For your eyes only

Orthodox women singers and actors, unable to perform for mixed audiences, find their place on stage.

Ruth and Naomi in the Fields of Bethlehem, the fourth production by the all-women Gush Etzion Summer Stock Company 'Raise Your Spirits,' captivates from the start. The audience, composed exclusively of women and children (in accordance with the halachic prohibition deeming it immodest and therefore forbidden for women to sing or dance in front of men), found themselves clapping along, inhibitions forgotten, as the brightly attired cast assembled on stage for the first scene, a charismatic ode to Bethlehem, "land of plenty." Proving to be a taste of things to come, the vibrant opener paved the way for a production complete with catchy tunes and intelligent lyrics, with rousing singing from the two protagonists, played by Shaina Ettel Joki (Ruth) and Esther Steele (Naomi), both of whom have enjoyed professional careers on stage. Great attention was paid to detail, encompassing everything from the coy smiles the food-bearing maidens display to the ancient pottery used to serve the drinks. These attributes elevate Ruth and Naomi beyond the status of a simple community production, a rank which, as a religious women's play with limited audience potential, one could all too easily imagine it occupying. As director and cowriter, mother of four Toby Greenwald holds much of the responsibility for the performance's success. "I'm a perfectionist," admits Greenwald, whose professional commitments include directing drama productions portraying difficult family circumstances, aimed at enabling families in conflict to reach solutions. "If I put my name on something I want it to be the best it can possibly be." Raise Your Spirits' success has exceeded the comparatively humble expectations of its founders, who in the summer of 2001, at the height of the intifada, set up the company as a means of providing a diversion for the isolated and disheartened women and children of Gush Etzion. "Our producer Sharon Katz first came up with the idea," recalls Greenwald. "Several people from our settlements had been murdered on the roads leading out of Gush Etzion and none of the women and children were leaving," she explains. "Sharon wanted to do something to take people's minds off both their boredom and the desperate situation." Their first performance, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, sold out its scheduled three shows, which eventually grew into 13, including performances for a group of female activists at the Knesset and at the International Bible Competition. It was followed by original musicals Noah! Ride the Wave and Esther and the Secrets in the Kings Court, both of which were resounding successes at home and, thanks to road shows, throughout the country. While the Gush Etzion troupe may be among the highest-profile female artists who perform exclusively for women, they are by no means the only ones. With the ever-growing success of the "Ba'al Teshuva" (repentance) movement, newly religious women who have been trained in the performing arts find themselves pursuing a halachically acceptable outlet for their talents. Professionally trained singer and dancer Rachel Factor is one such woman, although as a convert to Judaism her story, which she depicts in her one-woman musical Not Even Normal, is a little different from that of many of her fellow newly Orthodox artists. Born in Hawaii to Japanese parents, Factor moved to New York as a teenager to pursue her ambition of becoming a professional dancer. It was there that she met and married her Jewish husband, whose subsequent interest in his roots sparked her own curiosity about - and led to her eventual conversion to - Judaism. Today the pair are haredi and while her husband learns full-time in yeshiva, Factor finds time to run the Jerusalem Women's Center for Theater, the school she set up to provide performance training to religious women, in between caring for the couple's two sons and performing Not Even Normal. "I think it's important for women to have a creative outlet," she explains. "Having the opportunity for self-expression a couple of times a week makes these women more successful in the other spheres of their lives, be these motherhood, as wives or in their jobs." Despite these convictions, Factor, whose roles in Broadway productions of Miss Saigon and Show Gun seemed likely to have been the start of greater things, does not covet her old life, and even claims to appreciate performing more as a religious Jew. "Judaism provides me with overall purpose," she declares. "It enables me to have a relationship with God which is more meaningful than anything I experienced before and this in turns reflects itself in my performance. "When I act out my journey to religion," she continues, "I feel I'm helping people by inspiring them to connect with God and in doing so am connecting with God myself and fulfilling my unique purpose, which is far more rewarding than dancing in Broadway musicals where you're an easily replaceable entity." Creativity as a means of connecting with God, Factor says, is the guiding principle by which her school is run. "All my classes are taught from a spiritual perspective," she says. "I instill in my pupils the knowledge that self-expression is a powerful tool with which to serve our creator." Her belief in using creativity as a means of "forging a relationship with God through self-expression," she says, dissuades her from performing anything without an overtly Jewish message. "Thankfully my life is so busy that I don't have time to devote to things that have no value," she says of performing secular material. Fellow newly religious artist, classically trained singer Shaina Ettel (nee Sara) Joki shares her outlook. "Since becoming religious, my singing has ceased to be about entertaining and has become