December 2, 2009
Pico and 42nd Street
Of the many quirks of the Orthodox tradition, there are two that are especially quirky to the average onlooker. One of them is well known: having a mechitzah that separates men from women during prayer services.
The other, not as well known, is the prohibition against men listening to women singing, commonly known as kol isha. There are many levels and variations to this prohibition, but the principle is the same: Listening or watching a woman sing and “perform” might arouse impure thoughts in a man, and that is not in keeping with the modesty preached by the Orthodox tradition.
This is all well and good, but now, what happens if you’re an Orthodox woman who is bursting to unleash your creative energies? If, for example, you’d love nothing more than to get up on stage and perform a Broadway musical without having to worry about violating a religious prohibition?
Margy Horowitz was that woman five years ago: an Orthodox mother, housewife and piano teacher who longed to rekindle her childhood love for music and theater.
So what did she do? With the help of other Orthodox women, including co-founder Linda Freedman, she founded the Jewish Women’s Repertory Company (JWRC) and decided to put on a Broadway show, “The Mikado,” and give the proceeds to charities like Aleinu.
“I remember walking up and down Pico Boulevard with my flyers,” she recalled the other day at The Coffee Bean, where I met her with one of her creative collaborators, Amy Ritz.
“I had no idea if anyone would show up to our first show.”
Well, they showed up. So Margy and her group decided to keep going, and in the years since, they have produced Broadway hits like “Guys and Dolls” and “The Pirates of Penzance,” and this year will perform Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun.”
But here’s the thing: because Margy, Amy and several of the women at JWRC are Orthodox, the shows are for women only. It’s the only way they can get around the kol isha prohibition — make it a show that’s produced and performed by women, to be seen only by women.
Creatively, this seems like a severe limitation. I think of the great Broadway shows that I’ve seen, and it’s hard to imagine not having both genders performing. And of course, it’s certainly politically incorrect to exclude people from watching your show just because of their gender.
But as this group has evolved, the women of the JWRC have discovered an upside to the religious prohibition: female camaraderie.
This theme came up several times when I spoke to Horowitz and Ritz. They talked about the unique bonding that has occurred among the women because of the all-female environment — and how the absence of inhibitions has freed the women to let loose and have a ball.
“You wouldn’t recognize some of the women when they come to rehearsal,” Ritz told me. “I remember an ultra-Orthodox woman who took off her wig, put on high heels and had this dance outfit that showed off her midriff. She was having the time of her life. She felt safe.”
Over the years, more and more non-Orthodox women have joined the troupe, and the women-only prohibition hasn’t seemed to be a problem. The ages span from teenagers to women in their 50s, and the performers include doctors, lawyers, prosecutors, biochemists, housewives and PTA moms.
A major addition has been Caryn Malkus, whose husband runs a Conservative day school, Pressman Academy, and who, I’m told, is quite the dancer and choreographer. Her involvement has attracted other non-Orthodox women to the company.
This year, interest has been so high that for “Annie Get Your Gun,” which will run on Saturday night, Dec. 5, with two shows the following day, at Beverly Hills High School auditorium, they auditioned 50 women for the 30 slots available.
Many of the women they have attracted, Horowitz told me, are ba’alat teshuvah — women who became Orthodox as adults, usually at the time of marriage or raising a family. The neighborhood of Pico-Robertson is home to many such families.
In the Orthodox community, ba’al and ba’alat teshuvah are often referred to as those who have “returned” to the ways of God and Torah and to one’s true essence.
Religiously, that may well be true. But for the women of the JWRC, Orthodox or non-Orthodox, it seems that when they get up on stage to perform, they are returning to something even more intimate and personal.
This something, as best as I can summarize it, is a desire to express oneself and feel completely free and uninhibited, even if only for a few hours a week.
This is a desire that’s not an Orthodox quirk, but more of a human one.
David Suissa is the founder of OLAM magazine. You can read his daily blog at suissablog.com and e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.