All-female English-language theater company delights

Raise Your Spirits has created a super mixed group of women, and everyone wants to contribute to the music and the performing.

THE RAISE Your Spirits theater group has been feeding off biblical storylines for two decades.  (photo credit: ASHIRA ALLON)
THE RAISE Your Spirits theater group has been feeding off biblical storylines for two decades.
(photo credit: ASHIRA ALLON)
Devotees of the MASH TV series may recall the padre, Father Mulcahy, responding to compliments on his sermon by modestly noting: “I had a good scriptwriter.” The members of the Raise Your Spirits (RYS) team have a similarly well-founded point of textual reference.
The all-female English-language theater company, which is currently marking an impressive two decades of creative and entertainment derring-do, has made a habit of feeding off biblical tales, and its latest production is no exception. Thus far, the group has put together 11 shows, the majority of which were originals – historical Scripture hooks notwithstanding – and it is due to perform Rebecca! Mother of Two Dynasties at Hechal Hatarbut in Gush Etzion (June 13 and 16), followed by two dates at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, on June 20 and 21. And, just in case there are any male fans of musicals looking to get in on the act, unfortunately you will have to make do with vicarious enjoyment of the show as RYS only performs for women.
Anyone who has any knowledge of the birthright dispute and other shenanigans between Jacob and Esau (in Hebrew, Yaakov and Eisav) will know it is anything but a straightforward tale. Toby Klein Greenwald, the scriptwriter who also directs the musical, says she put a lot into the project, together with lyricist Tamar Kamins. 
“IT’S A complex story, it’s not simplistic,” Klein Greenwald notes. “We spent a lot of time trying to figure it out.”
Then again, unidimensional baselines don’t generally make for interesting end products. Klein Greenwald may have had her hands full with the writing preliminaries, but she had plenty to work with. 
“Rivka (Rebecca) is a fascinating character,” she says. “It is interesting that she is the only woman noted in the Torah who is asked, will you go with this man? Arranged marriages were more from above, and she just said ‘elech’ (I will go).” 
That, says the director, is a remarkable leap of faith for one of the matriarchs of the Jewish people.
Klein Greenwald made the most of the, in Hebrew, one-word commitment. 
“I love the word ‘elech’ and we have a song in the show called ‘I Will Go.’” 
She may not be alone in that regard. 
“Sometimes, after or during a show I’ll ask the actresses, ‘What do you think is the most important word in this show?’ For example, a few years ago we did Benot Tzlofchad (The Daughters of Tzlofchad),” she says, referencing the landmark biblical case of five orphaned sisters who did not have any male siblings, who asked to be allowed to inherit their late father’s plot of land when the Israelites reached the Promised Land. “There were all sorts of important words in that show, but I decided it was ken (yes). The daughters went to Moses who turned to God, and He said ‘ken benot Tzlofchad dovrot.’ That word ‘ken’, was God’s seal of approval that the daughters were right.”
This time round, Klein Greenwald feels “elech” fits the thematic focus – and not just on the stage. 
“There is so much in this word, because it is a metaphor. It is not just a word. It is that we, in our lives, should step up to the plate when necessary.” 
That has been a constant for the whole RYS gang for some time now, especially in the trying circumstances of the past 15 months or so. 
“For 20 years, we have performed through terrorism, through wars, through [the withdrawal from] Gush Katif, and we really had a leap of faith this year. It was insane. We went back and forth between being allowed to perform live, and sometimes we had 10 people in the room and 10 in the hall, and some outside.” 
Fun and games.
The troupe also had to somehow manage the trying logistics of rehearsing via Zoom. 
“During Operation Guardian of the Walls, one night we were doing a rehearsal on Zoom and we have one actress in Beersheba who apologized and said if she disappears from the screen it is because she had to run with her children to a bomb shelter.”
NEVERTHELESS, KLEIN Greenwald and company made it through the various virtually facilitated and face-to-face preparatory stages and are now almost ready for the kick off next week. 
“Those were the conditions,” she adds. “We had three women with corona, and we just made a decision that we’re going to keep going. We’re not going to give up.” Not “giving up” also meant dealing with the almost insurmountable challenges of coping with Zoom software time lapses when trying to sing in unison, overseen by musical director Elisheva Naomi Savir and, possibly even more daunting, endeavoring to get the thespians’ movements down pat with the help of choreographer Ashira Allon. But endure they did.
