On a cold windy night eight women in Tsfat meet to rehearse a play. It's three weeks before the Chanukah performance and their lines are not yet completely memorized. Their positions on stage have been blocked, and costumes, props and scenery are being organized. Eliana comes in from the cold, her six-month-old baby in a baby sling. Chaya left her three downs syndrome children with their father. Zelda's father who has Alzheimer is being cared by her mother tonight.
At the home of director Danya Boksenboim, the actresses take off their coats and find their places in her living room. The dining room table has been moved out to make space to perform. A lamp with bright bulbs simulates stage lights. The scene is a girls' dormitory.
"Shouldn't we be facing the audience here?" Danya says thinking out loud.
"I think it's more interesting if they see us from the side" says Keren Ora. "The audience notices a lot more than we realize."
Six Jewish girls attend the new private finishing school, "Banot, Helen of Troy". The year is 167 BCE. The girls are being prepared for a dazzling future in the modern world of Hellenistic studies, Greek, philosophy and gym.
But in the dorm at night, while half the group studies "Plato's Republic", the other half reads the strictly forbidden "Holy Temple Underground".
They follow the latest events in the Beit Hamikdash between Yochanan the High Priest, and Shimon, the treasurer.
They fail their Philosophy exams, crack the school's computer code to change their grades, and discover that enormous amounts of their school's funding has been embezzled and transferred to Swiss bank accounts…
Danya Boksenboim, originally from Montreal, used to perform monologues and satirical songs at folk and comedy circuits in Manhattan. After coming to Israel she immersed herself in Torah Learning at the Machon Alta Seminary and didn't give much thought to the acting and singing she was giving up.
But the urge to create theater never totally left her. Danya decided to produce an original Purim play. "I saw my friends as incredible characters and convinced them to join me. At first they resisted me, I was new in town, unknown." The play was a success and Danya continued to write, direct and perform in more productions.
"My plays are social satires. The idea that women will save Israel and the Jewish people is the theme of all my work."
How did you get the idea for this play?
"I was deeply affected by what's been happening in the world. I wrote this play two years ago when the anti religious parties in Israel were trying to destroy Judaism. It also happened to be Chanukah. And I had been thinking about doing a play about a girls' school.
"I guess times haven't changed that much since Ancient Greece"
"This play is about now," Danya warns.
Miss Schmiss: I'm so nervous receiving our girls!
Miss Shulman: Why? We interviewed them. They've been especially hand picked.
Miss Schmiss: Hand picked? We were down on our hands and knees begging them to come. Miss Shulman: No, No. No! You just get that thought out of your head. These girls were hand picked. Especially chosen. It's an honor for them to be here.
Miss Schulman: Aren't we honored to have them?
Miss Shmiss: No, we are glad to have them. Not honored.
Miss Schulman: What if they don't like us?
Miss Shmiss: Tough cookies. They will like us. We are promising them a better future.
When Zelda G. had to give a speech at her grade school graduation she thought she'd faint. She had wanted to be a preschool teacher, but her fear of getting up in front of a classroom, even a class of little children, prevented her from pursuing that career. Zelda recognized Danya's talent and encouraged her to produce her plays. Then Danya reciprocated by urging Zelda to perform. Trying to overcome her stage fright, Zelda agreed. Zelda recounts, "I had never acted before and during rehearsal someone said my performance was terrible. 'What is she doing here?' that woman complained."
Did this discourage you from acting?
"No. I decided I'd show her!"
"Danya came over to help me learn my lines. I was down in the laundry room of my apartment building. We practiced there while I waited for my clothes to come out of the wash. I learned my lines. That other woman was surprised."
"I had to master my fear," Zelda continues. I wanted to be part of the process of making people laugh, bringing simcha to the community. Everyone was needed. But I don't think of myself as an actress."
Zelda acts in these plays usually as an emergency substitute when someone needs to drop out at the last minute. Her specialty is searching gemachs for costumes and props.
As a single mother with a teen aged son and elderly parents to care for in her home, getting out to rehearse is not easy. "I run the household, do the shopping, take my parents to their doctors' appointments, translate for them, fill their prescriptions." There have been procedures such as pacemaker insertion and cataract surgery. Especially difficult is her father's Alzheimer condition. Her father cannot be left alone.
"My mother and I take turns leaving the house. My mother encourages me to go out. She's happy I'm in this play." But Zelda feels that when she goes out at night it's an extra burden for her mother.
Zelda had just made dinner for her parents and given her father his medications. "I'm going," she said. "Where are you going?" Her father asked. "I'll come with you. Take me with you."
