Spirited performances

Raise Your Spirits’ first production by and for women was conceived as some light relief from the second intifada.

Sharon Katz and Bracha Daniel (photo credit: Rebecca Nathan Kowalsky)
Sharon Katz and Bracha Daniel
(photo credit: Rebecca Nathan Kowalsky)
When Toby Klein Greenwald, Sharon Katz and Arlene Chertoff wrote Esther and the Secrets in the King’s Court, they had Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in mind as today’s Haman. However, the timing of this musical production by Raise Your Spirits – a non-profit theater troupe that women in Efrat and Alon Shvut created in 2001 to cheer people up at the height of the second intifada – seems to have coincided with the recent escalation of hostilities and launch of Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza.
“We started this project during a bloody intifada,” explains Klein Greenwald, director of educational and community theater and a resident of Efrat.
“There were people killed on the road from Jerusalem to Gush Etzion and elsewhere. People weren’t going out a lot at night. We were looking for something to do to raise our spirits. Some of us brainstormed, and Sharon Katz, also of Efrat, said, ‘Let’s put on a show.’” “It’s totally déjà vu now,” says Katz. “Thursday night [November 15] was the dress rehearsal, and that same afternoon a missile from Gaza had reached the Tel Aviv area. I took my Tehillim [Book of Psalms], asked the [young] girls to come onstage, and I told them that 10 years ago, when we performed Esther, it was a time of terror and fear, and the possibility of destruction was everywhere around us. The [original] story of Esther happened at a time when the Jewish people believed that, God forbid, they could be destroyed.... But God can make miracles, and things can turn around overnight.... So I told the girls: What’s happening now happened 10 years ago, and it happened 100 years ago, and it happened 1,000 years ago. The Jewish people are threatened from every direction. But if we believe in God, then we shouldn’t be afraid.”
The three women, along with musical composer Rivka Epstein Hattin, are all American-born and - raised, though they are longtime Israeli citizens. The dialogue in their current production – which is running at the Gush Etzion Community Center – is in English, and there are Hebrew subtitles to accommodate the many Israelis in the audience.
All Raise Your Spirits productions are performed by women and for women only.
“The idea [since its inception in 2001] was to do it for women, and I volunteered to direct,” Klein Greenwald says. “We would meet every night. We did Joseph [and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat] first because everyone was familiar with it. We licensed the rights from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s company in England, and almost every night in the summer we got together to rehearse.... We thought we would do two performances for our friends. But it was a smash success.”
Since then, Raise Your Spirits has done five original musicals and performed for almost 40,000 women.
“So what began as just a fun thing to do for the community actually became a model for many other women’s groups that mushroomed after us,” she says.
One might assume that such a community initiative would be amateurish. On the contrary: The productions, including the music and costumes, are professionally done by accomplished individuals. Klein Greenwald, for example, is a respected educator, writer, translator and photojournalist, as well as cofounder and editor-in-chief of WholeFamily.com, an award-winning self-help online site for families. In 2008, she received the Yaakov Egerest Award for Jewish Culture, presented by the Education Ministry, for her work in community educational theater.
The benefits of participating in Raise Your Spirits productions – whether it’s adult women who haven’t had the opportunity to express their creativity for a while, or religious women and girls seeking to use their performing talents in accordance with Jewish law – go beyond emotional support in times of war.
The musicals have been an uplifting experience for women and girls with personal challenges as well.
“Because it’s a social experience, it’s educational,” says Klein Greenwald. “My pet project is working with teens.... We tell everyone to read and study the original story in Tanach [the Bible]. They learn responsibility and what it means to give to the community.”
Production manager Eudice Spitz, who plays Bigtan, an adviser to King Ahasuerus, became involved in the spring of 2002.
“Two members of my family were very ill at the time – my mother and a sister,” says Spitz, also an American- Israeli and an Efrat resident.
“I work very hard in business as well. It was a very depressing time for me. I was looking for something that would literally raise my spirits.”
She heard about the audition 10 years ago and tried out.
“It really saved my mental health,” she affirms, stressing the camaraderie among the cast.
Spitz’s 11-year-old granddaughter, Meirav Mann, also appears in Esther. According to Spitz, she is “just one of a number of daughters or granddaughters of original cast members who are carrying on the Raise Your Spirits tradition.”
All children in the cast are Israeli-born, although some of their parents are native English speakers. The cast and crew range in age from seven to 70.
According to Klein Greenwald, performances usually attract a full house. During a typical season, between 5,000 and 10,000 people attend over a period of roughly four months. Usually the shows take place at the Gush Etzion location, although some have been done elsewhere.
In general, however, a lack of official funding from any local or national body is problematic, Klein Greenwald points out. The company is in search of partners. Still, they continue to host terror victims’ families and bereaved relatives of soldiers killed in line of duty at their performances, which is a large part of its raison d’etre.
At the opening night performance of Esther last Sunday evening, the troupe honored Jerusalem Post columnist Barbara Sofer.
“She was one of the first journalists who ever wrote about us and has been supportive from the beginning,” Klein Greenwald says. “We wanted to show our appreciation.”
For more information on performance dates and to reserve tickets, go to raiseyourspirits.org. A special Hanukka performance will take place on the evening of December 9.