“How long must I roam, to find my way home …”
Natalie sings the lines tentatively, tugging at her black T-shirt, her voice soft and sweet.
But soft and sweet won’t cut it for a drug addict trying to work her way back into her family on seder night.
“This is your story. Stand up for it. What are you afraid of?” director Laura Bagish urges her.
Natalie, who asked that only her first name be used for this article, plays the lead role of Shira in “Freedom Song,” a Passover-themed musical produced by Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish residential rehab facility in Culver City. The actors are all alumni and residents of Beit T’Shuvah, and at a late-night rehearsal in the facility’s lunchroom, which also serves as both auditorium and synagogue, they are feeling the pressure of the three shows they will be performing before Passover.
Playing a lost daughter feels particularly familiar to Natalie: She is 18 and was addicted to heroin when, three months ago, she left Beverly Hills High School to check herself into Beit T’Shuvah.
As the cast cheers her on, she sings with more depth, but she’ll have to get stronger before her first performance, just days away.
“Freedom Song” was written nearly seven years ago, based on the real-life stories of Beit T’Shuvah residents. Conceived as a one-time production, the 45-minute, edgy musical has played continually since then to thousands of people at synagogues, schools and other organizations across the country.
The show serves as a form of therapy for the actors, but it is also a catalyst for the audience. After each performance, the cast holds a dialogue with the audience, and nearly always someone from the audience comes forward with an addiction story of their own.
“It’s amazing that the play is such a vehicle for people opening up, for cutting through the denial and allowing people to speak in a way that seeing a didactic seminar about addiction just wouldn’t do,” said Beit T’Shuvah’s Cantor Rebekah Mirsky, a former country singer who co-authored the script.
The actors use the Passover story as a lens through which to view their own journeys, and in turn reflect back to the audience a new way of internalizing the Passover story: What are you a slave to? Do you retell your foundational story and pull meaning from it, or do you hide your truth from yourself and from others? Do you truly understand what it means to live free of deception?
The staging juxtaposes a 12-step meeting with a family seder. The music, a mash-up of original theater tunes, Jewish liturgy and forceful pop, with interludes of rap, plays as a constant underscore for dialogue that weaves itself into the music.
As the story unfolds, the audience learns that the seemingly happy family members on one side of the stage are enslaved to their idea of normal, while hiding truths about themselves. The addicts on the other side of the stage share their tales of deception and self-sabotage — tales that each new round of actors writes into the script to reflect their true journey. The addicts, the audience learns, have grown to understand that owning their narrative is the only road to authentic living.
The show highlights the haggadah’s imperative for storytelling. Even if the story is shameful — 200 years of slavery, 20 years of addiction — telling it can be a powerful tool not only for an ongoing process of national rediscovery, but for deep and difficult self-improvement.
“For people who have had to be secretive, who have been ashamed of themselves and been hiding in many ways from themselves, this is really powerful,” said Beit T’Shuvah director Harriet Rossetto, who founded the program in 1987. “The message to addicts often is, ‘If anyone really knows who I am, they won’t love me.’ And I think that is what our people get — that sense that I can be me, and tell my story, and people will still love me.’ ”
Ira S., a 53-year-old who worked in the entertainment industry, is recovering from decades-long drug and alcohol abuse (he asked that only his last initial be used). He moved into Beit T’Shuvah in 2008 and now works there as a counselor. He plays Grandpa in “Freedom Song.”
“I’m not the kind of person that people see a lot. When I first came here, it was all about trying to get by without being on the radar. I was trying to hide more than being present, and that was a part of me that needed to change,” he said in an interview.
He said he was reluctant to join the cast and froze his first time on stage. But, now, he credits “Freedom Song” as being a major part of his recovery.
“I feel like I belong to something. I never felt like I belonged before,” he said.
Beit T’Shuvah is the only rehab residence in the country to integrate Judaism and the 12-step program. Its 120 beds, plus 30 outpatient slots, are always full. Two off-site residences house clients who are well into recovery, and Beit T’Shuvah recently purchased another building, next door, which it will use for its popular Shabbat services and an expansion of outpatient offerings, possibly including a drop-in center. Its prevention curriculum has reached thousands of teenage and middle school students.
