Prof. Naphtaly Shem-Tov

Discipline: Theater Studies

Expert in: Israeli theater

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Key words: Theater festival, applied theater, Mizrahi Sephardic studies, Mizrahi theater 

What are you currently researching?
I am currently involved in two projects for Israeli theater: 1) I research self-representation in the theater of Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern origin) 2) Together with Smadar Moore, an expert in children's theater, we are investigating the Haifa Festival of Children and Youth Theater.

How did you become involved in your research field?
I am of Mizrahi descent and my interest in Mizrahi theater is personal and political. Very little has been written about it, although, since the turn of the millennium Mizrahi theater has expanded and developed greatly. The themes and ideas in this type of theater touch on issues of Israeli identity politics from a non-hegemonic point of view, which are not found in Israeli mainstream theater. I wrote a PhD dissertation about the history of the Acco Festival for Israeli Alternative Theater, and I developed a methodological theoretical framework, which I am now examining in relation to the Haifa Festival of Children's Theater.     

What inspired you to become a researcher?
I am usually interested in the interweaving of the social and the theatrical, the political and the artistic in theater that is outside the mainstream because it often offers new, different, and surprising perspectives.   

Which of your research findings would you like to highlight?
I have three significant findings: first, in the realm of Mizrahi theater, I found complex narratives related to Mizrahis in Israel which contradicted mainstream stereotypes. Second, contrary to the prejudicial historical Orientalist view that the Mizrahi Jews lacked theater, historically, Jews in the Middle East and North Africa created theater from the nenteenth century until their immigration to Israel.
How does your research link to todays' challenges?
Today, identity politics and ethnic discourse in Israel are turbulent. This leads to discourse that is, at times, superficial, racist, and violent. My research offers complex, sensitive, historical and artistic perspectives in relation to ethnic discourse in Israel.
What excites you regarding your research field?
I am excited every time I find out about theater groups I did not know existed. For example, I discovered in the archives that there was a Jewish-Iraqi Arabic-language theater troupe in Israel in the 1950s that performed for both Arabs and Mizrahis. Another example is an amateur group from Dimona that, in 1963, staged a biblical play about Joseph and his brothers in the Moroccan-Jewish language. These findings are exciting because they reveal a forgotten and erased history of Mizrahi culture. I now have the opportunity to return them to the historical narrative and to raise awareness among scholars and artists, and among the Mizrahi community itself.