I didn’t feel much like going out last night. The last thing I wanted to do was indulge in escapism. I just wanted to stay at home and monitor the war from my personal computer, where I receive email alert after email alert of every siren and every rocket in the South, but a promise is a promise.
I had promised to be an usher at the opening night performance for a revival of Esther and the Secrets in the King’s Court by the Raise Your Spirits Theatre troupe (RYS). I’d made that promise before this latest escalation of missile attacks on Southern Israel and the subsequent call up of my (newly engaged to be married) son. There was no bowing out of this commitment.
Raise Your Spirits is not just a bunch of theater-crazy women with pretensions to fame. Raise Your Spirits is about Sistah Power.
Raise Your Spirits is a response to the constant bombardment of my people on every front in Israel whether it is on the roads in our cars and buses, or in our homes and bomb shelters. It is a thumbing of the nose to that which would extinguish us. It’s our insistence on remaining strong and invincible in the face of world censure and condemnation. It’s our proud example to the world in the face of the lies and distortions of Hamas and of the mainstream media: CNN and others of that ilk.
Against this background, Raise Your Spirits was born in 2001, when an Efrat wife and mother, Sarah Blaustein, and a young girl who’d hitched a ride with her, Esther Alvan, were killed in a drive-by shooting on their way to Jerusalem. Sarah was on her way to visit the Western Wall.
Actually, there were many terrible events that year. It was a bad, bad year.
One woman in our Efrat community, Sharon Katz, in a surreal incarnation of some Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland hybrid responded by saying, “Let’s put on a show!”
A little creepy? Maybe. But you know what? She saved us. Along with director Toby Klein Greenwald and then choreographer Arlene Chertoff, who early on, threw in their lot with Sharon to turn Raise Your Spirits into something huge, beyond what any of us ever expected. We put on musicals, by and for women only.
The musicals are, in the main, about classic Jewish heroines: Esther, Ruth, Naomi, Yael, and Deborah. The scores and scripts are superlative and the shows have HEART. The women do their darnedest to give you a good show. They spend hours and hours of their time, working very hard on their labor of love and the audiences cannot help but respond to their fervor.
My first time with Raise Your Spirits was during the troupe’s previous production: JUDGE! The Song of Devora, in which I played Hever the Kenite. I got to brandish a plastic sword and wear facial hear. But more than that, I gained the largest, warmest sisterhood ever by joining that troupe. They are my Sistahs.
When I went backstage last night before the performance, I was surrounded by women who seemed, no WERE, ecstatic to see me. Maybe it was just the adrenaline that pervades the air before a performance, but I felt embraced, LOVED. And that is something that is rare in my life.
I work at home and I can become somewhat insular and not see people for days on end. I have many virtual friends, but not so many in-the-flesh friends. Or so I thought until last night.
That was the main reason I tried out for the previous show. I wanted to experience that sisterhood. And now I have it for life. I know these women will always be my sisters. This is something that only women have between them and it is a mightily good and beautiful thing.
But let’s talk about the show.
Our very capable RYS director, Toby Klein Greenwald, came onstage,looking elegant and professional, for her introductory remarks. “Turn off your cellphones [blah, blah, blah], thank you to so-and-so [blah, blah, blah],” and then a chill came over me when Toby succinctly, in Hebrew and English, outlined the procedure for what the audience should do if a siren goes off.
Clearly, this was not just another amateur hour women’s musical. This had been going on for eleven years. Performances go on NO MATTER WHAT. Sometimes the pain and the sorrow are unbearable. Still, the women go onstage, insisting that the enemy will not prevail over our ability to carry on as usual, or as in the case of RYS, to carry on with superlative talent and beauty.
Then, as is the custom of RYS, the youngest cast member read out a psalm for our soldiers. I said my son’s name silently, hoping that my love and the love of my sisters would find its way to him, offering him some measure of mercy and protection.
Then it was curtain time, pure delight. The air was filled with splendid sweet female voices ringing out in gorgeous harmony, transforming the notes of a lush and imaginative music score (written by Rivka Epstein Hattin; with musical arrangements by Paul Salter, Amit Ben Atar, and Mitch Clyman; and with choral arrangements by Gayle Berman) to sound. The show was an amalgam of sparkling performances and a whirlwind of color, light, sound, drama, humor, and dance. The story was a timeless one: on the brink of extinction, the Jews are saved by a series of miraculous “accidents,” by dint of the purity of purpose displayed by a lovely heroine, Esther.
I admit that I am not prone to tears or displays of emotion. It is the Kalte Litvak* in me, who saves expression for what you read here in my texts. But I confess that last night, there were times I felt the tears welling up and threatening to spill over. The first time was in response to these lyrics (written by Sharon Katz with co-lyricists Arlene Chertoff and Toby Klein Greenwald) from Echoes of Jerusalem:
“To Jerusalem, to Jerusalem
We will return
Jerusalem will one day rise again
Its streets will fill with joy and song
Our people will rejoice in glory
And they’ll walk there free and strong”
“Yes!” I thought. “We HAVE returned to Jerusalem.”
But are we free?” I wondered.
“But are we free?” I wondered. “What kind of freedom do we own when one million civilians are living under a constant barrage of rockets? Will we EVER be free? What will it TAKE to be free, to PREVAIL?”
As it turns out, what it took in Persia, all those centuries ago, was an Esther with the rich voice of an angel as played by Raise Your Spirits’ lovely ingénue Avital Macales. Narrator Darius (Yael Valier) posits the age-old dilemma: “Will the king still love her when he’s heard she’s a Jew?”
And I thought to myself: “Will the world ever accept our right to exist—our right to our land? Will the world ever tolerate the existence of the Jewish people in their midst?”
Sisterhood Will Triumph
During the standing ovation and the singing of our national anthem Hatikvah, followed by Ani Maamin as an expression of Jewish faith, I knew that this was what counted: what was real. This expression of unity and sisterhood would triumph over all, by creating a force of goodness in the world too great for anyone, anywhere to eradicate. This goodness would remain on earth, embodied by our future generations, long after the women of Raise Your Spirits are but a memory, long after this raging battle to help the suffering people of Southern Israel has come to its conclusion.
Most of what we do is ephemeral. But the good deeds we create are tangible and last forever.
Go see Esther, if you can. It’s a good deed: a mitzvah.
For ticket information, see: http://www.raiseyourspirits.org/tickets.html
*Cold Lithuanian Jew