While Beit T’Shuvah self-reports an impressive success rate of 65 percent, 85 percent of “Freedom Song” participants stay clean, according to Beit T’Shuvah’s Rabbi Mark Borovitz, who is married to Rossetto. The show allows for deep artistic expression and gives the participants responsibility and the sense that people are counting on them, Borovitz said.
“They know they’ve touched someone, which I’ve heard them say again and again was a bigger high than ever getting loaded was,” Rossetto agreed. “And when you give up your external high, there is a void, and if you don’t fill that with some other highs, it’s very hard to stay sober.”
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Cassandra Kaminski, who plays Shayna on the meeting side of the stage, says the notion that she can make an impact on someone has expanded from “Freedom Song” to her relationship with her own family.
Kaminski, 28, was addicted to drugs and crime from the age of 13. Last year, she was remanded to live at Beit T’Shuvah for the first year of a three-year sentence for credit card fraud. She is now 14 months clean. When her grandfather died recently, she spent time with her family.
“Having my brother hold me and tell me how much of an asset I am to our family when I’m clean — there’s nothing that can replace that feeling,” she said.
She said, on the eve of going to federal prison to serve her time in June, that she now is confident the internal strength she has developed will carry her through the remainder of her sentence.
“I thought life was going to be harder than it is, but things seem much more manageable now that I’m clean than they were when I was high. It’s just an entirely different world,” Kaminski said.
Borovitz, who helped craft “Freedom Song,” has for years been comparing the addict’s journey to the Passover story — the move from slavery to freedom, the need to get rid of the leavened ego, to accept the outstretched arm to divert the Angel of Death and cross the sea.
When the cast sings in Hebrew, “B’chol Dor Va’Dor,” “In every generation we are all obligated to see ourselves as if …” the shift in meaning is subtle: In addition to the haggadah’s chain of generations, “Freedom Song” is begging all the generations around the seder table to understand each other.
“There is a whole concept in family systems theory that the addict, or the acting-out person, is the identified patient, but the whole family is part of the diseased system, and concentrating on this one person in some way relieves everyone else of having to look at their own stuff,” Rossetto said.
In “Freedom Song,” Grandpa reminds the father, who is trying to keep Shira out of the house, that the haggadah demands we invite all who are hungry to come and eat — strangers in our family, strangers who don’t fit into the conception of a nice Jewish community, strangers within ourselves.
The 10 plagues are not only frogs and boils and pestilence, but also booze, lying, loss of self. Darkness.
The Mah Nishtanah blossoms into many more than four questions — “How could I trash my father’s memory?” an addict intones. “Why wasn’t I good enough to make you stay?” Shira’s little sister asks.
In a climactic number surrounding the word Dayenu, the addicts declare enough to negativity, while the family buckles under the strain, crying, “Enough!”
The script evolved in a collaborative effort kicked off in October 2004, when music producer Craig Taubman approached Borovitz about doing a piece on addiction for his “Let Freedom Sing” festival. Borovitz recruited James Fuchs, a resident and professional musician and composer, and Mirsky, who was a cantorial intern at Beit T’Shuvah at the time. Producer Stu Robinson soon joined the process, gathering and then weaving in personal testimonies from residents.
Yeshaia Blakeney was a too-cool-for-this-Jewish-stuff hip-hop artist, known as Shy B, when Borovitz and Fuchs convinced him to write and perform the raps for “Freedom Song.”
A few years ago, Blakeney found himself in the synagogue in Berkeley where he had grown up, just blocks away from homes he used to rob, with old family friends in the audience. During a break in the show, he slipped offstage, behind the Ark.
“And I’m crying during ‘Freedom Song,’ because I felt the story for the first time. I felt the story of being that lost child and coming home,” he said.
Blakeney, now 29, is a spiritual counselor at Beit T’Shuvah, and he and his wife, whom he met at Beit T’Shuvah, have two daughters.
At Rossetto’s urging, Blakeney is studying to be a rabbi and is in line to succeed Borovitz.
“I was very numb when I got here. I was very cut off from emotions,” Blakeney said. “The process of being around light and hope and spirituality and Judaism and being empowered to transform thaws me out,” he said.
Natalie is still finding that power to transform, and playing Shira will be an important part of it, said Jen Gendel, who played the part for two years, before she moved over to the recovery side — in life and in the show.
“I think when you take on the role of Shira, it teaches you how to open yourself up to other people and to be accepting of change,” Gendel said. “It’s really important to be able to speak and tell your story in front of others and to be your true self.”