"Getting out to rehearsal is not easy," Zelda repeats, shaking her head.
Miss Shulman: Welcome girls and make yourself at home.
Bette: Hello Miss Shulman. I can't wait to attend classes here and be the best student in the school. (Bette looks at Simmy. They both laugh.)
Miss Shulman: Why Bette, thank you for your kind words. It's lovely to see you too Simmy.
Simmy: Gee thanks, Miss Shulman. I can't wait to attend classes here and be the second best student.
Miss Shulman: Why be the second best? Why not be the best Simmy?
Bette: Because that's just the way it is, Miss Shulman.
Yehudit Knauer loved to sing and entertain her family. She was always in the school plays. She loved going to Broadway shows and identified with its celebration of the "American Dream". It wasn't until she came on aliya at age 54 that Yehudit realized what a destructive influence Broadway had been on her. For the first time she saw what the Torah outlook of the ideal Jewish woman was really supposed to be.
Yehudit has written and produced seven musicals, which are built upon adapting popular tunes to Torah themes. This has been a rectification for her, transforming secular influences into positive Jewish values.
What do you feel when you're on stage?
"I feel nervous because I want to give the best I can, I want people to feel that their presence was worthwhile. I want my performance to show appreciation for their coming."
You once played Haman in a production. What was it like to portray a rasha?
"It was horrible. I put on the costume and make up and when I looked in the mirror I felt frightened and blemished. I understood then why the Lububvitcher Rebbe had said that children should not be given the roles of evil people to play. I felt what evil could be.
Would you play a role like that again?
Yes, people need to see what evil looks like."
You are nearly two decades older than the other women in the cast. Do you feel like you are treated differently?
"No, not at all."
Yehudit could have settled in another community with more people her age, but she is not attracted to senior citizen activities. She spends her time volunteering for the chevra kadisha, visiting at the hospital, counseling a group of second generation Holocaust Survivors and driving people to Amuka and kevrei Tzadikim in her car. She would like to get married again.
How do you keep yourself looking so young and healthy?
"I swim a couple times a week, walk as much as possible. I'm careful about food and nutrition." But the greatest help in keeping youthful, according to Yehudit, is to learn Chasidus.
Alexandria: We will learn the Greek language.
Alexis: We'll travel freely across the entire world, as we know it.
Andrea: We will take our rightful place in this world.
Alexis: As beautiful cultured women.
Alexandria: Jewish women. Knowledgble about Greek culture.
Alexis: Who bridge the gap between Greek and Jewish society.
Alexandria: The Jewish people will win their place in the world because of us.
Simmy: Why learn Greek? It's so boring and hard.
Bette: We should be learning Hebrew.
Chaya ben Baruch who plays Bette has what she calls a "complicated family". She has a 17-year-old son with mild Cerebral Palsy and three children with Downs Syndrome aged 13, 12 and 7. As far as she's concerned the plays are a success before they've even reached the stage. The camaraderie and joking around at rehearsals is well worth all the effort involved.
"It's a great outlet for me. I call it laugh therapy. "
Chaya rehearses her lines out loud with her kids. "They love to go around the house repeating the lines."
How are you able to find the time to commit to performing in a play?
Chaya answers the question in three words: "A supportive husband."
Chaya is doing an internship to become an Acupuncture Practitioner. The day of this rehearsal was one of the two days she has classes. She returned home at 7pm, made sure the kids had eaten dinner and that the house wasn't too much of a disaster. Her husband who is in kollel, returned home from Maariv and a few minutes later Chaya left, picked up Eliana on her way and arrived on time and ready to rehearse.
What do you think of your character Bette?
"I would never act like Bette does. Not to give is out of character for me. It's fun to be someone different, and to feel what they are like. Acting gets me to see unknown parts of myself and gives me more understanding of other people."
Bette has one line in the play that is the antithesis of everything Chaya believes in.
Bette: Simmy, how are you going to get to the station and get on a chariot by yourself?
Zoe: She could do it.
Bette: No she can't.
"I would never tell me my children that they're unable to do something," Chaya comments. She always believes her children will be able to do things. "My children's biggest handicap is how others limit them," she adds.
She also has similarities with Bette. "I have a rebel personality. You have to, to live in Fairbanks Alaska for 21 years and to adopt two downs syndrome children."
"Everyone take a book and balance it on your head," Danya calls out.
"Be sure they're not sefrei kiddoshim," Yehudit adds.
