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Steve Ben Israel’s Living Theater

Lawrence Bush
June 3, 2017

Steve Ben Israel, who worked with Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theater for fifteen years in their hey-day and went on to be a performance artist in clubs, New York subways, parks and streets for three decades, died at 74 on this date in 2012. Israel played numerous leading roles for the Living Theater (he was the monster in “Frankenstein” in 1968 and co-directed the 2007 revival of “The Brig,” originally staged in 1963, about a Marine Corps prison; both productions won Obie Awards). He also often drove their vehicle and handled conflict with authorities over the troupe’s antics (nudity, drugs, vulgarity, anarchistic energy). Bob Fass of WBAI fame described him as optimistic, ideological, and said that he “liked people. He never gave up on people. He was relentless in that way.” “He began his career,” writes Paul Vitello in the New York Times, “as a stand-up comedian and jazz drummer. Lenny Bruce, whom he met in the Village in the late 1950s, deeply influenced his worldview . . . Mixing poetry and political satire, he produced two one-man shows, ‘Non-Violent Executions’ and ‘Nostalgia for the Future.’ ”

“He was in the subway one day, on the No. 1 train, when he announced: ‘Hi, everybody! My name is Steve. And I’m a poet and a performer. I live here in New York City. And I’ve got these 17 dollars that I want to give out to everybody on this train.’ It was a setup, as he later described it in his club act. After he handed out the money, he gave his slightly disoriented audience its marching orders: ‘Next time an artist, or a homeless person, gets on the train, you dig in your pocket and you give them a quarter. And remember: You’re 75 cents ahead!’”

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.