Sonia Soudry’s Psifas Theater Group brings theater to haredi women.

Sonia Soudry (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Sonia Soudry
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Sonia Soudry has lived many lives in one – and shows no signs of slowing down.
Born in Algiers in 1949 to a traditional Jewish family, Soudry played piano and quickly discovered a love of theater that was not readily accepted by her family. Her father played the trumpet and hoped that his daughter would follow in his musical footsteps, but she was intoxicated by the multifaceted ways to tell stories on stage.
“One day I said to my parents that I didn’t want to learn piano anymore, I wanted to become an actress,” Soudry shares.
During the Algerian war, which broke out in 1954, the family moved to France. Soudry began to study in a music academy where there happened to be a renowned theater teacher giving classes nearby. She began learning with him and her passion for the craft only grew stronger. When she was 17, she decided to devote herself solely to theater.
“I told my parents again that I wanted to be an actress, which was difficult for them, but they finally accepted it,” Soudry says. She switched to a theater school and it wasn’t long before she was receiving accolades and recognition for her work in ancient tragedy, modern tragedy and modern comedy.
“It was wonderful. I thought that I would be very famous. My teacher told me that in 20 years, I would be a good actress. I didn’t understand at the time, but now I do. It’s a long journey.”
Soudry performed with different theater groups in France, but they were not on the professional level that she aspired to and she felt it was not good for her or her craft. She went back to her teacher and told him about these feelings and he told her to go learn in the Jerzy Grotowski School in Lyon. Grotowski, an innovative and renowned Polish theater director, took an extremely thorough approach to training actors that influences her to this day. She describes her three years in Lyon as being reborn.
“It was a lot of searching deep inside myself,” she recalls. “One of the directors I met there gave me my first big break in a leading role.”
Afterwards, Soudry continued to immerse herself in theater and eventually joined the prestigious National Theater in Paris when she was 22. In the summer, she traveled to the festival in Avignon, where they put on myriad different plays. She traveled all over Europe and was, for all intents and purposes, living her dream life.
But in her soul, something was missing; she just didn’t quite know what. The whole inside of her became a longing for something more, something elusive yet vital.
By the time she was 29, Soudry was chosen to narrate a series of productions with poetry. She felt each line in her heart and would read the poetry all night.
“They wrote about eternity and all of my questions.
Is eternity real? Why is there death? Why is there life? What is the cause of my being alive? Perhaps I will die and come back as a mosquito.”
THE EXPERIENCE made her ponderings on her own destiny more acute; her search for whatever was missing in her life intensified. Shortly thereafter, she found a book of Talmud and read it for the first time.
She felt that she had found the answer at last. She wanted to learn more about what it meant to be Jewish, but it was difficult; at that time, in the late 1970’s, there were not many seminaries like there are today. She describes the landscape of learning for Jewish women in Paris like a desert.
“I wanted to learn Talmud, but I was told it was not for women,” she shares. “I wanted answers and searched in so many places to find them and I was alone in this quest. All I wanted at that point was to learn.”
Soudry met a man in the synagogue she began attending who told her that there was a Jewish studies class in a nearby home. What he failed to mention was that the class was comprised of men only. She went and was refused entry at first for being a woman. She responded that she was Jewish and only wanted to learn, and that if they wouldn’t let her in she would call the police. They eventually acquiesced.
At this time, she was living with a good friend, a fellow actress who was not Jewish. Because her roommate saw how important the process of becoming more observant was to Soudry, they divided the apartment into kosher and not kosher.
“She really helped me. But I was alone a lot during this time. I had become friendly with a man from the synagogue who was very well known in the community.
He called the rabbi and said it wasn’t right that I was alone and to invite me for Shabbat. So the rabbi did. I went to the spa to prepare myself for the holy occasion.
I was worried about going to the meal in pants, but that’s all I had. Then a woman arrived at the spa with a suitcase full of clothes from her shop that she had just closed and said she needed to sell everything. So I was able to buy all of these beautiful dresses. I went to the Shabbat meal in one of them and the rebbetzin said how happy she was that I didn’t come in pants. It was the start of a kind of new life, but I also felt that I had to say goodbye to big parts of my past.”
Soudry was advised to leave the apartment she had been living in and move to the Jewish neighborhood.
