Unsettling discovery: ‘In a Stranger’s Grave’

When one’s Jewish identity is suddenly stripped away, what is the price of cleaving to one’s convictions in the face of authority?

May 16, 2019 09:43
Unsettling discovery: ‘In a Stranger’s Grave’

THESE PHOTOS of some of the cast members in action were taken last week at a rehearsal of ‘In a Stranger’s Grave.’. (photo credit: KAREN FELDMAN)


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Once a Jew, always a Jew, right?
Not necessarily.
How would it affect you if you suddenly discovered that you (or your spouse and/or your children) are not Jewish? What would you do if the rabbinate one day informed you that you have been living unwittingly under false pretenses all of your life?
Can a lifelong committed Orthodox woman and her children abruptly find that they are outside the fold? What does it actually mean to be Jewish, anyway?
Unfortunately, questions of this nature are not theoretical for some people in our country. Such discoveries are made usually in the context of family life cycle events such as marriage or burial, and they can have profound impact on individuals and their families.
In a Stranger’s Grave is one such disturbing story.
In Jerusalem had the pleasure of attending a late-stage dress rehearsal of the world premiere of this thought-provoking play, which is opening, appropriately, in Jerusalem.
The explosive play compellingly portrays the chaos of an extended family plunged into a crisis when Esther and her sister Hannah, frum-from-birth young American Israelis, discover upon their mother’s death in the US that the validity of their mother’s conversion is in question. Due to a debatable technicality, her conversion was annulled. The hevra kadisha (burial society) maintains that burial next to Esther’s father in the Jewish section of the cemetery is forbidden.
As the burial plans go awry and the body remains above ground, the extended family is wracked by confusion and pain as it struggles to cope with the new reality. Part of the fallout is that the deceased’s two observant daughters and Hannah’s school-age grandchildren have their identity snatched out from under them because they are no longer considered halachicly Jewish.
Swinging from acquiescence to anger and defiance, the range of reactions of the family and community members to the crisis highlights the conflicting values in the Jewish and Israeli world. With intense time pressure caused by the need to quickly yet honorably resolve the burial issue, the two daughters take drastically different approaches and actions, with Esther taking her principled stand and battle to courageous – or possibly ­crazy – extremes. Intelligent and nuanced, the play is a timely addition to the current Israeli debate on conversion as it applies to the future of Judaism and the State of Israel.
While at the rehearsal, In Jerusalem took the opportunity to chat with some of the key figures in the production.

THESE PHOTOS of some of the cast members in action were taken last week at a rehearsal of ‘In a Stranger’s Grave.’ (Credit: KAREN FELDMAN)

As director, why did you select this play? What are some of the things you most value about it?

Yael Valier: I love theater and I am always looking for a good story – that is primary. This is a fantastic story – passionate, well-written and balanced – that will have the audience involved and moved. It also raises a really important issue without impinging on the story. Together, that was a winner for me. With this play, I felt like I hit the jackpot.

The play explores a thorny, controversial issue – canceling conversions. Is there an agenda here? Will audiences feel like one view or another on the conversion topic is being “pushed” by the play?
The play definitely has a stance, but what I love about it is that it’s balanced and nuanced – both sides of the issue are argued strongly and effectively, both make reasonable points and score “hits,” so that anyone watching the play can feel that their side was well represented. Beyond writing from her inside knowledge, the playwright did a lot of homework. She went to the experts – learned and mature rabbinical authorities who have strong views, but are also willing to express the other worldview and halachic sources.
Moreover, I always interview scholars after every performance and open the floor to audience questions. I endeavor to get a range of scholars so people can listen to information or a point of view they haven’t heard before that they may agree or disagree with. People coming in to comment on this play and field audience questions are both conservative and liberal. Each evening is different.

THESE PHOTOS of some of the cast members in action were taken last week at a rehearsal of ‘In a Stranger’s Grave.’ (Credit: KAREN FELDMAN)

As an accomplished writer and playwright, what was your inspiration for this challenging play?

Miriam Metzinger: For one thing, although conversion nullification is not often talked about openly, it is a widespread and critical issue; I know several cases of people affected by it. The other inspiration is that I have a classics background – a background in classical theater – and I thought of the Antigone story. She wants to bury her brother, but Priam, the king of the city, won’t allow her, because of some Greek religious issues.
I read a story about a boy who was from Spain and died of cancer. His dream was to be buried in Jerusalem, but they wouldn’t bury him here, because they didn’t accept his mother’s conversion, and that also was part of the birth of the idea for the play. What would happen to daughters if their mother’s conversion was canceled, considered null and void by the hevra kadisha? It changes their whole lives. Not only do they lose their mother, but they, too, are then declared not Jewish. What does that do to them? One’s Jewish identity here in Israel affects every aspect of life – work, school, friends, fiancé…
The play is like a Greek tragedy in that there is extreme time pressure – the mother’s body has to be buried somewhere – and someone’s life is turned upside down, which adds stress. That makes for interesting drama.

THESE PHOTOS of some of the cast members in action were taken last week at a rehearsal of ‘In a Stranger’s Grave.’ (Credit: KAREN FELDMAN)

As the protagonist, what do you hope audiences take away from the play?

Avital Macales: I like doing things that matter, and this matters. People should know these things happen and do something about it. I hope it increases compassion for converts – and beyond the conversion issue, I hope it increases compassion for the human experience in Halacha and the quest to explore and harness the flexibility that is within Halacha. It is not so black and white; it is versatile, spiritual and sensitive to changing human conditions…

THEATER AND Theology is a unique theater group, in that it brings fascinating, current angles on philosophical questions to theatergoers, and it takes scholars out of the lecture hall and into the theater. It delivers good theater and a gripping story with a talented cast – and dayenu, that would be enough. Yet in addition to all that, it presents a lineup of excellent speakers to address the issues after the shows and field questions from the audience.
In addition to playwright Miriam Metzger, the roster of knowledgeable, compassionate and in some cases controversial speakers includes Rabbi Chuck Davidson, one of the founders of Giyur K’Halacha; noted philosopher Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo; Rabbanit Shani Taragin; Rabbanit Anne Gordon, one of the founders of Chochmat Nashim; and Rabbi Jeffrey Saks.
The play is powered by compelling performances by an all-star cast that includes some of the most talented and accomplished actors in the Jerusalem theater world, including Mordechai Buxner, Syma Davidovich, Charles B. Davies, Bakol Ruben Gellar, Rabbi David Golinkin, Devorah Leah Levine, Avital Macales, Howard Metz and Aharon Naiman.
Also involved in the production is Rabbi Dr. John Krug, who ­– among other achievements in the theater world – was the assistant producer of the world’s longest-running musical, The Fantasticks, from 1974 until its closing in January 2002.

For an evening well spent – compelling theater followed by stimulating discussion with a scholar – catch In a Stranger’s Grave at the Khan Theater, May 21, 22, June 4, 5, 11, 12, 13 at 7 p.m. Info and tickets:

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