Steve Ben Israel, NYC counter-culture legend, dead at 74

Posted on June 5th, 2012 by Bill Weinberg and tagged , , , , , .

Steve Ben Israel, legendary thespian, veteran of the ground-breaking Living Theatre troupe, and pioneer of what he called "performance life" (as opposed to performance art), died June 4 of lung cancer at his home in New York's Greenwich Village. He was 74.

Born to a working-class Russian Jewish immigrant family in Brooklyn, Israel gravitated to the Village beatnik scene in the 1950s. He first acted in the Living Theatre's controversial 1963 production The Brig, which chillingly depicted brutal conditions in a Marine Corps prison—and resulted in the theater being shut down, ostensibly over a tax issue. The troupe afterwards left New York for Europe, spending several years on the road, performing across the continent—as far east as Belgrade. Their ethic of breaking down the barrier between performers and audience reached its pinnacle in the 1968 production Paradise Now—often performed naked and high on acid. Israel frequently drove the troupe from city to city.

A 1971 tour of Brazil—then under a right-wing military dictatorship—was cut short when troupe members were arrested on a trumped-up marijuana charge and imprisoned. Israel just barely managed to escape the country, and back in New York worked to get his fellow performers released. The experience resulted in the Living Theater's most harrowing work, Seven Meditations On Political Sado-Masochism, a statement on human rights abuses then widespread under Latin America's military regimes.

In the late '70s, Israel moved from acting to his own unique take on stand-up comedy—politically themed, stream-of-consciousness, incorporating non-verbal sound effects, and (usually) cannabis-fueled. Under such Zen-like paradoxical names as "Nostalgia For the Future," "Séances to Contact the Living," and "Nonviolent Executions," Israel offered humanistic observations on war, peace and life in New York City, all through his characteristic anarchist-pacifist lens.

While Israel performed at benefits for countless left-wing causes, he turned down the opportunity for work in Hollywood, and was economically struggling in his final years. In 2007, the revived Living Theater unveiled a new production of The Brig for the age of Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, and Israel was brought in as ensemble director—work for which he won an Obie Award from the Village Voice.

Israel was working on a collection of his poetry and performance sketches at the time of his death, which may be published posthumously. There are also extensive interviews with Israel in the book Dig Infinity! by Oliver Trager, a biography of his inspiration, beatnik comedian Lord Buckley. He is also interviewed in the 2009 independent film Saint Misbehavin', about his longtime friend Wavy Gravy.

Israel is survived by his wife Pamela Mayo Israel, also a veteran of the Living Theater; their son Baba Israel, a hip-hop artist; daughter-in-law Dawn Crandell, a dancer and performer; and new grand-daughter Sequoia-Rose Hope Israel-Crandell.

Photo from Steve Ben Israel


Comment by Bill Weinberg on Jun 6th, 2012 at 4:52 am

Steve Ben Israel

Anonymous's picture Of the first hipsters, Steve Ben was an inspiration to many and a torch-bearer for truth, justice, and the way America might be but never seems to be... Whether performing before 8000 German leftists in Berlin or at a Greenwich Village cafe, he projected a radiant love of life and it's potential that was truly "performance life"... There are few like him left and he wil be sorely missed.. Happy landing my Friend... KF/LA
Comment by Anonymous on Jun 7th, 2012 at 1:34 pm

Steve Ben Israel fund

Bill Weinberg's picture

A fund has been established for a memorial for Steve Ben Israel to be held next year, and to help support his wife. Please contribute here:


Comment by Bill Weinberg on Jun 8th, 2012 at 7:59 pm

steve ben israel, RIP

Anonymous's picture

When I first saw steve ben israel perform in 1978-ish, I realized what is possible. On stage. Off stage. In life. Shy as I am, I went up and spoke with him after the show to tell him how much his performance of Nostalgic for the Future moved me. He was soft-spoken and rather reserved. I was so surprised by his understated manner after seeing this incredible burst of energy who had torn up the stage for the past hour or more. This made me think about utility. Choice. Burning. Of course, steve never did anything half-ass. He was as monumental a persona off stage as on. One just needed to listen carefully, and listen I did. steve is one of the greatest inspirations of my life. To wit. Flash forward to the late 80s when I began working with The Living Theatre, a gig that lasted over 25 years and of which I'm a proud alumnus. Steve and I weren't bosom buddies nor did we hang out a lot. But we had a meaningful friendship. Getting to know steve to the degree that I did is one of the greatest joys of my life. I believe we understood each other. As I continued to watch steve’s work evolve over the years, he became even more mind-blowing and incisive. As things in the world became ever more serious, his comedic commentary became increasingly uproarious, yet sad at the same time. But he never left the audience in the lurch. Rather he filled them with a transcendent vision of hope. As a person he was deep, insightful, funny as hell, twinkly (yes, I said twinkly as in always a twinkle in his eyes), and full of love toward first of all his wife Pamela and son Baba, his friends, his many communities, and the world. Few people have ever attained such a compassionate world view or so wry an assessment about the crazy things we human beings do in the name of god, country--even love (psiloveyou). And steve was all about love. Yet he had his opinions. I remember being at a march and rally at the UN to protest Israel's oppressive policies toward Palestinians. There was a counter-protest comprised of a contingency of orthodox Jews (all men, of course, probably hassidim and definitely Zionist). I made a critical remark to steve about them, after which I expressed regret about putting them down when after all, I'm also a Jew. To which he said in all seriousness: "Those aren't MY Jews." It was just so funny, especially because he said it so seriously. steve's comedic observations were always serious at root. He saw so clearly into the bones of life. Everyone has their steve ben stories and everyone cherishes them. I'm honored to say that steve was my mentor (unbeknownst to him, even though I told him so), my colleague, my friend. I'll miss you, brother. You put a big crack in the wall when you slipped out. I somehow thought you'd live forever. Those who came into contact with him know that he was loving, gruff, brilliant, critical, communitarian, irreverent, a monumental performer, stubborn, passionate, kind, fearless, hip and a bona fide mensch. Wonder-filled sbi, who'd sometimes comment with a child's sense of wonder how well his new show had been received, as if it was a surprise to him. It probably was. Wonderful steve ben israel, inspiring wonder in those who got a peak into his non-stop amazing universe. Joanie Fritz Zosike

Comment by Anonymous on Jun 11th, 2012 at 11:54 am

Steve Ben Israel on the Lower East Side Biography Project

Bill Weinberg's picture

Check it out on Vimeo. (See also his New York Times obit, in case you missed it. It links to more video footage.)

Comment by Bill Weinberg on Jul 2nd, 2015 at 11:41 pm

Who's new

  • Baba Israel
  • Karr Young
  • John Veit
  • YosephLeib
  • Peter Gorman