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The fourth production by the all-women Gush Etzion Summer Stock Company, Raise Your Spirits, a group of orthodox women hailing, as their name intimates, from the Gush Etzion area, captivates from the start. The audience, composed exclusively of women and children (in accordance with the halachic prohibition deeming it immodest and therefore forbidden for women to sing or dance in front of men), found themselves clapping along, inhibitions forgotten, as the complete brightly attired, female-only cast assembled on stage for the first scene, delivering a charismatic ode to Bethlehem, "land of plenty."
Proving to be a taste of things to come, the vibrant opener paved the way for a production complete with catchy tunes and intelligent lyrics, with rousing singing, not least from the two protagonists, played by Shaina Ettel Joki (Ruth) and Esther Steele (Naomi), both of whom have enjoyed professional careers on stage.
Great attention was paid to detail, encompassing everything from the coy smiles that the food-bearing maidens display to the gleaners, to the ancient pottery used to serve the drinks. These attributes elevate Ruth and Naomi beyond the status of "second rate" community production, a rank which, as a religious women's play with limited audience potential appeal, one could all too easily imagine it occupying.
As director and co-writer, mother of four Toby Greenwald holds much of the responsibility for the performance's success.
"I'm a perfectionist," admits Greenwald, whose professional commitments include directing drama productions portraying difficult family circumstances, aimed at enabling families in conflict to reach solutions. "If I put my name to something I want it to be the best it can possibly be."
It's unsurprising, considering Greenwald's work ethic, evident as it is in Ruth and Naomi, that Raise Your Spirits' success has exceeded the comparatively humble expectations of its founders, who in the summer of 2001, at the height of the intifada, set up the company as a means of providing a diversion for the isolated and disheartened women and children of Gush Etzion.
"Our producer Sharon Katz first came up with the idea," recalls Greenwald. "Several people from our settlements had been murdered on the roads leading out of Gush Etzion and none of the women and children were leaving," she explains. "Sharon wanted to do something to take people's minds off both their boredom and the desperate situation."
Their first performance, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, sold out its scheduled three shows, which eventually grew into 13, including performances for a group of female activists at the Knesset and at the International Bible Competition.
It was followed by original musicals Noah! Ride the Wave and Esther and the Secrets in the Kings Court, both of which were resounding successes at home and, thanks to road shows, throughout the country.
While the women of Gush Etzion troupe may be among the highest-profile female artists in the country who perform exclusively for women, they are by no means the only ones. With the ever-growing success of what is commonly referred to in Orthodox circles as the "Ba'al Teshuva" (repentance) movement, primarily consisting of organizations devoted to promoting orthodox Judaism, increasingly, newly religious women whose secular backgrounds have afforded them a high level of training in the performing arts find themselves in pursuit of opportunities to demonstrate their talents, which since the adoption of their new lifestyles have become far rarer a halachically acceptable outlet for their talents.
Professionally trained singer and dancer Rachel Factor is one such woman, although as a convert to Judaism her story, which she depicts in her one woman musical Not Even Normal, is a little different from that of many of her fellow newly Orthodox artists. Born in Hawaii to Japanese parents, Factor moved to New York as a teenager to pursue her ambition of becoming a professional dancer. It was there that she met and married her Jewish husband whose subsequent interest in his roots sparked her own curiosity about, and eventual conversion to, Judaism.
Today the pair are haredi and while her husband learns full time in yeshiva Factor finds time to provide performance training to religious women while caring for the couple's two sons.
"I think it's important for women to have a creative outlet," she explains. "Having the opportunity for self-expression a couple of times a week makes these women more successful in the other spheres of their lives, be these motherhood, as wives or in their jobs."
Despite these convictions, Factor whose roles in Broadway productions of Miss Saigon and Sho Gun seemed likely to have been the start of greater things, does not covet her old life, even claiming to appreciate performing more as a religious Jew.
"Judaism provides me with overall purpose," she declares. "It enables me to have a relationship with God which is more meaningful than anything I experienced before, and this in turn reflects itself in my performance.
"When I act out my journey to religion," she continues, "I feel I'm helping people by inspiring them to connect with God and in doing so am connecting with God myself and fulfilling my unique purpose, which is far more rewarding than dancing in Broadway musicals where you're an easily replaceable entity."
Greenwald does not agree that a play with no Jewish content "lacks meaning."
"The Sages' assertion that 'There is wisdom among the [non-Jewish] races' rings true to me."
Although Raise Your Spirits' productions only performs plays based on biblical legends, Greenwald maintains that as a director she would have no qualms about producing a performance without an overtly Jewish message. "I wouldn't be involved with a production if I felt it didn't have anything of value to impart," she asserts, "but if it has value then as far as I'm concerned it probably has Jewish value as well."
Greenwald's approach is also more liberal than Joki's with regard to the portrayal of material containing sexual conations. This is evident in a scene of Ruth and Naomi depicting Ruth's attempt to instigate a marriage proposal from Boaz by positioning herself at his feet as he sleeps.
"My aim with all the productions is to ensure that they are as true a representation as possible of events as they are portrayed in the text, she explains. "If this means making a reference to sexual relations I don't consider that problematic so long as they are depicted tastefully."
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