‘To Step Into Hannah Senesh’s Shoes’

Lexi Rabadi plays Hannah Senesh in one-woman show with music.
Deborah Lopez

A young, non-Jewish actress channels the ‘spiritual resistance’ of the young Holocaust heroine.

The 25-year-old actor Lexi Rabadi is two years older than Hannah Senesh — a symbol of courage for generations of Israelis — was when she parachuted into her native Hungary in 1944 to try to save Jews and was captured, tortured and executed.

Rabadi is making her Off-Broadway debut in “Hannah Senesh: A Play with Music and Song,” as part of the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene’s season of “Spiritual Resistance,” in connection with the exhibition on Auschwitz at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. The one-woman play with music, written and directed by David Schechter and first presented in 1984, is based on Senesh’s poems and diaries, which she kept from age 13 until her death.

Born to an assimilated Jewish family in Budapest, Senesh became involved with Zionist activities as a reaction to anti-Semitism, and moved to Palestine in 1939. After joining the Haganah she volunteered to be parachuted behind enemy lines; she landed in Yugoslavia in March, crossed into Hungary in June and was soon captured. Tortured, she still refused to divulge the details of her mission.

Lexi Rabadi, who plays Hannah Senesh, and the show’s writer- director David Schechter. Victor Nechay

In an interview on the day that would have been Senesh’s 97th birthday, Rabadi says, “I’ve had this experience of getting to learn about Hannah for the first time, as I was also trying to step into her shoes. To tell her story is an honor and privilege, and has become my mission. She devoted her life, literally, to her calling and her mission. As an artist, it’s our mission to tell these stories, to share the messages that she intended.

“I think her mission came through her newfound connections to her Jewish roots, rooted in a universal longing for peace across humanity,” she says. “Through telling her story, we get to carry on her legacy, to support the ideas that she was fighting to protect: What makes us different doesn’t have to make us separate. What makes us similar doesn’t have to make us the same. There’s a way that we can celebrate both the unique cultures and histories and highlight the commonalities that lie at the core of humanity.”

Rabadi sees the show as complementary to the Auschwitz exhibit. “I see Hannah’s story as a story of hope, with beautiful themes of light throughout. There’s her gorgeous poem — ‘There are people whose brilliance continues to light the world even though they are no longer among the living. These lights are particularly bright when the night is dark. They light the way for humankind.’ She wrote that not knowing it’s about herself.”

Schechter, who has directed the show a number of times since first developing it with actress Lori Wilner, the original Senesh, praised Rabadi for her profound understanding of the part, bringing new color and texture and “moving the show in a new direction, making it her own.”

Rabadi, who studied acting at Pace University, is not Jewish. She explains, “I approached this role with a keen understanding of the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, especially as a representative of diversity in theater, myself. That difference exists mostly in respect and intent. In preparing, I’ve done a lot of research, diving into Jewish faith and culture, to deepen my knowledge and appreciation for Hannah’s roots.

“Hannah wonders how she can believe in God when such tragic things are happening,” Rabadi says. “Here is this incredibly impassioned practicing Jewish woman who is articulating a thought I’ve had myself, very often.” Like Senesh, Rabadi has always kept a diary and writes poetry. She adds, “I feel very connected to Hannah. I think we would have been great friends had I had the honor to meet her.”

Rabadi grew up in Albany, N.Y., the daughter of an American-born mother and a father born in Aljoun, Jordan, who came to the U.S. at age 17 in 1969. She says, “I get teary every time Hannah sets foot in Palestine. It reminds me of the first time that I set foot in Jordan with my father — it’s different of course, but it’s the same feeling of your roots clicking into alignment, feeling the ancestors in your toes. Hannah digs her toes into the sand. I get to have fun and dance. I love that part. I think of my father every time, a really nice connection for me.

“I have witnessed hurtful stereotypes and misguided assumptions, and things like that help me to connect with Hannah in my own small way. It’s hard to compare one’s roots to another’s but there’s beauty in finding a way to relate.”

Rabadi continues, “Hannah astounds me. Right until the end, she never stops. Even when she’s imprisoned and tortured, she is relentless in protecting her mission and carrying it out. She sticks to her fierce resistance. Her light is never dimmed — she inspired people in prison as well. Her courage is embedded in every word and every step she takes.”

Schechter explains that when he began work on the show, he had a vision about one important prop that appears throughout; it is a silk fabric, mentioned in one of her poems. During the course of the performance, the fabric, in Rabadi’s hands, becomes the Mediterranean Sea, a picnic blanket, an Israeli flag, her parachute and more.

The play is in English, with music composed and arranged by Steven Lutvak and one piece written by the late Elizabeth Swados.

Schechter was drawn to Senesh for many reasons, including the fact that she was “an ordinary person who became an extraordinary hero because the times demanded it,” he says. “And following her story, we can realize that each of us has the possibility to do the same when it’s necessary.”

“Hannah Senesh: A Play with Music and Song” opens Monday, July 29, and runs through Aug. 18 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, Edmond J. Safra Plaza, 36 Battery Place, mjhnyc.org.

Hannah Senesh

Lexi Rabadi

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