about spreading godliness," declares the 24-year-old American who starred as Ruth in the aforementioned production. "For this reason I won't appear in secular plays or perform songs that have no Jewish significance." For Joki, who began voice training at the age of 12 and appeared in more than 45 US regional theater musicals between the ages of six and 19 before attaining a degree in classical music, the application of this principle has significantly limited the scope of classical songs she is willing to perform. "Many of the songs deal with topics contrary to Judaism," she says. "Christianity is a big one." Love, another popular theme in classical material, is also off limits. "[Love] has inherent sexual connotations even if the song itself isn't overtly sexual," says Joki. Nature, she admits, is one of the few topics traditionally associated with classical music that isn't out of bounds. "When you sing about nature you're acknowledging the wonders of God's handiwork," she enthuses. Asked if she feels she is compromising the authenticity of her art by evading so many of its most renowned works, Joki argues that if anything, she now feels a more genuine connection to classical singing. "Art is about self-expression," she reasons, "and when I sing classical music to the words of psalms or Jewish prayers I feel I'm reaching a deeper place within myself than I ever did singing traditional classical pieces." After finishing her degree, Joki moved to Israel, became fully observant and now affiliates with the hassidic Chabad movement. Currently working as a hairdresser, she admits to occasionally missing her old life, particularly when watching other female classical singers performing in front of mixed audiences. "It's frustrating if I feel I could do a better job than them," she explains. Ultimately, Joki maintains, she is at peace with her decision. She also finds the recognition her talents receive among Orthodox women "especially rewarding." "Classical singing isn't widely performed within the Orthodox world," she acknowledges, adding that many religious people are unaware of the levels of refinement a woman's voice can reach when trained classically. "After hearing me sing women have told me that they now fully understand how attractive a woman's voice can be and have a deeper appreciation of the prohibition forbidding women to sing in front of men," she says. Though committed to observing this prohibition, Greenwald does not agree that a play with no Jewish content "lacks meaning." "The Sages' assertion that 'There is wisdom among the [Non Jewish] races' rings true to me," she contends. Although Raise Your Spirits only performs plays based on biblical legends, Greenwald maintains she would have no qualms about producing a performance without an overtly Jewish message. "I wouldn't be involved with a production if I felt it didn't have anything of value to impart," she asserts, "but if it has value then as far as I'm concerned it probably has Jewish value as well." Greenwald's approach is also more liberal than Joki's regarding the portrayal of material containing sexual connotations. This is evident in a scene of Ruth and Naomi depicting Ruth's attempt to instigate a marriage proposal from Boaz by positioning herself at his feet as he sleeps. "My aim with all the productions is to ensure that they are as true a representation as possible of events as they are portrayed in the text," she explains. "If this means making reference to sexual relations, I don't consider that problematic so long as they are depicted tastefully." If Greenwald and Raise Your Spirits are among the more liberal of their genre, dancer Shoshi Brody is one of the most conservative. Brody, who considers herself haredi, has been dancing since the age of 13. "I'm probably the only FFB [Frum From Birth, a term used in Orthodox circles to describe someone who has always been religious] in the business," jokes the British-born performer, who undertook the majority of her training through private lessons as exclusively female dance schools did not exist in Israel. At her School of Dance for religious girls in Romema, a haredi suburb of Jerusalem, students only learn tap and modern dance; jazz is considered too provocative. All routines are performed to wordless music to avoid exposure to lyrics containing sexual connotations, and despite the fact that modesty restrictions do not apply (as pupils only perform in front of women), they are nonetheless required to dance in skirts. "Most of the girls come from ultra-Orthodox homes and the concept of modesty is ingrained into their psyche to the extent that they see it as wrong to appear immodestly clothed in front of anyone," says Brody. For these women, even without men in the audience, the act of performing in and of itself is seen as immodest, and the school serves as more of an outlet for a hobby than a training program or performance venue. "Few of the families who send their daughters to us aspire for them to become serious dancers, at any rate," she admits. "They see dance as a hobby - the fact that they even allow their daughters to attend the school is seen in their communities as a slight departure from the norm... There are many haredim who consider any form of dance immodest as it places emphasis on the body." Within the school, Brody acknowledges, there are a small number of students training to a more serious level, whom she considers "a pleasure to teach." "Unlike the majority of the pupils who only perform at the end of year show, these girls perform to women throughout the country," she explains. "They are interested in pursuing dance professionally and although there are limited opportunities for religious women in this field at the moment, I believe that with the increasing number of talented religious performers making their homes in Israel, this will start to change."