July 2, 2021

After coronavirus, theater returns music to the lives of Israelis

By Barbara Sofer

When the variants of the coronavirus are no longer newsworthy, will we remember the variations of the coronavirus rules? Will we recall the feeling the first time we invited our families back for dinner, the first time we saw a movie on a big screen, the first time we stepped into a plane?

I haven’t done either of the last two, but I can – at least for now – remember the thrill of returning to an auditorium. I appreciated the online concerts during the lockdowns, but the return of live music – now limited again by our Jewish mourning period for the two lost ancient Temples – is a spiritual boon.

The first show I saw after the long hiatus was the Hebrew University’s Hillel Theater Workshop’s production of Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida. For the last decade, I have attended these English-language Broadway musicals on Mount Scopus with a contingent of sabra children and grandchildren who live far from Manhattan and the West End of London. Les Miserables, The Sound of Music and Fiddler on the Roof – we saw them all. Hence I was surprised and delighted to get a notice from Director Michael Berl that the show would go on. Only masked Green Pass holders could attend. Nor could I order favorite front-row seats because they would be too close to the unmasked singers on stage.

I’ve seen Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida several times, notably in those long-ago times when horses and elephants were allowed on stage. Unfamiliar with the John-Rice version, I was entranced by the music performed by Shelly Binman and his band. The Israeli shows also have local nuances. For Fiddler, legendary actor Chaim Topol was in the audience! Playing Aida was Shani Wahrman, who drills kids on irregular verbs and syntax in her day job in Kfar Saba. I loved it that her high school students with Green Passes came to applaud their teacher as the Nubian princess playing opposite her real-life hi-tech husband Alon Aviv.

But here’s the mystery. How could the actors have rehearsed? Not on Zoom, according to Berl, they met in small groups outdoors. The entire cast only could get together a month before opening night. It didn’t show.

 The John-Rice Aida tweaks the plot to make it less tragic which also suits me after these somber days in which we need to consciously aim at raising our spirits.

This makes me leapfrog to the recent performance of that theater company aptly called Raise Your Spirits, celebrating its twentieth anniversary of performances with the original musical Rebecca. There I was unmasked. Front row. Granddaughter Shani, 10, by my side.

Shani is studying voice, but I’m also happy to expose my granddaughters to this musical niche of religiously observant girls and women – among them grandmothers performing in an original musical. I want her – and her sisters and cousins before her – to see the Torah chapters with their nuanced commentaries come alive on stage.

Lovely Sarah Zier Wiener, formerly from Arizona, now in Moshav Matityahu, plays matriarch Rebecca. But a surprise scene-stealer is Deena Lawi of Neve Daniel in Gush Etzion as Esau. This grandmother, a single mom of five and grandmother of eight according to the playbill, has recovered from COVID-19 and a broken foot to make the usually demonized twin son of Rebecca, sympathetic. An unexpected spirit-lifter.

Writers Toby Klein Greenwald and Tamar Kamins completed the script by phone and email, held auditions by video clips, and rehearsed by Zoom. The final rehearsals by Zoom took place during Operation Guardian of the Walls, with one ear tuned to the warning sirens.

Raise Your Spirits came together in the bleak years of the Second Intifada. Founding and artistic Director Klein Greenwald, also a grandmother, reminds me of the bullet-proof buses of women coming to see their first all-women’s performance of Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors. More than 50,000 women have seen their productions which have included my all-time favorite Mikve the Musical.

Which brings me to another issue. Raise Your Spirits is an all-women’s show for an all-women’s audience. I’m nervous about writing this, because of the strong calls to make everything gender-free, non-binary, in a woke new world. But for the Orthodox Jewish women who out of modesty don’t sing or perform before men, such efforts free unrevealed talents, empower and allow elucidation of women’s quandaries and sensibilities. I want to go on record as supporting this women’s genre.

The day after seeing Rebecca is Shani’s end-of-the-year performance of the students’ Jerusalem voice teacher Yael Nachliel, whose last name means a wagtail songbird. She, too, has continued teaching throughout the year and her students have increased – with more young people seeking to improve their vocal skills. Here, my husband and I were seated outdoors in a makeshift amphitheater between Jerusalem apartment blocks.

 One mom brought perfectly-sliced watermelon, and bowls of peanuts which my husband and I skipped, still uneasy about sharing finger food. Fifteen students of varying ages bravely sang their solos. Of course, like any grandparent at children’s performance, I was eager to hear my own grandchild. Shani was the 13th to sing. Truth is, I loved hearing all the children, excellent, a tribute to their teacher and to the resilience of these kids who have had such a tough school year. Still, I noticed a trend. The songs the children chose to perform had a melancholy undertone, reminding me that you can’t just wave away the experience of last year when the stage lights come back on. I wish I had a magic wand to wave over the school children to tell them that they did okay struggling with Zoom and quarantines and uncertainty – long months with no classrooms or youth movements. One of my competent junior-high grandchildren said that her entire class burst out in tears when sitting for a rigorous test on material they had supposedly learned on Zoom. How I wish the school system had used our Israeli creativity and involved our talented dramatists and artists in programs that would have nurtured their souls and empowered their voices.

The song Shani sang (beautifully, of course) keeps going around in my head. It’s a cover of a popular new song by Hanan Ben Ari. Here’s a rough translation of the refrain: I also dream like Joseph. I was also thrown in the pit. But the wheel rotates and costumes change. We can make (of our experiences) a psalm.”