Imagine a world before Abraham. A world where no one believed in God but in gods. A world where our hopes and dreams were superimposed on statues made of stone by our own hands.
I'd never wrestled much with such ideas and concepts. That is until the Women's Performance Community of Jerusalem (WPC) went into production with Count the Stars, an original musical performed solely by women that tells the magical story of Abraham and Sarah. The show is magical because it makes the bible story all come true and tangible somehow, adding layers of meaning to an already rich and golden story—something you can hold close to your heart to cherish and savor—something you can think about in shul over the holidays.
And still I wondered.
"Why Abraham," I asked Avital Macales, who in addition to co-writing and producing this show, also plays Abraham in Count the Stars.
Avital Macales: Why write about Avraham?
Varda Epstein: Yeah.
Avital Macales: So, I connect to Avraham. I just do. I connect on the level of waiting for years for something, for a miracle to happen, and struggling with the despair versus the hope. You know how it is, we go through these waves of despair and hope, and despair and hope. And I don't know. I don't know how he did it for decades! I draw hope from that. That's where I connect to Avraham.
That's certainly part of the magic. The way we can connect on a basic human level with the characters of the bible story. And of course, it's also magical because of the caring and supportive chemistry of an all-woman production. You don't see this anywhere else. You just don't. It's something special, the harmony you'll find here. Something remarkable.
As it happens, I'm one of those crazy theater kids who grew up and became a middle-aged housewife, albeit an orthodox Jewish middle-aged housewife who writes for a living. Writing is good, but somehow my yearning for a creative outlet drove me to seek out any and all opportunities to get on a stage. That's not easy to find when you're A) Orthodox, and B) Don't sing in front of men.
That's why it was a godsend (excuse the small g) to hear that the WPC had set up house under the auspices of the Orthodox Union (OU) Israel Center, and was going to put on a show, mostly by and absolutely for women. Sharon Katz and Avital Macales wrote the songs and lyrics while music wiz Amit Ben Atar did the musical arrangements. Shifra Penkower directs, Ellen Macales did the gorgeous choral arrangements and serves as music director, while Judy Kizer directs choreography. Sharon and Avital are the main producers with Bati Katz as associate producer.
I've known all these women for years. They're movers and shakers in my community. And all of them are crazy about the theater, just like me. I had to be part of this. And it seems I only had to ask, and then I was. Am. Part of this.
But it's not just about being stage and performance crazy. It's about being with these women for hours every week as we singers, dancers, and actors take over the available rooms, corridors, stairwells, and elevators of the OU Center. It's getting closer to the women and getting closer to the story of Abraham and Sarah and how what they did still reverberates throughout our world. Not to mention, getting closer to the story in the place where it all went down: Israel.
In the long drives through and from the Gush Etzion area where I live, to rehearsals in Jerusalem, I had a captive interview subject in Sharon Katz, my regular ride to the OU Center. I could ask her anything I liked about the show, and so I did.
Varda Epstein: Do you have a background in music?
Sharon Katz: I have no background in music. My mother, ad meah v'esrim [Hebrew: may she live to 120], loves musicals and so she raised us on musicals, on musical theater and movie musicals. I think it would be true if I told you that I probably have seen every musical that there exists in the world. I just lived and thrive on musicals.
Now since it was my mother who introduced me to musicals, mostly the musicals that I like are like the old musicals. I like the musicals from the 20's and the 30's and black and white musicals, and I like the musicals from pre-WWII. So my musical education is from MGM musicals and RKO musicals and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, that kind of stuff.
Varda Epstein: And so did you always makes up songs in your head?
Sharon Katz: Yes, I always make. . .Children does Savta [Hebrew for Grandma]always make up songs?
Katz Grandchildren: Yeah!
Sharon Katz: I always make up songs. About everything. I make up songs about everything. I make up songs about eating cereal, I make up songs about getting out of bed. I make up songs about walking down the street. It's probably very annoying to them actually now that I think of it. But I just like make up songs.
Actually, you know what? Bati [Associate Producer, Sharon's daughter] told me once, “Eema [Hebrew for Mom] you know why we're happy people?”
I said, no I don't know why? and she said, “Because we sing,” and I think that that's right. Because we love to sing, we just sing anything, we make up songs all the time and that makes us happy.
