The Bible, rewritten by Steven Berkoff
Steven Berkoff says the Bible “inspires Jews to produce heroes”
Learning the Bible at his East End cheder was what first inspired Steven Berkoff to tell stories. "I was brought up with biblical stories, I was taught them at my little Hebrew school," the actor and writer says. "I have such fond memories of them. I adored Hebrew school as much as I loathed daytime school, which was horrible, sadistic and vicious.
"But my Hebrew school was full of gentle people and lovely ladies. They taught us beautiful stories. That struck a few sparks in me to explore the nature of drama, to start storytelling."
Almost 60 years later, Berkoff is finally taking on the Bible, writing and directing his own twist on four Old Testament stories. All four will be performed as one-act plays at the London Jewish Performing Arts Festival next week.
The four plays centre on the dynamics of crucial biblical partnerships, Adam and Eve, Samson and Delilah, Moses and Pharaoh and David and Goliath. Each is "adult-themed", Berkoff says, and used to explore themes of lust, betrayal, blackmail and materialism. But, he insists: "They are not at all political. They are moral codes."
Berkoff claims his plays will differ from previous adaptations. "These are more lyrical, more comical, even satiric. It makes them clear to a modern mind. I want to answer questions which are not answered in the original. I explain Eve coming from Adam's rib and why Samson lost his strength."
He adds: "The story of Samson and Delilah is about how a man suffers when he loves a woman too much. She provokes him by questioning his love. It's a terrible blackmail. The story of Adam and Eve is very relevant too - it's about lust, lust for material things."
You can only think the Bible is the actual word of God if you live in a mental dungeon
For Berkoff the Bible is a collection of myths with moral and historical relevance. He is fiercely critical of literal interpretations. "It's criminal. The Bible must be seen as myth, and a moral guide but not a total law. It's horrible the way the Bible has been used by people."
He adds: "You can only really think that the Bible is the actual word of God if you live in a dungeon, a mental dungeon. People who believe that must be illiterate, they don't think, or listen or read or educate themselves. The whole basis of Jewish life is education and culture, reading and understanding.
"As Jews, we are so incredibly lucky to have the Talmud, to have a way of reinterpreting the Torah. So we no longer cut off hands, and slay animals, and stone women."
Berkoff still believes that Bible stories are sharply relevant to modern Jews, especially in times of rising antisemitism. "Those stories do inspire us, that's what they are there for. It inspires the Jews to produce Samsons and heroes and to have pride."
● Steven Berkoff's Biblical Stories is at the New End Theatre, London NW3, as part of the London Jewish Performing Arts Festival at 7.30pm on May 23.
LJPAF music, comedy, theatre and film events are taking place at the LJCC's Ivy House, London NW11, and the New End Theatre from May 23-27.
Details of the programme and to book at www.ljcc.org.uk or www.newendtheatre.co.uk