Expressions with an Orthodox twist

The Human Spirit: Women's theater attracts Jewishly educated audience; playwrights can count on familiarity with biblical characters, text, subtext.

GAYLE BERMAN is Devora in ‘JUDGE!’ 311 (photo credit: Rebecca Kowalsky)
GAYLE BERMAN is Devora in ‘JUDGE!’ 311
(photo credit: Rebecca Kowalsky)
"Be a good girl, Yael." Thus the wizened women of her community advise a youngster. Life is better if you conform to the mores of our society. Don’t jeopardize your future, particularly the opportunity to make a good match.
“Keep your eyes downcast And remember not to ask Too many questions Be a good girl, Yael Never walk too fast And I don’t think that we need to hear suggestions.”
BE A good girl. As an adult, the memorable refrain runs through her mind, pregnant with the question of what constitutes good, as she faces her nation’s oppressive enemy alone, weapon in hand. The weapon? A tent pin. This Yael is the biblical Iron Age heroine who singlehandedly killed the ruthless Canaanite general Sisera.
The scene appears in JUDGE! The Song of Devora, a spirited, spiritual musical that ran earlier this year in Israel. An additional show was requested by the Jerusalem Municipality as part of the city’s cultural revival and will take place on June 12 at the Gerard Behar Center.
Sorry, fellas, this show is for women only. The actors are actresses, religious women with terrific, trained voices, modern dance flair and sharp wit. The cast includes eight-year-olds, grandmas and every age in between. Their strict observance of the Jewish prohibitions against women singing, dancing and acting before men other than their husbands and fathers rules out most theater roles for these girls and women.
But in women’s theater, they can literally and figuratively let their hair down and expose their talent. A number of the actresses became religious after professional training of their prodigious musical talents in secular society. One is a genuine opera singer, another a true ballerina, a third a martial arts star.
The youngest actresses were nurtured in the increasingly professional musical arts classes for girls – only in the religious sector.
JUDGE is performed in English, and the contribution of immigrant women from English-speaking countries to the development of women’s theater is much apparent. For those who are expecting no more than a slightly upgraded class play, the level of performance is startling. For those who have never been to a women’s megilla reading or a synagogue where women read the Torah, the chanting of the biblical narrative by high-schooler Chaya Lapidot will be another delightful surprise.
JUDGE is the sixth production of a theater company that calls itself “Raise Your Spirits,” because it was created in 2001 in Gush Etzion as a response to the depression of living with the terror attacks of the second intifada. Efrat resident Sharon Katz decided that putting on a show would be a morale-builder. But the product of their endeavors goes beyond a therapeutic experience for the cast and a feel-good night at the theater for the audiences. It provides the laughter and tears of good theater. Music and arrangements are the work of Efrat resident Mitch Clyman.
FOR RELIGIOUS women to follow the letter of the law and at the same time to express Godgiven talent is challenging and complex. The choice of the subject for this play highlights this tension. Biblical heroines in general, and militant Devora in particular, shoulder prominent public roles. In the biblical text, Devora correctly cautions warrior Barak that the victory will be recorded as a woman’s, but he refuses to fight without her. In JUDGE, Devora also hesitates before taking on the key leadership position. To borrow terminology from American feminist psychologist Carol Friedman Gilligan, she may be a prophet, but she needs to regain her voice.
Women’s theater has one advantage over general theater. Because it attracts a Jewishly educated audience, playwrights Toby Klein Greenwald and Yael Valier can count on familiarity not only with the biblical characters and text, but also with the subtext. The libretto reveals a high level of Jewish learning – itself a result of assertive Jewish women in our time. Acknowledgements in the playbill include leading Torah scholars and teachers Shani Taragin and Bryna Levy.
Sings the biblical Devora under her palm tree: “Come my children, now learn with me Under the spreading palm tree, One can never start too young Taste that honey upon your tongue.”
The story is set in 1200 BCE, based on Shoftim, the seventh book of the Hebrew Bible. Although the title is translated in English as “Judges,” the reference is to the divinely inspired prophet-leaders of that troubled period in Jewish history. Women in the audience get the joke when the chorus appears on stage dressed in British judge robes with white court wigs and sneakers. They know Devora isn’t that kind of judge. The costumes are amusing because so many of the actresses and the audience wear wigs (and Shabbat dress robes) in everyday life.
Building on the understanding of their knowledgeable audience, Klein Greenwald and Valier also include General Sisera’s mother, making her a sympathetic character – indeed, an appealing comic star. Girls and women in the audience have read the “Song of Devora,” which describes Sisera’s mother looking out the lattice of her window worried that her son’s chariot has not returned. Despite her connection to her diabolical son, our tradition’s connection to Sisera’s mother isn’t all negative. It is not only the matriarch Rachel who cries for her lost children; the required 100 shofar blasts on Rosh Hashana are compared to the anguish of Sisera’s mother’s cries when her son fails to return.
In a wry reversal of Elizabethan theater, the men’s roles are played by women, including the lyrical duets. That the dress of the biblical women in JUDGE – ethnic layered dresses and head scarves – don’t look much different from contemporary clothing for religious women in Israel adds authenticity to the production. The numbers have the familiar feel of the lively women’s side of the dance floor at a religious wedding, where women have long kicked up their heels and enjoyed the sisterhood of celebration.
JUDGE models the possibility of artistic expression within Orthodox society. It also raises questions about the restrictions we place on ourselves and our daughters, not only about the judges of past, but the societal judgment that limits expression of talent and opinions and forces nonconformists to seek fulfillment outside of religious society.
“Shine your light,” Barak urges Devora. “You have a gift... you have a sacred trust, you have a job to do. Go spread your light.”
In the end, it’s the reprise of that message and not “be a good girl” that ushers in a time of peace.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.