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Pulled by a Hidden Hand

Rachel Ginsberg

For the last two decades, puppeteer Yitzchak Azoulai has been inspiring a generation of children from behind the scenes, while an invisible hand gives his heroes a life of their own

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

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OUT OF THE SPOTLIGHT Azoulai’s puppets lie flat and inert in a suitcase, but once the music starts and he begins to manipulate those invisible cords from behind, the dolls come to life, telling stories of ancient goodness and modern faith. For Azoulai, working his puppets in the dark is just fine. “I never sought the spotlight. I always preferred to play my music in the background” (Photos: Ouria Tadmor, David Danberg)

Yitzchak Azoulai’s puppets lie flat and inert in a suitcase, but once the music starts and he begins to manipulate those invisible cords from behind, the dolls come to life, telling stories of ancient goodness and modern faith. For the last two decades, singer-songwriter Azoulai has been inspiring a generation of children from behind the scenes, while an invisible hand gives his heroes a life of their own

How can a few floppy ragdolls on a string transform a two-dimensional story line into a dynamic 3-D production that fires kids’ imaginations and teaches them good middos at the same time?

When Yitzchak Azoulai opens his suitcase and you peek at those inanimate, lifeless little puppets folded up and lying flat, it’s hard to believe that in just a few minutes these creations of papier-maché, sawdust, and glue will become larger-than-life personalities that have already inspired an entire generation of children. There isn’t an Israeli cheder or Bais Yaakov student of the past two decades who isn’t familiar with the characters of Yanky with the hole in his pocket, Reb Hershele and his Yom Tov adventures, evil pashas and righteous scholars — all of whom take on their own memorable personas while Azoulai pulls the strings in the background.

But Yitzchak Azoulai, today in his early 50s, isn’t just a marionette manipulator. While he’s primarily identified with his “Ohel Hashem” puppet theater, this man masterfully working his puppets behind a screen in sync with his original musical soundtracks and creative lighting is a classically trained pianist, singer and songwriter who over the past 25 years has transformed his own spiritual journey into holy entertainment with a message for both children and adults.

No Competing

Working his puppets backstage in the dark is just fine for Azoulai, who says he never sought the spotlight and always preferred to play his music in the background, even during his secular music days growing up in Petach Tikvah. In the army, he auditioned as a pianist for the IDF’s Lahakah Tzva’it Entertainment Troupe, and was a bit disappointed when he was chosen as an up-front singer instead.

“I never had that drive to be famous, to be connected to the world of glitz and ego and sheker,” he admits.

“I got a call from a mother who told me how her boys hated school and never learned, until they saw the show. They could identify — good old Yossele was just like them”

“I just wanted to create and play music.” That’s how he wound up playing backup for a rock group started by his childhood friend Yosef Karduner, back when neither of them dreamed they’d both be chozer b’teshuvah and affiliated with Breslover chassidus. “We had this band called Lahakat 66 — people thought there must be some deep significance to that, but we just took the name from the bus line between Ramat Gan and Petach Tikvah.”

Karduner went on to become a major force in the genre of chassidic soul music (think “Shir LaMaalot”), and he credits Azoulai with starting him on the path. It was about 25 years ago, and Azoulai had dropped out of sight for a while during the time he was embarking on his own transformation — he had become close to Breslov mashpia Rabbi Erez Moshe Doron. One day he met up with Karduner in a Tel Aviv recording studio, but now he had a large yarmulke, beard, and peyos. Most people don’t get introduced to Yiddishkeit with a heavy mussar sefer like Mesillas Yesharim, but Azoulai didn’t waste any time with his old friend: he handed him a copy of the sefer, and told him he would call Yosef in three days to see if he’d read it. Within a week, Karduner was putting on tefillin and learning privately with Rabbi Doron. “Yosef, with you it was easy,” Azoulai told him later. “You were already religious. Your soul just needed a reminder.”

Azoulai’s own journey began the year before, while he was doing the soundtracks for another talented friend, Shachar Blumenthal, who had created a popular puppet theater for secular elementary school children. Blumenthal took a year off to travel to the Far East on a self-discovery mission, and handed the theater to Azoulai while he was gone. Azoulai was a musician, not a puppeteer, but he discovered he had a knack for those strings too. And during that year, he embarked on his own journey of self-discovery when his fiancé made a religious turnaround through Arachim (they’re still married). That pushed Azoulai to rethink his own life, and he wound up under the wing of Rabbi Erez Moshe Doron. He also decided to tweak the show for the religious public.

“When Shachar came back and found that his trusted friend turned religious on him, he wasn’t too happy that I’d taken his show to the datiim,” Azoulai remembers, “so we decided to split. I would work in the religious sector and he’d stay in the secular world.” He says he chose the name “Ohel Hashem” because, obviously, this was religious children’s theater infused with moral lessons, but it was also a takeoff on his parents’ business. They owned a cafe in a Tel Aviv theater called “Ohel Shem.”

But it wasn’t long before Shachar Blumenthal too became a Breslover, and reworked his own show — now called the Lilliput Puppet Theater — to fit his newfound religious audiences. And so for the last two decades, the friends have been brainstorming together on characters, scripts, and soundtracks. “We’ve basically divided up the country into different regions so we work together without competition,” Azoulai says. “And we still speak every day.” (excerpted)

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