Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

A thousand and one sheitls

Haredi women adapt The King and I to their religious sensibilities, in a high-octane, stellar performance with soul
Torah Crown, Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Alright, I’m exaggerating. Some of the thousand women who filled to capacity the largest auditorium at the Jerusalem Theater on the first Monday night in January wore tichels or snoods. And then there were the unmarried women, and the girls below marriageable age. But it’s no exaggeration to say that almost everyone in the “ladies and girls only” audience who’d come to watch “Siam and I,” this year’s offering from Regal Productions, was already, or hoped one day to be, covering her hair.

Regal Productions, based in Ramat Beit Shemesh, was founded by Chayalle Regal of Golders Green as musical theater company for (mainly Anglo) Haredi women and girls. Everyone involved, from the ticket sellers through the set designers to the stars, is Haredi and female. Men and boys may not participate or even attend performances, which may explain why you haven’t seen it advertised. Profits go to Zir Chemed, a charity that supports couples dealing with infertility.

If an image is forming in your mind about what these shows are like, banish it! I’ve been to enough Broadway and West End shows to know that this was no pale imitation. The sets, costumes and lighting were breathtaking. The actresses, singers, dancers and gymnasts — yes, the dancing was high-octane — were stellar. Broadway and West End musicals can seem, at least to me, a little slick and plastic. “Siam and I” — in more ways than one had — soul.

What makes all this beyond impressive is that most of the women involved have never been to a musical theater production in their lives (that goes for many women in the audience too, though one of our party of seven had seen Les Mis in New York).  How does Regal Productions manage to pull it off?

To an extent, they depend on baalei teshuva, the newly religious. Some cast and crew members started their lives outside the Haredi world and “returned” to ultra-Orthodox Judaism, bringing with them skills and professional experience they would not otherwise have acquired. Haredi women born and bred don’t, as a rule, have opportunities to act, dance and sing sufficient to justify the expense of serious lessons. More than that, the very notion of performance sits uneasily with the sense of female modesty so highly valued by Haredim. Excluding men addresses the main problem, but it probably wouldn’t satisfy the generally stricter Israeli-born Haredi community.

Even if baalei teshuva help to set the goal-posts for Regal Productions, their astoundingly high standards owe more to boundless imagination, creativity, innate talent, enthusiasm and a massive amount of very hard work. We speculated during the interval that rehearsals for next year’s show would begin the minute the cast party ended, a bit like banging the first nail into the sukkah at the end of Yom Kippur. In the meantime, they’ll be taking the show on the road. London and Antwerp are regular destinations; to cut down on expenses, cast members and crew apparently divide up the set and costumes between them and carry it in their luggage.

The musical itself has a complex genealogy. It began with a memoir written by Anna Leonowens, a woman of Anglo-Indian descent who pretended to be the Welsh widow of a British army officer and served as a governess to the children of the King of Siam in the 1860s. The memoir inspired a novel, “Anna and the King of Siam,” published in 1944 by Margaret Landon. The novel in turn inspired theatrical business manager Fannie Holtzmann, in search of a role for her star, Gertrude Lawrence, to convince Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II to write the musical that became the award-winning “The King and I.” Several film versions of the musical followed, plus “Anna and the King,” a film based on the 1944 novel.

Unsurprisingly, Hollywood played up the romance in its versions of “The King and I.” Equally unsurprisingly, the Regal Productions version played it down, preferring instead to bring some Haredi hashkafa (religious outlook) to the proceedings. Here are three examples.

  1. When the new governess asks the king’s Haredi-sized brood to name their favorite colours, they look mystified. But we all like gold, they explain. Anna teaches them a song about colors, signifying each child’s capacity to express his or her unique individuality while staying squarely within the fold. The song resurfaces from time to time as the action unfolds, including at the end when the children learn that Anna’s leaving and fear that their colors are about to fade and disappear. They don’t.
  2. In the closing scene, Anna tells her own children that it’s time to take the boat back to England. This has been exciting, she explains, but we’re different from them. We’ll never be Siamese and they’ll never be British. We can’t find out who we really are until we “return”‘ to where we came from.
  3. The young crown prince, who is supposed to stay within the confines of the palace grounds, defies the warnings of the king’s personal advisor (played to comic perfection by my niece’s niece!) and comes down to the port to wave them off. We know that he’ll resist any temptation he might encounter there, returning safely home to the strict royal protocol he was born to observe.

Margaret Landon’s novel, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, and the films they inspired share at least one thing in common — the word “king” in their titles. Regal Productions called their show “Siam and I,” omitting the word “king’.’  Why? I couldn’t resist speculating in light of a well-known genre of midrash called mashal l’melech, the “parable of the king.” Here’s an example; it addresses the world’s first murder:

Shimon ben Yochai said “This is a difficult thing to express, impossible to utter plainly: It is like two athletes standing and wrestling before the king. Had the king wanted to separate them, he could have done so. But the king did not wish to separate them. One overwhelmed his partner and killed him. He cried out [as he was dying], ‘Who will bring my case before the king?’ Thus, The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10).

Just as the human king (probably a Roman emperor, given his taste in entertainment) could have separated the two wrestlers if he’d wanted, so God could have separated Cain and Abel. In fact, had it not been for the human king, the wrestlers wouldn’t have been wrestling in the first place. The same could be said for God and Cain and Abel. For the rabbinic authors of these parables, speaking about a “king of flesh and blood” was a way of thinking through challenging theological questions, such as how God, the King of Kings, can be both a judge (“the voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground”) and possibly implicated in the crime (He caused Cain to be jealous of Abel).

Soon after the World War I, S.Y. Agnon wrote that now that the crowns of kings languished in museums with no one to visit them, the “parable of the king” would lose its power. Agnon was mistaken about the museums. In 1972, one and a half million flocked to the British Museum to see the treasures of an Egyptian king. Last year, “Herod” was the Israel Museum’s most popular exhibition ever, and now “Hadrian” is drawing the crowds. Beyond that, half the world follows every life-cycle event, and even wardrobe change, of Britain’s royal family.

Kings and their crowns have not lost their luster. But was Agnon also wrong about the demise of the parable of the king? Perhaps. Regal Productions had no trouble adapting “The King and I” to fit Haredi values (no love interest, for example, and no “avodah zarah” — idolatry — and adding a dose of Haredi hashkafa). But the notion that the King of Siam might be seen as the singing analogy of the King of Kings would have been beyond the pale. Is it possible that, paradoxically, by taking the “king” out of “The King and I,” Regal Productions were showing that the parable of the king has not lost its power?

About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.