The performers come from all walks of life, and span religious approaches and observance that take in women from Orthodox, haredi and traditional backdrops, olot from English-speaking countries and native-born Israelis. The age reach is pretty spectacular too, from teens up to septuagenarians.
Maya Faverman is one of the youngest members of the troupe although, at the still-tender age of 15, she is already a veteran of three RYS productions. 
“I started when I was nine,” she laughs. “I always wanted to be in musical theater. For years I wanted to find somewhere I could go and I was really excited when I got accepted for the first show. It has been awesome ever since. I don’t want to stop.”
Born and raised in Israel, her American-born parents took her to New York several times over the years where she got her first taste of the real McCoy. 
“I saw my first Broadway musical, I think, when I was in second grade.” 
Faverman was also drawn to the range of skills that come into play in the musical theater discipline. 
“I really do love singing, but also acting, and we dance in the show. That brings so much more feeling into the singing, and it brings it to a whole other level. You should express your feelings in singing. I really love that.”
The teenager is also one of the more versatile members of the RYS cast, taking on no less than seven roles in Rebecca!, as well as understudying for two more. She puts her all into female and male characters alike, as well as performing as a camel and – yes – a lentil. The pulse is, of course, the main ingredient of the broth Yaakov served to his twin brother as part of the birthright transition episode.
Although the Bible provides the substratum for the musical, Klein Greenwald allowed herself some freedom to roam into grey and intimated areas. Faverman says that allows her and the rest of the crew more artistic room for maneuver, and to touch on subtexts that do not come across in the original. 
“The whole deal, for example, with Rivka’s mother. They said nothing about how she felt about Rivka leaving to live in a completely difference place. So we add our own interpretations as well.”
DEENA LAWI is an RYS stalwart. 
“I have been involved since 2002,” she says. “I missed the first show, because I didn’t know about it, but I have been in every show since.”
New York-born 40-year Israeli resident Lawi, who plays the intriguing character of Eisav, says her participation in the musicals over the years goes far beyond the onstage action. 
“It has been a lifesaver for me, as it has for countless women and their families.” 
Lawi has, unfortunately, been sorely in need of the emotional boost and support she gets from her involvement in RYS. She lost her husband in 2004 and was in a serious car accident a couple of years later. Her musical theater colleagues rallied around to help keep her on an emotional even keel. 
“Joining this group, for me, was an eye-opener. It was wonderful, because I entered a family. It is like a sisterhood. When my husband passed away we were in the middle of rehearsals for Noah. I just kept going. That kept me going that summer and that year. I had little children at the time. It was a challenge but I did it.” 
Lawi also enjoys the flexibility her thespian endeavor offers her, and the ability to explore uncharted waters. 
“We have fun playing men’s parts. In Shakespeare’s time men played women. It doesn’t bother anyone, and it’s everyone’s opportunity to express themselves in a way that, maybe, at home they can’t.”
Treading the boards, Lawi says, offers remedial rewards all round. 
“Performing in this company has done wonders for these women’s sanity and happiness.” 
She also feels she and her cohorts are making ground in professional terms too. 
“Toby gets the best out of everybody. And we all manage the difficult logistics – the women with young children, and those who have to travel from far away. There is an excitement about it all.”
NAOMI LERMAN came to the theatrical fray with more skills in her locker than most. The now-religious 35-year-old Beit Shemesh-based mother of two grew up in a secular family in Vancouver, Canada, and knew music was her way to go from the outset. 
“I started singing when I was five,” she chuckles. “I sang in pop bands and rock bands. I was interviewed on a breakfast show and they asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up, and I said a rock star. That was my raison d’être.”
Over the years she broadened her disciplinary spread, taking in musical theater, opera, hip hop, contemporary dance and even synchronized swimming. 
“That is the most physically demanding thing I have ever done,” she says. “My parents said I should get into a team sport.”
Lerman’s father and mother also encouraged their offspring to venture out of their comfort zones as, basically, every artist should. It was after she made aliyah, in 2015, that Lerman discovered she could combine her Jewishness and sense of community with performing on stage. She feels she manages that with RYS. 
“Raise Your Spirits has created a super mixed group of women, and everyone wants to contribute to the music and the performing. And there is the fact that we are performing stories from the Tanach (Bible) and bringing out the true humanity of these [Biblical] people. You know, I delve into what Yaakov was really like. What was he thinking when he did this? He wasn’t like a two-dimensional person anymore.”
There doesn’t appear to be anything mundane about the aptly named theater group, or its work. Sounds like an uplifting enterprise for everyone – female – around.
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