Mothers, fathers, children, friends…when we see each other for what is below any label, it bridges us, allows human beings to see a person behind one they would hate when they only look at the cover. Yet Jews through the ages have been forced to hide who they are, to pray in secret and pretend to be like everyone else in public, to denounce their Judaism and have to live with self-hatred in their souls, and even then, as in the Holocaust, be killed anyway for the blood in their veins. At the time of the Golden age of Spain, anyone who was not part of the church was killed or expelled. Jews who wanted to stay in the only home they had known were forced to become outward Christians, and even then were still suspect, or were called “marranos”, Spanish for pig.
Tomorrow (November 11), a play about the Jews of the Spanish Inquisition is opening in Jerusalem. That may leave you wondering, “What? How can you do a play on the Spanish Inquisition??” But the material is handled so well, it gives you a deeper understanding and a feeling of how it was at the time, and yet covers the torture and frightening scenes in a way that is not graphic, so girls as young as 10 could both be part of the show and could watch it, while managing to convey the full content to adults who, unfortunately, know what happened then.
The haunting music of the play hit me from the first moment I heard it, at a rehearsal. The room (not yet in the theatre, the cast was practicing in the OU center) was crowded and busy, with actresses running around looking for props, clothing. Yet when the first notes of the first song started, and ladies/girls in white started a beautiful flowing dance set in an underground synagogue, the rest of the action in the room faded out as I was captivated by the music and dancing. This wasn’t my first introduction to the show, as I was pleased to be asked to a read-through back in May and joined the cast with my daughter to help at a prop night during the summer. But when I said I would like to see a rehearsal, the script writers and producers generously invited me to come and take notes as I liked. My thoughts on the opening were: “chaos, chaos, and then music, two rows of women and girls in white…haunting music and a chorus of voices that makes you shiver… a nervous ‘have you locked the doors?’…an apology to G-d for only serving Him in secret…it is a Yom Kippur scene, so soon after Yom Kippur (this was just after the holidays)…and again chaos as the people scatter for their lives…”
So soon after Yom Kippur, which was just two days after our friend, neighbor and soldier for justice for the Jewish people was murdered here, in our own country, and now, I am writing this too soon after a non-hidden shul in America was assaulted, and mothers, brothers, grandmothers and fathers were killed for our faith. In America, the land of the free. On Shabbos, as they were having a brit for a baby, bringing a new soul into the covenant of our people. In what I recently learned was literally Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, the man who taught my generation about kindness and caring and acceptance of others. In a regular shul, now, not hundreds of years ago, people again had to scatter and run for their lives.
When I watch Hidden, which I saw grow from words on a page, to props and costumes (which are *spectacular*), to, this week at last, a dress rehearsal on stage with makeup and lighting, I am repeatedly captivated by the passion the actresses put into their lines, as they let the audience see the undercurrent of their thoughts even while they try to pretend for the Inquisitors.
Every actress is in character and enjoying it. They play their parts so well, the look of disgust on the “Inquisitor’s” face seems genuine when saying, “But your ancestors were Jews.” The work that has gone into this production floors me, from start to finish. The effort in props and costumes, the time spent learning lines, songs and dances. The choral director, Ellen Macales, has spent hours working with the cast on getting the notes just right, as well as being involved with writing some of the music. Speaking of notes, the voices of the cast are beautiful and moving. The choreography is amazing, especially during the children’s dance. Judy Kizer, the director of choreography, has been involved in teaching dance for over 30 years. She has done a beautiful job with all the dancers, and is an integral part of bringing the show to life. The music I mentioned earlier, by turns Jewish, Church-like, and Spanish, is another ingredient that stays with me when I think about what makes this a most powerful show. The direction by Shifra Penkower, who is so dedicated and continues to put in so much effort, has helped form the backbone of what keeps our eyes glued to the stage. And finally, although this actually came first with over a year’s worth of work before auditions could even begin, the adaptation of a book into this play with all original music by Sharon Dobuler Katz and Avital Macales, their second collaboration, brings the characters to life. The confusion about living dual lives that the children express in “Where do I belong,” the parents arguing over whether to leave Spain, the worry about who might overhear their Torah studies, and the feeling of fear yet quiet pride of heritage, fighting to teach and pass along our history, while at the same time soemhow managing to include a few moments of light-hearted humor, takes skill and heart, intelligence and creativity. The final product, this play which is the result of the hard work of all of these people as well as the behind the scenes hard work of preparation, stage management, actor assistance, and even babysitting, is not to be missed. I was unable to speak with many of the actresses and staff (they are so busy during rehearsal!), but I understand that the main lead couple are both olim from the US, while others have been in Israel for a long time, you can hear different accents as well; the diverse backgrounds show how Jews are a family from around the world. Overall, the cast seems to feel blessed to be part of the play, as Judy told me about herself (and as I feel about my own involvement), and it shows.
One theme that runs through the show is remembering who you are; young Diego tries hard during his time in the monastery to say Shema, singing to himself what he has learned in his home with his hidden rabbi, “Don’t forget who you are,” but in the end, sadly, gives in to those around him and accepts that the church is where he belongs. When older Diego succeeds in obtaining a position of power in the church, he starts to be tormented by memories, and has a hard time torturing prisoners, unlike the other Inquisitors, who seem to relish this power. When he starts to question what they are doing, again he is told: “Don’t forget who you are,” but ironically this time it refers to him being part of the church.
When the prisoners sing “Tell them that we mattered, tell them we were friends, tell them we believed till the very end,” followed by the Auto-Da-Fe, where our people were burned at the stake, and then they sing/pray “Until when, oh Lord, until when must we suffer in your name?” my thoughts go again to the congregation that just lost 11 people to murder, to Jews who continue to be beaten and killed just for being Jewish, all over the world. [Today is exactly 80 years since Krystalnacht, one more tragedy that was done to our people for being Jewish.]
I only learned now, from the show, that this terrible, awful attempt to ‘cleanse Spain of heretics’ didn’t happen hundreds of years ago, so we could say to ourselves, oh well, it was a long time ago; no, the Inquisition only ended after nearly 350 years, just in the 1800’s. Not long after that came the next attempt to find a “Final Solution to the Jewish problem”, the Holocaust. It wasn’t final, and we are still here. We rebuild, and rebuild, and work towards a better future. Yet even the excuse of something happening “long ago” is no excuse at all for forgetting about it; anti-semitism is on the rise again, or never really ended, and “remembering who we are” is part of what we can do to fight back. We do not have to look far to find the meaning behind “Hidden”; it is right in front of us. Remember who you are, fight to protect people, and be true to yourselves.
The beautiful, upbeat ending raises our hearts and minds to Jerusalem. While it doesn’t take away the pain of what our people have suffered, and continue to endure, we are aware that we, the audience, are finally able to live the dream of return, while those in the past could only hope for a place of refuge. Even while we remember those who didn’t make it through past persecution, and those who continue to be forced to give their lives for a label of Jew, we know: we are not yet at peace, but we are here, able to marry and raise our children in the open as Jewish people, living and singing in our land, in our holy city of Jerusalem.
Here is a link for tickets; I hope it is not all sold out! I do not get anything from this at all, other than hoping many more will be able to take part in a beautiful and meaningful production. I hope we can all continue to enjoy many more projects by this amazing and talented staff and cast.