The living room stage has become the school's gym class. Tikva, Keren Ora and Eliana gracefully balance their books; the other three students don't even try. Chaya bumps into the others knocking the books off their heads.
Miss Schmiss: The purpose of this class is to concentrate on the physical. To achieve excellence, to recreate our bodies.
Alexis: This is a chance to relax our minds from all the heavy intellectual material.
Miss Schmiss: We care very much about our posture. Now watch me take this book, place it upon my head like this and walk very gracefully from one end of the room to the other. Like this. Now I want each girl to try it.
Alexandria: This is a chance to gain energy for both body and mind.
Bette: Oh! Put a lid on it!
Zoe: Bette! Quiet! They'll hear you!
Bette: I don't care anymore. Don't they know what's happening? They're such blue birds of happiness. I can't listen to them.
Simmy: It's not their fault. They don't know what's happening in Jerusalem.
Zoe: Ignore them. Let's not get into trouble. Let's get through this stupid class.
Tikva Cohen is a doctor of Chinese Medicine and a nutritionist. She majored in theater during college and earned money by appearing as an extra in movies and doing stunt work. When Danya first asked her to appear in one of her plays, she would only accept a small part. "I didn't think acting had a place in the life of a frum woman and I didn't want to get too much of a taste of it and end up wanting to act again."
What do you think of your character in this play?
"I chose to be Alexandria. She reminds me of the elite girls in school. She is the opposite of who I am. That's why I love acting, you can express different faces."
Has your opinion changed about acting in the frum world?
"Yes, it's changed. Acting is a way of expressing a message. And I see that we stay within the boundaries of Torah. It's unusual to be able to relay an important religious message and be entertaining at the same time. This play is about how easy it is to go off target and get caught up in gashmius, while thinking that it's for the sake of security. But it's not true. You can keep your values and remain in the minority."
"I love the developmental process of working in a play," says Bracha Rogers, who used to put on plays for her family as a very young child. "You make changes, move some dialog around and everything falls into order." Bracha enjoys her role as Zoe. "It's fun to be a teenager again. Zoe doesn't fit in, she has to find her place, like me."
The actresses are finished running through the play. Eliana scoops her baby up from the couch. If he wakes during rehearsal she puts him in a backpack while she acts. Eliana is from London and didn't have any acting experience before Yehudit asked her to be in a play seven years ago. "I didn't have confidence. After that play I said: 'I'm never doing another play again in my life."
"Danya came up to me and said she needed an actress with a British accent. My husband answered: 'she's doing it.' "
They all settle into chairs and eat from the bowl of snacks that were a prop for scene two.
"We need to practice our timing," Danya says.
"We need a correct script for the prompting, adds Bracha.
"Let's all work this week on memorizing our lines," says Keren Ora.
Keren Ora Van Zomeren studied at drama school in her native Holland. She worked for nine years as an actress in Community Theater in Holland and Belgium. When she came to Israel she thought she had left the world of theater behind. She wasn't expecting to perform in this play. Danya had asked her to help with staging and scenery. She took a part only because there was no one else to fill it.
How do you feel about your character, Alexis?
"Alexis is a good girl, she's ambitious, she wants to be best in her class. There's a thin line between how to behave on the outside and what's in the heart. In the play it takes a while to realize that the so called "bad" girls lack manners but their hearts are in the right place.
"What is Hellenistic? A thin layer of culture that looks beautiful from the outside. Coming from Holland to Israel was a culture shock for me. In Israel people elbow you and yell." However after returning to Europe after three years in Israel, Keren Ora experienced a reverse culture shock. "The Europeans have manners, but their hearts are not involved."
The play reflects this theme. The girls struggle with difficulties, with their emotions and their middot "If everyone on stage was well behaved, there wouldn't be anything to perform. Human beings make mistakes, they miss the boat. That's what audiences identify with. Seeing people struggle, fall down and get back up."
And what does that do for the audience?
"It reflects something in our own lives. It provides relief. I'm not the only one. We can recognize our own struggles in life. Theater is a mirror."
Keren Ora continues: "how a woman lights her candles and sets the table with consciousness; that's her stage. We are all actresses on stage."
What's the difference then between a woman in her home and an actress on stage?
"When you're on stage, there are other people there watching."
If life is our stage, than our audience is Hashem who is always watching us. Only our lives are really more like a rehearsal, where we keep practicing over and over the script we've been given, trying to get it right. Hashem, our ever patient and forgiving director, is always giving us another rehearsal, another chance to rehearse it once again.