Rabbinical student Hagai Lober figured a few drama lessons would sharpen his public-speaking skills. So he enrolled in a 1995 men's class with actor Shuli Rand at Jerusalem's Ma'aleh Film School - and ended up staying for the three years that the course lasted. By the time he received his ordination from the Merkaz Harav Kook yeshiva, theater had taken center stage in his life. In 1998, Lober established Aspaklaria Theater to provide professional opportunities to actors uncomfortable in mixed-gender and off-color productions. "At first, my family thought it would just be a hobby," says Lober, already the father of the first four of his nine children when he started studying at Ma'aleh. Indeed, Aspaklaria ("looking glass" in Aramaic) began as a part-time pursuit while Lober taught adults and teenagers. "But slowly the theater got to be a bigger and bigger part of my life and I didn't have time to be a rabbi," he recalls. Seven years ago, Lober founded an acting school at Aspaklaria. Some 400 students have since passed through its doors in Givat Shaul, virtually all of them Religious Zionist. It is the only such institution offering separate classes for men and women. Separation precludes problems that arise for religious students at secular Israeli acting schools, such as touching onstage or women dancing and singing in front of men. Neither do these students have to contend with Saturday rehearsals and performances. However, the studio focuses strictly on method. "We provide a 'kosher' Jewish environment, but we don't teach Judaism," says Lober. "We believe our students already know how to be Jews, and now they have to learn to be actors." Women-only drama classes are available at several religious institutions, yet about 70 percent of Aspaklaria's enrollees are female. "Many religious women want to act and they have a lot of talent, but they have few opportunities to be seen," says Lober. Shuva Ben-Daniel, 23, had just finished a year of National Service when she learned of Aspaklaria during a random conversation with the company's secretary on a bus. Thrilled to learn that her religious convictions did not have to kill her dream of becoming a professional performer, she signed up right away. "I was sure I would never study acting," says the Beit El resident. "I thought I would be a teacher like everyone else." She started in Aspaklaria's twice-weekly amateur track and then moved to the three-year professional program. She never had a moment of regret. "It was four great years. Now this is my career," she says. Instructors - none of whom is religious - expose Aspaklaria students to dramatic arts including puppetry, pantomime, improvisation, movement, voice training, clowning, dancing and acting in front of a camera. Together with eight other Aspaklaria-trained actresses, Ben-Daniel wrote and appeared in a show about weddings that they've performed three times. "We want to perform it all over the country; and we are starting to write a show for kids about forgiveness," she says. "We have lots of ideas." The company's original material is what Lober calls "Jewish theater," and the rest is altered to eliminate coarse language and sexual content. Aspaklaria's 36 shows include many geared to children, teens and young adults. Lober, himself an active participant, also trains playwrights and is seeking additional writers. "Our themes come from the actors' own world," he says. "Just as Arthur Miller is a playwright Americans understand because he wrote about American life, our plays are about Jewish life, about Israeli life." The repertoire includes two shows professionally translated into English and adapted for Anglo audiences here and in the United States, where Lober has staged them for Orthodox audiences. Torn, adapted from Rand's Telush, depicts a teenage boy in religious crisis. In The End of the Way, a runaway girl's father navigates the shadowy world of late-night Kikar Zion. It is not only fictional mothers and fathers who fret about their offspring. Parents of actors often worry about their children's ability to support themselves. But Assaf Pney-el, an Aspaklaria-trained actor and playwright, says his folks never expected him to do anything else. "I was always acting in front of a mirror or in front of people, so my parents didn't think I'd be an accountant or a doctor or anything close to that," the 29-year-old father of three says with a laugh. "I think they're very happy because it's been good for me." "You have to have your fingers in many pies in order to make a living," acknowledges Pney-el, a principal in nine Aspaklaria productions. "I act in plays, I direct plays, I write plays, and I've acted in movies. I'm also learning drama therapy and psychodrama," says Pney-el, who spent "one miserable year" teaching fifth grade before turning to the stage. He is featured in works by the hassidic production company Nitzotzot Shel Kedusha and is a regular on the haredi children's program Ha'yetzira Ve'hamitzva. Though his extensive CV sometimes wins him parts that actors from better-known schools covet, Pney-el has faced rejection due to Aspaklaria's relative obscurity. "It's sad, but at an audition if they ask where I studied, they say they never heard of it and goodbye. But that's why we're making our own industry." Ben-Daniel says she's prepared for a potentially bumpy professional path. "There are some things in this world that I just have to do," she says. "I believe God will help us because we are trying to do things the way He wants us to do them." The typical Aspaklaria student is Ben-Daniel's age, but the classes also draw women in different stages of life. Maya Gewirtz of Ma'aleh Adumim, a mother of three, signed up for the amateur track three years ago. "Acting had always been a dream of mine," she says. "I felt I had a natural talent for it. But it's hard for religious women to find a place where they can do this." Gewirtz studied for two years under the tutelage of "incredible" female teachers. "I thought I understood acting before, but I really didn't," says Gewirtz. "I learned that it's not the same as telling a story. It's becoming the character, living through the character on stage in order to convey the story without even thinking about the audience." The single-gender classes allowed her to feel free to scream out loud, roll around on the floor or try a new dance movement. "I think even a non-religious woman would prefer this kind of setting," says Gewirtz. "You don't have to worry how you look [to male viewers]." Unable to observe their classes in session, Lober meets regularly with the female students to assess their progress and solicit feedback. He is working to incorporate all-women's shows into his troupe's regular performance schedule, due to popular demand. Aspaklaria's season starts September 9 with the children's musical Oish V'Moish in Kedumim and continues with various shows in Petah Tikva, Netanya, Hadera and Karmiel (see aspaklaria.org for details). Pney-el is one of the stars of Oish V'Moish. "When I was a teacher, 40 kids didn't want to hear a word I said; but now that I'm an actor, 400 kids are mesmerized by my every move," he says. "I just love it."

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