When Art Mirrors Life: Community Theater in the Judean Hills

When Art Mirrors Life: Community Theater in the Judean Hills
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How a small community theater group in the Jerusalem hills provides a nexus of belonging, growth and acceptance for a diverse group of women.

In one small amateur dramatics troupe in Israel’s Jerusalem hills, a diverse group of Jewish women bonded together through a show about the alienation, otherness, and eventual acceptance of a woman who became the archetype for transition to a new culture – biblical Ruth the Moabite, who followed her mother-in-law Naomi to the land of Israel, weathering disapproval and exclusion before she was accepted as a bride for Boaz, a local leader. The ‘Raise Your Spirits’ Theater Group used her story of exclusion and eventual inclusion to create an exemplary multi-faceted tool for acceptance and welcome.

When Community Theater Builds a Community

Director and co-scriptwriter Toby Klein Greenwald is frank about using the show ‘Ruth and Naomi in the Fields of Bethlehem’ as a vehicle for community-building. Greenwald shares her desire to include a more diverse cast and crew than the homogenous National-Religious local population of Efrat and the Etzion bloc, which had previously made up the Raise Your Spirits theater group.

Ruth’s story is a story about the acceptance of ‘the other’, and we have exemplified that by including in our cast actresses not only from Gush Etzion,” says Greenwald. “Our cast includes women with diverse backgrounds, including ba’alot teshuva (‘returnees’ to Judaism), and a choreographer who is a righteous convert”.

The theater group now includes women living in the hareidi (ultra-orthodox) town of Beitar Illit, mixed-secular Nes Harim, and non-orthodox girls from the Yehuda region, alongside the original cast and crew from the settler communities of the Etzion bloc.

Judging by the response of said cast and crew, she has succeeded. Mother and businesswoman Rachel Moore plays Naomi. She speaks of the unique experience of being involved in this production.

"[It’s] Community Theater with a big capital C. There is a real emphasis on community, and that impacts the experience in many ways.”

Moore’s on-stage daughter-in-law Audelia Zagoury, playing the part of Ruth agrees, telling me that having grown up in a secular Jewish family in Morocco, she had never been part of a community like this.

"This community which I have only discovered in the last year and a half is the community with which I have bonded the most strongly.”

The Unique Impact of Immigrant Theater

The impact of ‘Ruth and Naomi’ stretches beyond community building. The majority of the cast and crew are themselves immigrants, who have also experienced living in a new land where they are unfamiliar with social norms and expectations. Bringing alive the story of Ruth and Naomi’s quest for inclusion tapped into their own feelings of otherness, while the process of the show itself brought them all inside the golden circle of community.

Otherness and the Search for Acceptance

Both the lead parts are played by women who personally experienced difficult, but different, immigrant processes. Audelia Zagoury describes her deep sense of identification with her role.

"Ruth arrives from a strange land to the Land of Israel, coming to it with joy and hope, but she receives only harshness because she is a Moabite. But she does not despair.”

Zagoury lived through something of Ruth’s feelings of social isolation and financial crisis, thanks both to her sense of otherness as a Jewish child in Morocco, and her struggle as an immigrant Sephardi girl after her aliyah to Israel at the age of 12.

“In Morocco, despite all the abundance that there was, I always knew that I didn’t belong. But despite my aspirations, my aliyah was far from simple, particularly financially and socially … This lack of connection continued to haunt me.”

Through the story of Ruth, the young immigrant finally found acceptance, welcome and a home.

You Can Never Go Home Again

Rachel Moore, whose off-stage life is dominated by her role as mother and consultant to a successful communications company, was impacted more deeply by her part as Naomi than by any role she has played in the past. Moore reminds me that biblical Naomi was an immigrant twice over: Once when she abandoned her community in the land of Israel for Moab during a time of famine, and then a second time when she returned many years later, changed by her time in Moab and finding that her land had also changed. Moore has also been an immigrant twice, having successfully made aliyah to Israel only to be forced to leave it again for 12 long years before she, like Naomi, could return to a society which had changed a lot in her absence.

“No one really understood how much I identify personally with Naomi and her story when I was cast. Naomi's pain and distress in the story are so real for me, that it is actually quite raw and exhausting”.

Her reasons for leaving were nothing like Naomi’s, but Moore felt a mirror of Naomi’s sadness and hope when she finally returned.

A Leap of Faith Into Welcoming Arms

Because the show is about Judaism’s most famous convert, Greenwald was delighted to include Valentina (now Emuna Bracha) Recchia. Recchia is an Italian-born dancer, actress and writer, who moved away from the Catholicism of her childhood and the theater career of her young adulthood in order to move to Israel and convert to Orthodox Judaism, actually completing her conversion during the show’s rehearsal period.

Recchia’s deep inclusion in this community theater group is another beautiful example of the heart overcoming barriers of language. Recchia is one of the show’s chief choreographers, but she speaks almost no Hebrew and very little English, while no one in the theater group speaks Italian. Verbal communication between choreographer and cast was limited to the one member who spoke some Spanish, and the translate app on various smartphones. Despite this, Recchia succeeded in teaching a series of emotional dances and becoming a beloved, vital member of the RYS community.

Impact on the Audience

The audience couldn’t fail to be affected by this heartfelt showpacked full of rousing dance numbers alongside pensive songs. Most of them are also immigrants from English-speaking countries, or children of immigrant parents who grew up with roots in two cultures. They know Ruth’s bittersweet journey from deep within, also living with one foot in the land of Israel and one foot in the land of their birth.

Watching ‘Ruth and Naomi’ unfold late on a Thursday night, caught up in the perfectly portrayed, emotional scenes on stage, I found myself struck by the broad inclusiveness of the storyline. Above all, it’s a universal story of the fear and uncertainty of change, the anxiety of being a stranger, and the joy of acceptance.

“I think that everyone, at some point in their life, will find themselves on the side of being ‘The Other’ and, conversely, find themselves on the side of being the one who has to accept ‘The Other’. It is a part of life.”

Thus says Greenwald about the driving message of her show. It’s certainly a message that everyone can relate to, and for one night, the diverse cast and crew of Raise Your Spirits Theater invite you to join with them to feel the struggle and the joy of acceptance, in the footsteps of Ruth and Naomi.

The show runs in the Etzion bloc and in Jerusalem until February 26th. Purchase tickets online here.

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