‘Even for professional actors, it takes a great deal of courage to step onto a stage,” says Zehava Brosh. “Then try to imagine what it takes for a person who suffers from mental illness who is not a professional to get up on stage and perform for an audience.” 

Brosh, an experienced theater director, is quick to add that she wouldn’t give up for anything the privilege to work with a group of women suffering from mental illness, whom she trained to perform in the framework of this year’s Jerusalem Arts Festival.

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The group of women all work and are trained at the Hazon Petaya rehabilitation center. The institution was created 35 years ago by Simha Ovadia Petaya and her father, a well-known Jerusalemite Kabbala scholar, Hacham Ovadia Petaya, to provide – years before modern psychiatry proposed it – a special program of rehabilitation and empowerment for the mentally ill through professional training.

Six years ago, following Simha’s illness, her daughter, professor and poet Haviva Pedaya – took over the center’s administration and introduced healing methods based on Jewish spirituality and artistic, mostly theater, work.

“I can say, after decades of doing artistic work in theater, that nothing compares to the emotional and professional rewards that one obtains through the work we do with these women,” says Brosh.

The play, Looking for a Key and a Song, is a dramatic performance based on improvisational pieces, drawn mostly from the women’s own lives and experiences, intertwined with music, movement and work with masks, performed by 10 women who suffer from various levels of mental illness. The play, performed last week at the Khan 2 Theater, is the result of months of work and rehearsals, including several crises and dramas amid the dramatic  process.

Brosh, who didn’t doubt for a moment that her “girls” would make it, nevertheless admitted she experienced a few moments of serious concern. For example, she relates, one of the women/actors was attacked by a drug addict on her way back to her hostel. As a result, the woman was in a state of shock. Some frantic phone calls were made, people were involved and long conversations aimed to calm her down ended in some doubt as to whether woman would be able to leave her apartment the following morning to continue the rehearsals.

“After all, this is about empowering women,” explains Brosh with a sad smile. “We – the staff  and the women – work very hard to give them the strength they need, and such an incident could ruin a large part of our efforts. It’s a shame!”

THE JERUSALEM Arts Festival is one of the municipality’s most successful artistic initiatives. Every year, shortly before Pessah and the large-scale Israel Festival, local and national Israelis who love art – theater, dance and music – perform throughout the city, presenting high-level amateur performances for the sheer delight of the local audiences. This year again, for about a week, 26 different performances will present the results of months – sometimes years – of work of Israelis who have found in the performing arts a way to experience and express some joie de vivre.

Behind the curtains, for the past 10 years, stands Shemi Amsalem, head of the  municipal Arts Department and recently appointed head of the Culture Department.

Hazon Petaya, the rehabilitation center that is presenting a play at the festival this year, was created to provide people with mental illnesses with a place to go and a means to empower themselves once they have progressed beyond the hospitalization stage. For years, the center offered more traditional activities such as gardening, cooking, hairdressing and make-up workshops and other similar occupations that did help and support the people in their recovery but didn’t give them enough potential to go beyond their disability.

Upon joining the family project, Pedaya decided to enlarge its scope and introduced Jewish spirituality as well as drama, psychodrama and art workshops as a means of therapy, while developing more modern and advanced work scenarios.

“We revised the definition of this place – the New Hazon [new vision]” – explains Pedaya, “It has become a place for women, a place for women’s empowerment, since we realized that such a gender-based center was woefully lacking, and the focus moved to the use of arts as a means of healing and rehabilitation.”

What Pedaya, a graduate of the Visual Theater School, a highly respected scholar in Jewish philosophy and a Kabbala researcher, wanted to achieve was a new approach to the notion of healing among the mentally ill.

“I wanted to put in the center my vision of the link between Jewish spirituality and rehabilitation through the use of various tools. For example, in the vocational training, instead of courses in hairdressing, we provided highly professional training in designing and making paper products, as well gardening and cooking. As a result – and this was an astonishing thing for us – the professional staff, the women, began to take care of their appearance on their own initiative which, in the case of the mentally ill, is a very important issue, and it encouraged us to pursue the new path.”

“We are not presenting a play in the usual sense,” says Brosh. “What we did was in fact the result of personal training sessions with each of the 10 women participating, who brought their own stories, or pieces of their lives, and these pieces served as a basis for the different scenes of the play. And, of course, we use masks, which they made themselves in the art workshops at Hazon.”

B. was a nice little girl, pampered by her parents, who was always well dressed when she went to school. But one day the girls in her class ganged up on her and accused her of having lice. For B. the memory is as fresh and as hurtful as it was a few decades ago, the scene that scarred her for life. She had stood there helpless, while the girls surrounded her, pointing at her and viciously yelling, “Lice, lice, lice!”