She was also advised to stop acting. The first request would be difficult, but the second felt impossible. Soudry stayed in her room for a week, trying to make the right decision. Her mother phoned and recommended that she go walk through Paris for a few hours and think. She did just that and ended up buying a copy of Pirkei Avot, detailing the Torah’s views on ethics and interpersonal relationships, to read in a cafe. It inspired her to make the move to Paris’s Jewish neighborhood.
She was not convinced she could or should give up theater however, and continued to perform.
“I was being told that it was not right to be religious and an actress; that it couldn’t happen,” she says. You could argue that she has spent the past 40 years trying to reconcile these two, seemingly disparate, parts of herself.
Eventually, she did stop acting for a total of seven years. It was at the peak of a successful theater career, but Soudry believes that her theater hiatus was important part of her journey. It was during this time that she met her husband, Eliyahu. He taught at the Sorbonne, where she had decided to learn Hebrew. On their first date, he told her that he had no idea what it meant to be an actress, or anything about the theater. His plan was clear: move to America and then to Israel. And so they did. He advised her not to tell people that she had been an actress in Paris because they wouldn’t understand.
“I accepted that and became a good, Orthodox wife,” Soudry recalls. “I cooked, took care of our home, and had wonderful children. I even returned to playing piano. But at night, I dreamt of being on the stage. In the morning, I would think that I wasn’t being a good, religious woman. But eventually, I came to see it as a sign from God that I simply had to return to theater. It was in my heart. If God gave me this talent, it was not right to throw it away.”
AFTER MOVING to Israel in 1989, a friend asked if Soudry would teach an acting class for women. There was some resistance from the larger community at first, but once it was decided that they would perform in front of only women, the idea was accepted. In 2008, she decided to open a theater school for ultra-Orthodox women, a place where they could express themselves and learn the craft that she loved so dearly.
“I was born with this affection for theater and it was impossible to deny it. I thought, perhaps there were other women who felt the same way and it was difficult for them to live because they didn’t have that outlet and they didn’t even know it. I could bring them healing. My husband thought I was crazy and that Orthodox women would not want to learn how to become actresses, but I told him I would try anyway.”
As it turned out, many women shared her vision and wanted to take to the stage. One woman, who was 71, told her that it had been her dream for her entire life to be an actress, but she never thought as an ultra-Orthodox woman that it would happen. She thanked Soudry for proving that it was never too late.
Soudry currently runs two acting schools, one in Bnei Brak and one in Jerusalem, with a total of about 150 students. The Psifas Theater Group, as they are collectively known, is the first ultra-Orthodox theatrical framework for women in Israel. They continue to perform exclusively for women.
The Psifas Theater Group will perform two new shows this summer. The first is an adaptation of 17th century French playwright, actor and poet Moliere’s He Is Also from the Nobles. Moliere was a mainstay of the theatrical genre known as commedia dell’arte, a form originating in Italy that became popular in Europe from the 16th to 18th centuries. Most of the characters wear masks and usually represent fixed social types and stock personalities. Soudry’s adaptation is called Hatuna Bashuk.
“I didn’t want to put my actresses in the roles of men; it’s like Purim, it’s not professional. So I translated the male roles into female ones. The main character became Mrs. Yardena. She is quite stupid, has a lot of money, owns many shops in the shuk. She has a dream to be in the Knesset. She does lots of things: learns music and dance, but this one thing is impossible for her. It’s very funny. I love this play because we all have silly ambitions. I used to dream of being the wife of Prince Charles. It didn’t matter that he’s not so handsome because I wanted to be the queen.”
Hatuna Bashuk opens on June 20 at Beit Mazia.
The second play from the Psifas Theater Group is The Blind by Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck.
“Maeterlinck believed that the real tragedy of life is the dialogue of man with destiny. I chose this play because I think it’s possible to do it well and it’s something that hasn’t been done. It speaks about this blindness that we don’t understand what happens in the world; about God, about how to live. It’s not only literal blindness, but a metaphor for everyday life. I proposed to my actresses to do another play, but they were committed to doing this.”
The Blind will come to Beit Mazia on August 7.
In Soudry’s incredible life journey, she has indeed proven that it is possible to be both ultra-Orthodox and an actress. If you don’t believe it yet, come see it on the stage.
To purchase tickets to either show, visit: