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Jewish Journal

Theater Group Celebrates Women Rabbis

by IRIS MANN, Contributing Writer

January 11, 2011 | 6:22 pm

We all know the clichés that characterize the usual depiction of Jewish women — the overbearing Jewish mother, the yenta, the Jewish princess.

To promote a more multidimensional portrayal of the modern Jewish woman, a small group established the Jewish Women’s Theatre. The nonprofit entity, which has been operating for three years on a shoestring budget, is having its first fundraiser Jan. 22 and 23 at the Museum of Tolerance. Proceeds from the event will help finance the Jewish Women’s Rabbinic Archive, for which the personal stories of women rabbis worldwide are to be recorded and posted on the Internet.

The benefit will present “Stories From the Fringe: Women Rabbis, Revealed!” a play taken from interviews with female rabbis in Los Angeles and written by Ronda Spinak and Rabbi Lynne A. Kern. Both are founders of the Jewish Women’s Theatre, and Spinak — who wrote for the Emmy Award-winning children’s program “Rugrats,” has authored numerous plays and had a nonfiction book published — described the genesis of the group:

Benefit at The Museum of Tolerance

9786 West Pico Blvd.
LA 90035
(310) 553-8403

VIP Package: Saturday, January 22, 2011 7:00 PM
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Regular performance: Sunday, January 23, 2011 7:00 PM
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Tickets may also be purchased at the door, subject to availability.

“Three of us got together over a kitchen table, a plate of bagels and an idea to form a company that would develop and produce material that was written by Jewish women to be performed in a theater setting, with the idea of advancing Jewish culture and, basically, giving voice to the Jewish woman’s life in America today, in the 21st century.”

Because the group didn’t have an actual theater, they decided to revive an old tradition, the salon. Audiences gather in private homes to enjoy the original works, which usually consist of short plays or monologues but might also include music and art. 

“Jewish women have a long history of hosting salons for the past 300 years,” Spinak said. “Many of these women were supporters and confidantes of great artists, such as Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust and Goethe. Somehow, Jews and artists have bonded and worked together.”

Spinak added that the organization commissions work based on specific themes. The concept for “Stories From the Fringe: Women Rabbis, Revealed!” was born during a Torah class that Kern was teaching to a group of women, which included Spinak, who had been studying with her for several years.

“It was getting to be near Passover, so we started studying the Exodus story,” Kern said, “and we began talking about the fact that there were so many women in the Passover story, and they served such a significant role, but very few of them were actually named or given a voice. We talked of how that happened frequently in Torah, but especially in this story, since it’s such a seminal one for us Jews; why weren’t we given our voice?”

Kern said they then began discussing whether Jewish women today have a voice or are acknowledged.

“That led to the question, ‘What about women rabbis?’ Women have become spiritual leaders, and what are their stories?”

Kern and Spinak concluded that those stories would make an interesting play. Sally Priesand was the first woman ordained as a rabbi in America, in June 1972, by the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. But, Kern said, Regina Jonas was actually the world’s first woman rabbi. In 1935, she was ordained privately in Berlin. Although many male rabbis fled Germany during the war, Jonas stayed behind to serve those Jews who remained. She continued to function as a rabbi when she was taken to Theresienstadt, and it is said that after being transferred to Auschwitz, Jonas would meet the arriving transports to help the prisoners remain calm.

As they researched their script, Kern — who, prior to her ordination, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at the Kansas City Star — traveled Los Angeles with Spinak, filming 18 women rabbis. They decided that the material would provide the basis for a good documentary in addition to becoming a play.

“We did at least three interviews with each rabbi,” Kern said. “We went to their synagogues, their homes, and we followed an entire holiday cycle. We talked to their congregants and their colleagues. We just hung out and spent time. We did two different sets of interviews, one for the documentary and one for the play. The stories for the play were more personal, more intimate, and they were real stories.”

According to Kern, the play — performed as a reading by three actresses representing three generations of female rabbis, together with one man — makes it clear that women who became rabbis felt a calling, but they face the same challenges other women face: They are mothers, and they struggle with such issues as infertility, dating and maintaining relationships. 

“We deal with why people chose to become rabbis as well as with their feelings about God, about holy moments, about obstacles or spiritual crises, certainly about motherhood and what it’s like to be a woman and a rabbi. We also deal with the joys of being a rabbi.”

In contrast, the documentary, “On the Fringe,” addresses how women rabbis of Los Angeles are innovating and changing Judaism. For example, Kern cited the addition of the matriarchs to the Amidah, the central part of the prayer service, during which congregants stand in silence.

“In some synagogues, that’s a major, major fight. And in some synagogues, people say, ‘Of course, of course we’re going to do that. Why shouldn’t we? They’re an important part of how we’ve become who we’ve become.’ 

“The prayer started out, basically, remembering Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but it never said anything about the women,” Kern continued. “What about Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah? They’re our matriarchs. That’s the interesting part. The questions are different, and the conversation is different. And through the difference of questions and conversations comes change.”

Eve Brandstein, who directed the play, pointed out that through the experiences of the women rabbis, the work documents the voices of women who were coming of age during the women’s movement. “I particularly found that the feminist movement affected the Jewish women in the culture, in the society at large, and they began to come forward in ways that spoke to their religious experiences, so they became social activists and religious leaders.”

Brandstein, whose relatives are Holocaust survivors, was a theater director in New York before moving to Los Angeles, where she worked as a casting director and producer for Norman Lear and accumulated numerous other television credits. 

The Jan. 22 show will feature a celebrity cast and, Brandstein promised, “You’ll be moved, you’ll laugh, and you’ll cry.  It’s a pure theater experience.”

For her part, Kern hopes audiences come away from the performance with the understanding that the qualities both men and women bring to the rabbinate are all necessary to preserve the tradition.

“That’s why we have survived for all these thousands of years, and that’s how we will continue. Women bring things to the rabbinate that men don’t, but men bring things to the rabbinate that women don’t, and that’s why it’s so fabulous that we can all come together and make the rabbinate and the tradition and Judaism the most rich and fulfilling and relevant religion that it can be.”

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