Varda Epstein: So you'd make up a song and then go to Amit [Ben Atar, musical arrangements] and he'd write it out. How did you remember the songs you'd make up? Did you record yourself?
Sharon Katz: So what I would do is, I would have a phrase that I loved and that it just sang to me, this phrase, and I'd record it. And then I would have another phrase that I loved and recorded. And then I would piece together all my recordings and play them back to myself and sing it as a song.
And it's so funny one time I said to Avital [co-writer Macales]. "Avital, You know when I sing it like all together it really sounds like a song."
And she said, "It is a song."
Wow. That's so amazing. It is a song. So Baruch Hashem [Thank God].
In getting inside the script of Count the Stars, we actors enter a world in which people prayed to self-created extensions and impressions of themselves. We put ourselves in it and try to imagine how that felt: believing you have the power to create something bigger and more powerful than yourself.
As performers, we wonder how they, the people of that time, didn't know they were deluding themselves, buying into an illogical construct. How did they imagine, for instance, that one could make a statue of a fertility god and then pray to it or bring it offerings, and children would somehow follow?
Why on earth, how on earth, could anyone have thought that praying to stone or giving it things could bring a benefit? But they did. It was what was done. And it was done out of a sense that there was something more.
They just didn't know what that something more was. They were taking a stab in the dark. And then it became routine and all the world did it, believed it. Lived it. Breathed it.
It was the culture of the times and they were the ancient sheeple.
Until Abraham, that is.
Now bear with me as I flesh this out, for myself, for you:
Like just about everyone else, Abraham knew there was something else. But he also saw the illogic of praying to something you make with your own hands and imagining it to be all-powerful, more powerful than its maker. It made. No sense.
The something greater, something bigger, had to be much bigger than anyone could conceptualize. Because if they could envisage it, then it couldn't be more powerful than the one to envision it. It had to be greater than anything one could see. It had to be more powerful than any other being, having created all beings and all things.
It was really striking and simple in its logic. But novel for the time. And no doubt, if there'd been in existence, DSM diagnostic codes, Abraham the patriarch would have been well nigh diagnosed, committed, and the key thrown away.
Or at the very least, heavily medicated.
I went to Director Shifra Penkower to see how she went about getting modern performers in touch with this most ancient material.
Varda Epstein: As a director, what is it you hope to get out of the performers? What would you like them to convey?
Shifra Penkower: I want to see something real, something organic. I want them to do justice to the script as the authors wrote it and to be true to source of the material, the bible. One way to get there is to really orient the cast with context, text, and subtext, as we work through the scenes. I want them to be absolutely comfortable with those elements. The challenge is to hit that sweet spot where we can accomplish all these things at once, because these are the things that make a performance truthful.
When you know these things, the themes running through the script, the mechanics of the story, the attendant emotions, it makes it possible to get into character in the most natural way possible to tell the important story we're aiming to tell here.
In my High Holiday prayer book I read that God called Abraham "beloved" because it was Abraham who taught others to see God as beloved and this was a new and radical idea for the times. Love God? Who was this Abraham? How was he able to see what no one saw? How was he able to fight against groupthink to strive for truth?
Who knew just how brave was Abraham to buck the tides of the prevailing culture? Who imagined the hot dusty journey with no iced drinks in a time before Coca Cola was in every third world corner of the earth? The strength of Abraham's charisma must have been great, for he gathered souls who might have thought the man was crazy, hearing voices, and sending them this way and that in the desert.
And yet Abraham was just a man. A man whose wife struggled and suffered with infertility, a man who had no heir to the vast spiritual wealth he inherited. Above all, he loved and trusted in God.
Back to Shifra I went.
Varda Epstein: How hard is it for you to get the actors to see it all as it was, to feel what they felt, feel those feelings?
Shifra Penkower: My background as actor, artist and AP English student has been a help here. I'm analytical, I'm visual, I'm passionate. I know what it's like to be in a scene and feel lost until a motive is revealed, a new nuance is discovered in the text, or just the right sort of staging adjustment is executed and then, whammo, it all falls into place.
