A Minyan of Women by Zipi Shochat (Ha’aretz, July 4, 2002)
The play, which premieres tonight at Habima in Tel Aviv, is based on a true story: a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) woman, wife of a rabbi, mother of 12, leaves her home and stays with a friend. The community’s “modesty squad” tries in vain to force her to go back. Her friend is physically attacked, her arm and leg broken. The rabbi’s wife is punished: she is cut off from her children, against her will.
The woman now lives in a small, moldy apartment in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood, trapped by social forces she is unable to overcome. She is ill, and can barely support herself. Her children live nearby, but she has not seen them for seven years.
Novelist Naomi Ragen (“Jephte’s Daughter,””Sotah” and others) learned of this tragic story several years ago from an article in Ha’aretz. “We’ve been together ever since then,” she says. “They simply crushed this wonderful woman who never committed any crime. So when Yaakov Agmon asked me to write a play for Habima, I thought that I would like to tell this woman’s story. It’s not a melodrama. It’s a story of social truth, like Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.”
“I tried to write a play about the status of the Jewish woman in the strictly Orthodox world,” continues Ragen. “The religious woman does not have any public place in which she can express her opinions in a natural fashion. Conversely, every man can say whatever he wants from the stage of the synagogue, on any subject, including current events.
“The religious woman has never had access to the stage. In synagogue, we pray upstairs in the women’s section, while the men get up and say what they want to the entire congregation. Why shouldn’t the woman have the same right? Is she less intelligent? Does she have fewer interesting things to say?”
In the play, the part of the ex-wife of the rabbi, Hanna, is played by Davit Gavish. Hanna returns to her family home with a rabbinical court injunction, to see her children. She is received by friends, neighbors, mothers, grandmothers – the usual female suspects of the ultra-Orthodox world – who are angry with her and judge her for her actions. These parts in the play are based on women whom the playwright has met.
“In the Haredi world,” says Ragen, “the method is to frighten the woman, and threaten her that if she leaves home, she will never see her children again. The method works wonderfully, because in this way the woman is shackled to her marriage all of her life, even if it is a bad marriage.
“The Haredi world makes cynical use of religion, with excuses constantly being offered, purporting that something is written in the Torah, when in fact the opposite is true. Take, for instance, the norm of women having to have babies without end on the grounds that this is God’s will, whereas the mitzvah of `Be fruitful and multiply,’ is meant for Adam, not Eve. Jewish law explicitly says that the birth of two children is by all means sufficient, and that there is no need for more than that to fulfill the commandment.
“I say these things in the play. In my opinion, in the Haredi world, the fate of women who run away from home or who stay is basically the same.”
Despite Ragen’s criticism of the Haredi world, she describes herself as a very religious woman who relates to religion with great seriousness. She does not consider herself Haredi. Ragen moved to Israel in 1971 from America, and lives in Jerusalem with her four children and four grandchildren. Unlike the protagonist of her play, she is happily married. Of her husband of 30 years, she says, “He is my best friend. No one understands me better than he does.”
Ragen writes her books in her mother tongue, English.
Aren’t you afraid of how Haredi society or the modesty squads will respond to the play you wrote?
“What can they do to me? If they haven’t yet lynched me for writing “Jephte’s Daughter” and “Sotah,” I’m not going to starting being afraid now. There are a lot of people in religious society who understand and agree with me.”
“A Minyan of Women” is Ragen’s first play. Asked about the differences between writing for the theater and writing prose, she says: “I had a good story, but I had to make it into a good play. There are fewer words and fewer pages here, but the writing is much more difficult than writing a book. The process has been going on for two years, and a great many versions have been written. The difference between a play and prose is not in the words, but in the gestures, the words left unspoken, the background, the costumes, the expressions on the actor’s faces.”
The process was especially long and complicated. Ragen first wrote the play in English, and director Noya Lancet translated it into Hebrew. The result was disappointing, primarily because, as Ragen says, “It looked more novel than theater.” At this stage, dramaturge Miriam Yachil-Wax was brought in. “She tried to turn the good story into a good play. Together, we changed the entire play, and while we were making the change, I began to write in Hebrew. We dispensed with the translated version. She helped me a great deal. If the play is good, then it is to her credit, because she tutored me.”
Before writing this play, what was your connection to theater?
“I saw a lot of plays. Once a year I went to London or New York for the theater. I read a lot of plays, but I never wrote [one].”
In the end, will the Haredi society that you would like to influence through the play even see it performed?
“I am planning to propose to the managing director of the theater that the play be presented to an audience of Haredi women. I think they would identify with it, and that it would spark a lot of questions. If they have an understanding of what is going on in their world, they will have the power to change things. Right now, I don’t think they have enough awareness of the situation. Having a thousand women in a theater hall translates into a great deal of power. The play is also supposed to be able to speak to the secular world, which has the same problems, although they are not as extreme. In the secular world, the man also has control.”
“Women’s Minyan” by Naomi Ragen. Director – Noya Lancet; dramaturgy – Miriam Yachil-Wax; set and costumes – Frieda Klapholtz-Avrahami; music – Haim Parmont; lighting – Amir Brenner. Actresses: Davit Gavish, Dina Doronne, Daphna Armoni, Liat Goren, Lilach Caspi, Ruti Landau, Tal Tsidkony, Orna Rothberg, Inbal Shoham, Revital Snir. Premieres tonight at Habima.