That painful memory was transferred into a dramatic piece with the help and active participation of the group and was included in the play. “I decided not to put B. in the role,” Brosh points out. “That would have been too much for her, but we did rework the scene according to her memories and instructions with another woman of the group playing her part. It is a very emotional moment both in the rehearsal and in the play itself. But perhaps the most touching part was the surprise we had at the end of the first rehearsal,” says Brosh. “Rachel, one of the veterans of the women’s group, suddenly went up to B., faced her and sang her a popular Israeli song of the 1950s. She sang it beautifully and offered her the song as a means of friendship, of women’s solidarity. We knew she used to write poems, but that was an unexpected gesture that deeply moved us all, and we decided to include that in the play as well,” says Brosh.

Not all the memories and personal experiences in the play are sad ones. One of the participants told the group about a dream she had as a child. She dreamed that her kitchen turned into a giant ice cream. “The story was told to us in such a vivid manner that we put it in the play,” says Brosh. In the final scene, she and the women decided to include a tale about a king who couldn’t find peace of mind until he heard a hauntingly beautiful piece of music.

“This was not an easy decision to make,” she recalls. “But after all, I do feel very deeply involved and committed here, and it also solved the problem of a rather long monologue, which could have turned into an obstacle for the participants, who usually  cannot retain long lines.”

All the accessories – costumes, décor and scenery, as well as the masks which are an inherent part of the play – are made in the Hazon workshops by the women with the help and training of professional artists. Hazon also has a small stage, including lighting, on which they have already performed for some supportive small audiences.

“The stage setting is very upbeat, and the music is beautiful. We want to present an optimistic evening, despite the painful backgrounds,” says Brosh.

THE WORK on the play began a few months ago in the framework of a drama workshop at Hazon. The workshop opens and concludes with the women standing in a circle, signifying that they are handing over from one woman to another strength, support, friendship. It has become a powerful tool to enhance their capacity to face their situation.

Daniela, the youngest of the group, does not suffer from a typical mental illness. She was caught in a terror attack a few years ago in which she was seriously wounded and witnessed the horrible death of people around her, including friends with whom she had been talking moments before. Her physical wounds were healed, but her soul never really recovered from the trauma. Since she arrived at Hazon and joined the group of women, she found the strength to go to university, graduate in theater studies and participate in this project as assistant director to Brosh.

“When I am here, I am not only protected but empowered, and I feel that I can do things that even a short time ago I didn’t think I could do,” she says.

Five other women share the pain of an illness that at some point in their lives cut them off from their families and environment. “Most of them are on medication and have endured various periods of hospitalization,” says Pedaya. “Our aim is to bring them to the front line, where  the ‘healthy’ are. Think of this: We keep talking about the need for coexistence in our country and society. Coexistence between Arabs and Jews, between religious and secular, leftists and rightists. What about coexistence between the sick and the healthy? When we started with the drama workshop, our primary goal was not to prepare them for public performances but to give them tools for empowerment, for self-healing. But then we thought that there was no reason not to mix sick and healthy people – to create a space where healthy people and people struggling with illness could meet, talk, get together and coexist. In one of the cases, a large group of students and staff from the Mandel School came to visit and hear. They were so impressed, that after the show they all naturally sat with the women and talked and learned texts with them, just like in hevrutas in a beit midrash. I understood then that I was right in my approach.”

Orna is a mother of four. She is a young, attractive woman and has some of the major roles in the play. A quick glance at her wouldn’t reveal her years of struggle against her illness. Today, following the special empowerment program at Hazon, she has managed to take control of her life again. She is well dressed and made up, keeps in shape and, above all, is back on top of things in her family. “Nothing is easy,” she admits, “but the strength I receive here is something that enables me to take my life back in my own hands,” she smiles.

Obviously, not all the women match Orna’s achievements. “Some of the women suffer from very serious mental illnesses, and not all of them get the support they should get from their families – which is a crucial issue – and their struggle is a never-ending one,” says Pedaya.

Shirley, the woman who was attacked by a drug addict, remarks, “I have created a blog. It gives me a great feeling of being able to use my intellectual capacities the best possible way besides my participation in the drama workshop here and, of course, in the play. It gives me a lot of strength – and hope.”

Pedaya’s method is based on her strong belief in the healing capacities of Jewish spirituality combined with art. “It is a rehabilitation process that legitimizes the use of tools and materials that originate in the Jewish roots. It is both a cultural path and a spiritual one. This has nothing to do with practicing religion but rather considering Judaism as a culture and looking into it to find the powerful healing tools in it. We use stories – the Ba’al Shem-Tov and Rabbi Nahman, whose personal lives serve as a beacon. It gives a lot of strength and touches people in pain. Our idea of healing is unique in that it doesn’t focus on the ill side of the personality but rather on the recovering aspect, assuming that this process of healing is a life-long process. And we do not put the ‘normal’ people in an advantaged position,” says Pedaya.

Besides the rehabilitation center Pedaya has also launched a New Spiritual Beit Midrash, which she heads. “It will serve as a special venue for learning and experiencing therapists interested in Judaism. The participants will also be invited to share their learning with the women of Hazon,” she says, adding that she invites “anyone who feels ready to experience Jewish spirituality, solidarity and is ready to be a part of such an empowerment endeavor to join us at Hazon.”
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