If you missed the play In a Stranger’s Grave, which completed its recent first sold-out run of seven performances at the Khan Theatre in Jerusalem, make sure you get tickets next time around. It’s scheduled to be performed again in September. The provocative play is about whether a convert can be “unjewished,” but it’s also a lot more.
In a Stranger’s Grave, in English, is written by Jerusalem playwright and actress Miriam Metzinger and directed by Efrat’s Yael Goldstein Valier, founding creative director of the theater company Theater and Theology. It’s based on the Greek tragedy Antigone. For those whose university Sophocles is rusty, the fifth-century BCE Greek play centers on two sisters who want to see their brother buried with respect after he is killed fighting on the losing side of the Thebes Civil War. One sister, Antigone, is willing to risk her life to defy the new ruler’s order to leave his body in the field.
Although the authenticity of conversion to Judaism is more often questioned in relation to marriage and divorce, In a Stranger’s Grave raises the question of whether or not a seemingly lapsed convert can be buried in a Jewish cemetery next to her husband. It explores the impact the deceased’s being posthumously “unjewished” will have on the lives of her two adult daughters, one married with children and one engaged.
Metzinger’s play is set in Jerusalem, where sisters Esther and Chana have been raised by their parents as devout Jews. Their mother had left Israel after the untimely death of their father. Because of rumors that the once pious Sarah has given up Orthodox Judaism, the burial society no longer considers her Jewish. Nonetheless, the rabbi in charge offers a discreet solution. By heavenly grace, their father is buried just inside the cemetery perim eter, and their mother can be interred outside, a mere tree away.
One daughter, Esther, is apprehended by the police while she is trying to chop down the tree.
Playwright Metzinger, a convert to Judaism, has been open about her own tribulations following the ousting of the Orthodox rabbi who converted her, from the Rabbinical Authority’s sanctioned list. Already a mother, she had to undergo conversion again, and to convert her sabra son. She’s not alone. Numerous conversions have been overturned, creating havoc for the convert, spouse, children and grandchildren, and taking away the security that, like Sisyphus, after rolling the stone up a hill, their conversion will roll back down upon them.
Those of us born Jews can take whatever liberties we want. Even Bernie Madoff and Harvey Weinstein can’t be unjewished for disgracing the Jewish people. Converts unhappily remain on perpetual probation, despite a giant like Maimonides rejecting this approach.
The burial society rabbi in the play is a surprisingly sympathetic character, arguing pragmatically for overlooking the affront to their mother, accepting the cemetery solution, and enabling the daughters and grandchildren to quietly take a quick conversion dip in the mikve to make everything right again. The play asks how far we, committed Jews, are willing to go to take a stand against personal injustices by challenging a system we are ultimately devoted to and pray that our children and grandchildren will maintain.
Both Metzinger and Goldstein Valier are observant Jewish women. Although the play goes heavily (too heavily, its only fault) into the halachic discourse around conversion, it points a beacon on injustice within Orthodox Judaism. Adding to the unflattering picture, Chana, the more practical sister, is married to an arch-typical controlling husband who threatens to take away the children if she bucks the proposed solution. No character in the play or member of the audience doubts that he might be able to do just that with rabbinical judges on his side.
GOLDSTEIN VALIER admits that although the religiously educated half of the audience understands the complexity of conversion, the other half sees the play as bashing Orthodox Judaism. Nevertheless, she established Theater and Theology to explore tough questions like this one in what she sees as a crisis period in which Israelis are diverging, going in different directions vis a vis observance.
“So many people think that halacha floats in a void,” says Goldstein Valier. “It did for 2,000 years, but now that we have a state, Halacha has a context. The rabbinate is slow to see the context. And who can blame them? I don’t blame them, but I’d like this to change. I’m hoping that plays like this one can raise the social consciousness that leads to change.
“The mistreatment of converts is not only important in and of itself, it is symptomatic of how secrecy and shame in religion can hurt religion and not help it,” she said.
She’s interested in exploring the conflicting values of the needs of the individual versus the needs of society.
“When does social cohesion begin to cross the line from positive to oppressive?”
In a Stranger’s Grave explores that tension, with nuanced characterization and costumes in black, grey and a touch of yellow. Only Esther and a rabbi who defends her wear blue.
For me, the most interesting question, unanswered, is why the good-hearted Sarah leaves her family, her community and Israel after her husband died. On one hand, Chana suggests that her mother’s departure after her husband is gone might call into question the initial sincerity of her conversion. Perhaps she did convert for the wrong reasons, in order to marry a Jew. On the other hand, she might have fled the once-idealized world that enticed her to convert, eager to cast off ever-tightening shackles: demands to oppress women and force them to conform. Most converts are women.
In Hebrew, we use the word “tragedia” to describe drama like Antigone, based on human suffering. There is no word for tragedy that is purely Hebrew. Jewish stories are about fixing what’s wrong. But our world-fixing, tikkun olam, is to be done b’malchut shadie, within a divinely ordered world. The growing expression of religious women through provocative drama catalyzes this redemptive process.
Open to mixed audiences of men and women, Contact @TheaterAndTheology.com, (050) 873-3347
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.
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