"Be a good girl, Yael." Thus the wizened women of her community advise a
youngster. Life is better if you conform to the mores of our society. Don’t
jeopardize your future, particularly the opportunity to make a good
“Keep your eyes downcast And remember not to ask Too many
questions Be a good girl, Yael Never walk too fast And I don’t think that we
need to hear suggestions.”
BE A good girl. As an adult, the memorable
refrain runs through her mind, pregnant with the question of what constitutes
good, as she faces her nation’s oppressive enemy alone, weapon in hand. The
weapon? A tent pin. This Yael is the biblical Iron Age heroine who
singlehandedly killed the ruthless Canaanite general Sisera.
appears in JUDGE! The Song of Devora
, a spirited, spiritual musical that ran
earlier this year in Israel. An additional show was requested by the Jerusalem
Municipality as part of the city’s cultural revival and will take place on June
12 at the Gerard Behar Center.
Sorry, fellas, this show is for women
only. The actors are actresses, religious women with terrific, trained voices,
modern dance flair and sharp wit. The cast includes eight-year-olds, grandmas
and every age in between. Their strict observance of the Jewish prohibitions
against women singing, dancing and acting before men other than their husbands
and fathers rules out most theater roles for these girls and women.
in women’s theater, they can literally and figuratively let their hair down and
expose their talent. A number of the actresses became religious after
professional training of their prodigious musical talents in secular society.
One is a genuine opera singer, another a true ballerina, a third a martial arts
The youngest actresses were nurtured in the increasingly
professional musical arts classes for girls – only in the religious
is performed in English, and the contribution of immigrant
women from English-speaking countries to the development of women’s theater is
much apparent. For those who are expecting no more than a slightly upgraded
class play, the level of performance is startling. For those who have never been
to a women’s megilla reading or a synagogue where women read the Torah, the
chanting of the biblical narrative by high-schooler Chaya Lapidot will be
another delightful surprise.
JUDGE is the sixth production of a theater
company that calls itself “Raise Your Spirits,” because it was created in 2001
in Gush Etzion as a response to the depression of living with the terror attacks
of the second intifada. Efrat resident Sharon Katz decided that putting on a
show would be a morale-builder. But the product of their endeavors goes beyond a
therapeutic experience for the cast and a feel-good night at the theater for the
audiences. It provides the laughter and tears of good theater. Music and
arrangements are the work of Efrat resident Mitch Clyman.
women to follow the letter of the law and at the same time to express Godgiven
talent is challenging and complex. The choice of the subject for this play
highlights this tension. Biblical heroines in general, and militant Devora in
particular, shoulder prominent public roles. In the biblical text, Devora
correctly cautions warrior Barak that the victory will be recorded as a woman’s,
but he refuses to fight without her. In JUDGE, Devora also hesitates before
taking on the key leadership position. To borrow terminology from American
feminist psychologist Carol Friedman Gilligan, she may be a prophet, but she
needs to regain her voice.
Women’s theater has one advantage over general
theater. Because it attracts a Jewishly educated audience, playwrights Toby
Klein Greenwald and Yael Valier can count on familiarity not only with the
biblical characters and text, but also with the subtext. The libretto reveals a
high level of Jewish learning – itself a result of assertive Jewish women in our
time. Acknowledgements in the playbill include leading Torah scholars and
teachers Shani Taragin and Bryna Levy.
Sings the biblical Devora under
her palm tree: “Come my children, now learn with me Under the spreading palm
tree, One can never start too young Taste that honey upon your
The story is set in 1200 BCE, based on Shoftim, the seventh book
of the Hebrew Bible. Although the title is translated in English as
“Judges,” the reference is to the divinely inspired prophet-leaders of that
troubled period in Jewish history. Women in the audience get the joke when the
chorus appears on stage dressed in British judge robes with white court wigs and
sneakers. They know Devora isn’t that kind of judge. The costumes are amusing
because so many of the actresses and the audience wear wigs (and Shabbat dress
robes) in everyday life.
Building on the understanding of their
knowledgeable audience, Klein Greenwald and Valier also include General Sisera’s
mother, making her a sympathetic character – indeed, an appealing comic star.
Girls and women in the audience have read the “Song of Devora,” which describes
Sisera’s mother looking out the lattice of her window worried that her son’s
chariot has not returned. Despite her connection to her diabolical son, our
tradition’s connection to Sisera’s mother isn’t all negative. It is not only the
matriarch Rachel who cries for her lost children; the required 100 shofar blasts
on Rosh Hashana are compared to the anguish of Sisera’s mother’s cries when her
son fails to return.
In a wry reversal of Elizabethan theater, the men’s
roles are played by women, including the lyrical duets. That the dress of the
biblical women in JUDGE – ethnic layered dresses and head scarves – don’t look
much different from contemporary clothing for religious women in Israel adds
authenticity to the production. The numbers have the familiar feel of the lively
women’s side of the dance floor at a religious wedding, where women have long
kicked up their heels and enjoyed the sisterhood of celebration.
models the possibility of artistic expression within Orthodox society. It also
raises questions about the restrictions we place on ourselves and our daughters,
not only about the judges of past, but the societal judgment that limits
expression of talent and opinions and forces nonconformists to seek fulfillment
outside of religious society.
“Shine your light,” Barak urges Devora.
“You have a gift... you have a sacred trust, you have a job to do. Go spread
In the end, it’s the reprise of that message and not “be a
good girl” that ushers in a time of peace.The author is a Jerusalem
writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the
Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women's Zionist
Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.