Theater: Hello, Dolly, I’m ‘back where I belong’

After 21 years, a return to the stage in Beit Hillel Theater’s latest production.

Gaby Shine Markowitz plays Dolly. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gaby Shine Markowitz plays Dolly.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The struggle to be able to sing and perform has been a huge part of my identity for as long I can remember.
I was born and raised in “theaterland” – the West End of London. As a little girl, the precocious daughter of an eminent Orthodox British rabbi, I was, on the one hand, often at center stage – leading all the songs at the Seder, or singing the “Anim Zmirot” prayer from the bima (pulpit) in shul. On the other hand, I was relegated upstairs to the women’s section as soon as I became a bat mitzva, and I was no longer allowed solos at my Orthodox elementary school concerts, in which I had starred only a year previously.
At my very British and Christian high school, I landed the lead role in school musicals and concerts, but then had to turn them down because the performances were on Friday night or because the venue was a church. At university, I had to create my own theater company so I could schedule weekday-only performances.
Even when I landed in Israel as a new olah, I found that professional theater involved Shabbat performances. And then there was the confusion over kol isha, the prohibition on women singing in the presence of men: “What? You’re religious? A rabbi’s daughter? Well, then, you shouldn’t be singing anyway.”
I tried to join the army entertainment corps, but was told that at 21 I was too old. And that was how a 22-year-old British olah, whose whole being was bursting to sing, found herself at the Hebrew University’s Beit Hillel Theater Workshop in 1992 and finally felt at home.
Today, 21 years later, I am back on the Hillel stage in Hello, Dolly! with the same director who brought me there all those years ago. For me, Hillel was community theater at its best – an inclusive, accepting and creative world of talented people who found themselves in Jerusalem. Everyone could be who they were – Jews, Christians, Muslims, olim, Sabras, visiting students from around the world. Everyone’s needs were respected. And what brought this family together was a love of musical theater.
In 1994, when I was performing as Mrs. Johnstone in Beit Hillel’s Blood Brothers – a story about fate, childhood innocence and the hardships of adulthood that one cannot and perhaps should not imagine as a child – I remember reflecting on where I would be in 20 years’ time.
Could I have envisioned that Hello, Dolly! would be my first time back on stage in 14 years? Could I have dreamed up the intense beauty and pain I would experience over those years? I AM immensely blessed. I am grateful to live in this beautiful, intense and chaotic city that is so meaningful to so many. I am awed by my amazing husband and my four incredible children. I am thankful to have my inspiring mother living by my side and being an enormously important presence in her grandchildren’s lives. I love my neighborhood, a mirror of what I found in Beit Hillel: a diverse and rich Jerusalem community consisting of young and old, religious and secular, Jew and non-Jew. And in my work as director of international relations for Yeru- Shalem: The Coalition for an Inclusive Jerusalem, I am lucky to be able to try to ensure that Jerusalem feels like home to them all.
I am also a previvor. I have the BRCA2 gene, a genetic disposition that gave me an 87-percent chance of developing breast cancer and a 50% chance of developing ovarian cancer in my lifetime. I say “gave,” because in 2012 I had a preventive double mastectomy and oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries).
Yes, like Angelina Jolie – but I got there first! It was an extremely difficult journey, and I am paying the price of a scarred new body and early menopause, but I no longer have a sword dangling over my head. My beautiful first cousin passed away from breast cancer in her early 40s, leaving a young family behind. In her death, she saved my life.
Among Ashkenazi Jews, both women and men, one in 40 has the BRCA2 gene, and most have no idea (the prevalence is one in 400 for the general population). The more people know my story, the more lives can be saved through awareness. Knowledge is power. I hope that when people see me, a previvor, up on stage playing Dolly, they will know there is nothing to be scared of – that knowledge is a gift that can defy fate.
When I was recovering from surgery, I knew that life was too short to wait; I needed to get back into theater. And here I am, “back where I belong,” as Dolly would say: “Wow, wow, wow, fellas. Look at the old girl now, fellas!” I AM also the parent of a child with special needs. My magnificent youngest daughter, four-year-old Hallel, has Down syndrome. As a fellow special-needs parent once commented, the minute she was born, it was like someone branded “activist” on my forehead.
We live in a cruel and frightened world. Ignorance breeds fear. I look at my smart, beautiful, extroverted daughter who brings so much love, joy and wisdom to this world, and I shudder when I think of the doctors who think parents of such children are crazy for not aborting, the medical professionals who predict doom and gloom. We have to fight every day for inclusion in our world, our communities, our education system. It is exhausting and demeaning and frustrating. But she is worth every moment. I am proud that she is my daughter and that I am her mum. She does not hold us back, she pushes us onward and upward.
I hope that when my kids, who have never seen me perform, hear me singing “I’m going to hold my head up high,” they will not only internalize the message of being proud of who they are, no matter how the world relates to them, but will also know that they are my inspiration.
Dolly decided, after all her grief and struggle, that it was time “to rejoin the human race” and walk down the stairs at the Harmonia Gardens again. Go girl... it’s time for me to join you.
Performances of Hello, Dolly! will take place at Beit Hillel on the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus on June 7, 9, 10, 11, 14, 16 and 17, all at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost NIS 80. For more information: Revital at 588-3902, 581-7714 or revitalb@; or