The play is called “Final Treatments,” and it’s really not about Jonathan (who comes to visit a friend in the hospital) but, as Calderon puts it these three decades later, “about the words that you speak.”

On October 6, 1973, the highest holy day in Israel, Egypt hurls thousands of troops across the Suez Canal in a surprise attack that launches — in concert with Syria — what will instantly become known as the Yom Kippur War. Shmulik Calderon, actor — with “Final Treatments” a just-opened hit — is drafted into the Israeli Army and into that war.

In the course of which, he – guardedly at first, on both their parts — becomes buddies with someone, a fellow soldier, he’s never known before. The guy’s name turns out to be Jonathan. Jonathan, who will never see again after what happens on the battlefield.

“One day our commander needs someone to go forward in an armored vehicle. Me or Jonathan. He chooses Jonathan. And I already knew,” says Shmulik Calderon, in New York, in May of 2005. Knew his buddy would be hit. Did not know he would be blinded. Permanently.

“Such a dirty war.” So dirty that actor Calderon stopped acting and stopped remembering for more than 20 years.

What he does remember, when – after years of therapy — he did start remembering, he has poured into a play, a one-man piece called “Knock on Wood,” written and performed by him — which, after a thousand shows throughout Israel, and some in England and Ireland, he has brought and does here, in English, not Hebrew, at the 13th Street Repertory Theater.

“I was not a combat soldier,” Calderon said the other day. “But oh yes, sure, I shot at people. Twice. More than twice. I don’t know if I hit anybody or not.

“Awful,” he said — just that one word, instead of his usual torrent. “You become an animal. You have to shoot first. It’s a law of life. What can I do? The minute I put the uniform on, I become crazy.”

And the minute he took the uniform off, or even before, he blanked out everything. What he says next summons echoes of “Home of the Brave,” a play by a young Arthur Laurents (followed by a visceral Mark Robson/Carl Foreman film) that came out of a considerable older and wider conflict, World War II.

“For 10 years,” said the Yom Kippur veteran – “more, 13 years, 1979 to 1992 – I went to psychiatrists. They handled me, but it was not enough. They didn’t want to go into the hard things.

“At 43, I stopped working [at his profession] for two years – I was a showman and producer – because I heard of the art-therapy classes being given at [a branch of] Lesley College [of Cambridge, Mass.] that was then at Tel Aviv and is now in Natalia. I heard that things were happening there. That people were finding themselves in experiential learning.

“You were supposed to take one course at a time. I took five courses all at once,” said Shmulik Calderon with a grin that somehow reinforced his loose resemblance to Christopher Walken.

“In every class, something from the Yom Kippur War was coming back to me. For instance, when I hear drums, it’s all the time like the sound of a .50-caliber cannon. When I do like an eagle” – he said, flapping his arms – “I imagine I’m flying over my country, so small, and look down on the Sinai Desert. When I’m in my mother’s womb, it’s again, brump, brump, brump, the .50-caliber cannon.

“Because of 55 years of war with Arabs, my language is Army language. ‘I salute you,’ and so forth.

“In my very first class – I’d just come in and sat down – a student was [acting as] blind, and in that moment, it all came back to me. I went out of the class and phoned Jonathan. The real Jonathan. I hadn’t seen him or been able to think of him since 1973, but you should know I called my own son Jonathan. I didn’t mean it [the linkage]. My wife didn’t know. My son is now himself just finished the Army, and goes in the fall to Hebrew University.

“In that same class, a drama class, there was a woman named Sivan Joshua, the daughter of A.B. Joshua, who wrote ‘Final Treatments.’ When I came back into the class from the telephone, I told her: ‘I’m going to see Jonathan’ [using his full name] — and then the teacher said: ‘When you see him, tell him hello from me.’ When he got hit, they took him out by helicopter. I was the nurse who took care of his eyes.’

“When I got home, the phone rang, and it was the teacher again. He said: ‘I have a girl student in story-telling class. She said she had a brother who was blind from the war. I asked her which war. She said: ‘The Yom Kippur War.’

“This,” said Shmulik Calderon, here in New York, before heading back to his 13th Street Theater, “this was too much for me. But later I met a Hasidic rabbi, who told me: ‘This is a talmudic story. You were born to tell it.’ ”

He doesn’t tell it in the show. Too many coincidences. Too much truth. “I didn’t change anything else. This is my life. Not only the words, but the feelings.” He said “feelings” with considerable feeling, Christopher Walken look-alike or not.

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