When sixth graders celebrate heroines - opinion

A sixth-grade graduation from the girls’ division of Mekor Chaim saw girls, aged 11 or 12, perform an original play written by the school’s drama teacher.

 NECHAMA LEIBOWITZ: Outstanding teacher. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
NECHAMA LEIBOWITZ: Outstanding teacher.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

For two years we made do with celebration by Zoom.

We heard bar mitzvah Torah readings and watched babies enter the Covenant of Abraham, danced at weddings and cried at funerals through our computers. We lifted glasses and shouted “L’chayim!” to the screen, learned to send congratulations and felicitations by chat.

But now we’re back to celebrating in person.

In recent weeks, I’ve attended a flurry of end-of-the-year ceremonies for significant school transitions and after-school activities. You couldn’t have guessed that our young generation had experienced tumultuous years of lockdowns, illness and strikes. As an Israeli parent and grandparent, I have had abundant opportunities to kvell.

Among the events, there’s one performance I feel compelled to share: a sixth-grade graduation from the girls’ division of Mekor Chaim, a religious-Zionist school, in that eponymous Jerusalem neighborhood. The girls, aged 11 or 12, performed an original play written by the school’s drama teacher, Safed-born Nehami Reis, 41. Jewish education at its best. It couldn’t be more relevant.

The opening scene focuses on protagonist Meital, 12, home in her room, moody and moping. Her bat mitzvah party has been postponed, you guessed it, because of coronavirus. A supportive friend phones to console her. Her mother promises that the party has only been postponed and they’ll reschedule. With preteen peevishness Meital answers, “I’ll be 20 by then.”

 THE WRITER’S granddaughter Shani Rahamim exhibits a lack of joy on finding a book instead of an iPad. (credit: Sylvain Aelion)
THE WRITER’S granddaughter Shani Rahamim exhibits a lack of joy on finding a book instead of an iPad. (credit: Sylvain Aelion)

A mysterious package arrives. Meital’s spirits lift. Maybe it’s something she really wants, like an iPhone. But the package is too big. Maybe an iPad. Imagine her disappointment when she tears open the wrapper to find a book inside! Not a Harry Potter installment. It’s about the adage from the Mishnaic Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Elders): “The world stands three things: on Torah, on worship and on human kindness.”

A real page-turner, Meital thinks cynically. Nevertheless, bored and frustrated, she does turn the pages.

Then the mystical happens. A photograph from the book, reproduced large on the stage, is an image of a woman called Nechama Leibowitz. The stage changes to – no, not a study hall but – a Jerusalem café. At one table is a couple courting. At another sits a mom with a baby carriage. Two women-friends are reminiscing at a third. The waitress has a credible Russian accent. All characters have a connection to Leibowitz.

For three generations of students, in Israel and abroad, Leibowitz (1905-1997) was an outstanding teacher, but it’s unlikely that these sixth graders had ever heard of her or the stenciled questions on the weekly Torah portion she sent to anyone who requested them, whose answers she would personally correct.

In the play, the already elderly Nechama turns up at the café seeking the waitress, whose answers aren’t satisfactory. When the waitress explains her lack of Jewish scholarship, Leibowitz offers to tutor her. Most of the café patrons are in awe of Leibowitz, but one woman isn’t a fan. Leibowitz once slighted her, and she’s long carried a grudge. Confronted, Leibowitz apologizes and thanks her for the opportunity to ask forgiveness.

I love that the heroine doesn’t have to be perfect.

BACK IN her room, Meital is impressed, too, and continues to flip through her new book.

Next she meets Miriam Peretz in her kitchen. I’m worried about how the tragedy of Miriam Peretz’s losing two sons will be treated. Peretz has agreed to spend Shabbat with late son Eliraz’s widow and their children. The grandchildren are expecting Savta Miriam’s Moroccan meatballs, but she can’t bear to make Eliraz’s favorites without him.

And then – remember this is a sixth-grade play – we are treated to a flashback within a flashback where we meet Peretz at different stages in her life, portrayed by different girls. We meet members of her family in Morocco and Israel, and encounter those who nurtured Peretz so that she has the strength she will need to deal with tragedy. The play isn’t a hagiography, nor is it sugarcoated.

The third figure to appear – the representative of gemilut hassadim, loving-kindness, is Rabbanit Bracha Qafih, pronounced “Kapah” (1922-2013).

Born in Sanaa, Yemen, Rabbanit Qafih is best known for providing clothing, food and bridal dresses for those in need. She also had a talent for personally engaging volunteers and initiating them into the inspirational work of doing good. Her own granddaughter is initially repelled by a woman picking through garbage and scared of a gang of roughnecks whom her grandmother charms.

The sixth grader who played Rabbanit Qafih pronounced every word of her part with a deep Yemenite accent you rarely hear today.

Before Meital closes this surprisingly interesting book, she sees one more photograph there: her own. The lives of these heroines help her cope with her own legitimate disappointment, and also inspire her to think about acquiring her own good deeds. She starts by rethinking her reluctance to babysit her siblings.

PLAYWRIGHT REIS, also an expert in psychodrama, was dissatisfied by the material available for school plays, and collaborated with other educators.

“I didn’t want to do Sallah Shabati or Tevye the Milkman,” she said.

How, I wondered, could Reis get these preteenagers to become so involved in the drama and elicit so much talent?

She has a system. Instead of giving out parts at the beginning, she spends months having girls try out different parts. They become familiar with the entire text, and gravitate toward roles that suit their personal acting abilities. One girl, for example, found she couldn’t cope emotionally with acting in the Peretz segment, while other classmates were drawn to it.

I asked the girl who played Meital, (full disclosure, my granddaughter Shani) whether the play had impacted her. Shani said she and her classmates not only learned a lot about these amazing Jewish women and the Mishna, but they felt they reached a deeper level of understanding and empathy in order to get inside the characters.

Shani was in a little bit of a hurry when I caught up with her. She was heading off to her friend’s bat mitzvah party – it had been postponed because of corona. 

The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.