I try to give our performers the right balance of instruction and permission to experiment. With that sort of direction and trust, I think we succeed in conveying the emotional roller-coaster of Avraham and Sara's journey. It's a universal story, really. Something individuals of all ages, races, and religions have experienced.
Find me a community where people haven't endured childlessness, have never felt "other" in some social context, a place where people are unfamiliar with the struggles of parenting, or haven't doubted themselves at some point in their lives. Find a community where no one has ever celebrated a personal victory, felt the joy of having a baby, or bravely stood up for something they believe in. This musical covers all of those very human themes.
There is so much beauty and meaning in there, pain and triumph, sometimes I get emotional just planning out a scene. Throw in those heavenly harmonies—I get choked up when hearing certain chords—it's transcendent. Audiences need to see and hear this for themselves. They really should.
The themes: feeling "other," wrestling with infertility; standing up for moral truths; they are all there from the time the curtain rises on Count the Stars. The show opens with Abraham appearing before a panel of judges as a contestant on Mesopotamian Idol. He must prove his God rocks above all. "An invisible and silent god?" laugh the judges, "Your father is Terach. He can make any god you want. And you choose an invisible God of nothing?? You are nothing." and with that Abraham and his family are run out of town, to begin their now famous journey.
The right notes are hit, both literally and figuratively, as the key figures in this story explore their characters onstage. A young Michal Moore playing Lot, nephew of Abraham, is somehow more nuanced, more human, than any of us would have ever expected. The concepts Abraham and Sarah attempt to impress on Lot are new and odd, even if today, it seems these concepts were always a part of our lives:
Sarah: Imagine a whole community that respects each other’s property.
Lot: But then, how will we survive? We’ll be the only people in the world that think that way. Abraham: Lot, even if we stand alone in the world, we are standing in the right place.
Lot: I—I just don’t know…
We can see it. Lot is not evil. Only conflicted.
The same is obviously true of the Canaanites brushing up against Abraham's version of godliness in Just One Word, a song about, um, circumcision. "These laws of your God are so strange," they sing. "Why make a body then change it?"
A song about circumcision! For the stage. And you better believe it: circumcision is comic GOLD. Because this show is not just a chance to get up on stage and explore new ideas. It's also fun. Fun for the actresses delving into their roles, and fun for the audience to watch from afar. They will be hard-pressed to keep from joining their sisters onstage.
It's that kind of show.
It's not all fun and satire. Some scenes in Count the Stars will make the gooseflesh creep up your arms, such as when Michal Ekebom's eerie angel voice signals the end of N'eila. This is the Yiddish-inflected solo song in which Abraham (played by co-writer/co-producer and able mezzo soprano Avital Macales) begs God not to destroy Sodom and manages to save only (most of) Lot's family. You can feel death in the air and danger.
But there is also timeless love here in Count the Stars as we witness the fathomless love between Abraham and Sarah (played by sparkling soprano Sarah Covey Lopez), and how it never dims with age. The interplay between Macales' commanding yet mellifluous and convincing Abraham and Lopez's soft and somehow serious Sarah is a stunning sight to behold. Lopez conveys so much with an upturned eyebrow and a tilt of the head, and the voices of the two meld and soar sweetly as they remember that "Somewhere inside of us, there's a young dreamy couple, still wrapped in stardust."
We are rooting for them still when we see the entire world laugh for this couple, now grown aged and worn, but with a baby in their arms, at last. "God has given me laughter. God has gathered the laughter of the world and bundled it, into my arms. . . And all the world will laugh for me. At ninety years I hear my baby's voice," sings Sarah, in a voice filled with wonder. And we all just melt to watch her again and again, at every rehearsal, twice a week.
The goose bumps, the melting feelings, the questions about Abraham and about life and morality and the gods versus the one true God are all about us now as we gear up to opening night. It only gets better. And on the stage, it will be a triumph, God willing, the likes of which Jerusalem has never seen.
This show has everything. And you must see it.
Only in Jerusalem.
Only for women.
COUNT THE STARS – November 28 & 30, December 4 & 6 – in the Gerard Behar Theatre, Jerusalem, Israel. Tickets: tixwise.co.il/he/countthestars, 052-3863987, 054-4263561, 050-2861242
Photo Credits Rebecca Kowalsky, Images through Time, http://www.imagesthroughtime.com