A Minyan of Women – Jerusalem Post – 19 July 2002 – by Helen Kaye
Best-selling author Naomi Ragen tells Helen Kaye why the haredi world is the subject of her first play.
If you go to see A Minyan of Women currently previewing at Habimah National Theater, take handkerchiefs, more than one. Naomi Ragen’s stark, unsentimental drama is based on a true and ongoing story. “And I’ve toned it down, if anything,” says the best-selling author of five books, including Sotah and The Ghost of Hannah Mendes.
For two years haredi mother Hannah Sheinhoff of Mea She’arim has been banned (menuda) and denied access to her 12 children. The followers and adherents of one Rabbi Aaron have vilified, abused, spread lies and rumors and even physically harmed the one remaining friend of the woman that same community once revered as a shining light of Jewish womanhood.
When the drama begins, Hannah (Davit Gavish), backed by a civil court order and a police escort, is coming to see her children. In her former home gather the women who were once her family, neighbors and friends. As one, the women support and justify their men’s actions, none more so than her own mother (Dina Doronne) and her eldest daughter, Bluma (Inbal Shoham). When Hannah arrives she discovers that Rabbi Aaron has removed 10 of the children.
Distraught, Hannah pleads with the women to hear her side of the story within the halachic framework of a quorum (minyan) of women. Unwillingly they agree and in the ebb and flow of Hannah’s story the play moves inexorably to its shattering climax.
Hannah’s unforgivable crime is not that she ran out on her family in a moment of horror and despair, after enduring sexually perverse practices, physical and verbal abuse from her husband throughout their 20-year marriage, but that she has stripped the family of secrecy and silence.
“In fact,” says Ragen quietly, “the real Hannah (a pseudonym) hasn’t seen her children for seven years. The truth is that nobody does anything because they’re afraid of the haredi establishment. There really is a Rabbi Aaron who has spread lies about her. There is no court order because there has been no rabbinical court hearing. A previous panel of judges who found for Hannah [in this matter] resigned in a body because they were threatened, and the social services, whose job it is to push the matter, don’t, because they too are afraid.”
Ragen’s interest in Hannah’s story started when the actual woman appeared on Israeli TV because the Modesty Patrol had attacked the friend who had dared to give her shelter, and had broken her arm. Ragen wrote a letter to the Ha’aretz Hebrew daily saying how much she admired the woman’s courage. Then Hannah called Ragen. A relationship developed between the two women that continues to this day, “and so when Yankele Agmon [Habimah general manager] called me, and suggested I write a play for the theater, the subject was ready to hand.”
“Hannah lives in a basement flat in Mea She’arim. The world walks over her, unheeding, uncaring. I once told a group of women that [while] the rabbi has the bima [pulpit] in synagogue once a week, there’s no place in the religious world where a woman can have her say. So here, on a stage in the center of the country, Hannah’s story and that of so many others will be heard. If they’d given me the bima in the synagogue I wouldn’t have taken Habimah in Tel Aviv.”
Minyan isn’t a story about one woman but of women’s lives in this religious world and “it’s a ‘J’accuse’ [after Emile Zola’s famous polemic during the Dreyfus trial] of all injustices against women in that world. For all the lip service given to women, the truth is what I’ve shown in my play. The tragedy is that although there are no men on stage, they are everywhere. These women’s lives are circumscribed by male laws. These govern you. Whether you obey or revolt makes no difference. What the men decide is what’s going to happen.”
The stage Hannah is and is not a composite, “because I’ve heard the same story so many times. Once or twice is a tragedy but when you hear it a dozen times it becomes a social problem. The way this society deals with wayward men is by covering up for them. Then, if the woman blows the whistle, it’s she who is punished.”
All of Minyan’s first act treats Hannah’s desperate attempts to persuade the women to listen, just to listen. They stop up their emotional ears, and it’s only when her former sister-in-law, the fragile and learned Adina (Lilach Caspi) tells them that yes, because the matter deals with their own domestic concerns, a minyan can bind them, do they agree to such a “trial.”
Why do the women comply? Because, says Ragen, “the price to opt out is too high. You lose your family, your life, your place in society – you’re finished. What does Hannah say? ‘The victim isn’t allowed to escape the altar. No, she has to stretch her neck to the knife. What did I do wrong? That I couldn’t cover up for him anymore?’ That sums up the play for me.”
And of course what happens in the play isn’t true of all the haredi world, and there are many, many good people in it. “Unfortunately,” says Ragen, “they are unwilling or unable to battle the abuses that allow such monstrous situations… The play is a mirror of that society. If one doesn’t like the face, don’t blame the mirror.”
SHE DOESN’T rant. She doesn’t raise her voice, this small, neat woman with her mane of graying hair and wise eyes. Ragen speaks with intensity, conviction, determination, and all is laced with that bright sense of humor separating the committed from the fanatic. She is, she declares, “proud of being a feminist. It was a great freedom movement. Every really religious woman should be a feminist,” and while male ascendancy “is more sharply defined in the haredi world, it’s true of the secular world as well.”
Women, she says, misunderstand what the Torah is telling them, that in the beginning men and women were created equal and that man’s domination over woman was a punishment for Eve’s little caper with the fruit of the tree of knowlege. What she doesn’t say is that punishment is finite, and that women have done their time, as it were.
“Make your own bima,” Ragen advises other feminists, “and make your voices heard.”
Naomi Ragen, 53, was raised in Rockaway Beach in Queens. Hers was a secular family but when she was seven, fearing for her safety at the violence-prone local public school, her parents sent her to an Orthodox Hebrew day school where “I became acquainted with my Torah and my heritage. I fell in love with Orthodox Judaism and decided that’s what I wanted. I saw so much of beauty in it. By my teens I was very Orthodox and was getting lessons from a haredi rabbi on hashkafa [religious viewpoints].”
Her writing career started in third grade when she won first prize in a contest on “Why I Like School.” The prize was “a little gold charm, and that was when I learned that you can turn a plain piece of paper into magic.”
She won essay and poetry competitions all through high school and college, but after college, married, with two babies and living in Israel, writing was shifted to the back burner. She grew very frustrated, she says, doing English-language free-lancing for various government offices, a job she did for many years. A master’s in English literature from Hebrew University mitigated the frustration only a little.
Then, in order to finance the house they were building in Jerusalem, Ragen and her systems-analyst husband, Alex – they’ve been married for 33 years – moved to California for a few years. There she was director of development communications for Santa Clara College, “and I hated what I was doing. I hated living in California. I was homesick for Israel and it was then that I started writing Jepthe’s Daughter.”
A combination of grit, hutzpa and luck led to its publication.
Back in Israel she saw an ad in The Jerusalem Post for a cookbook editor. She called and the meeting was to take place at an address in the then-seedy Nahlaot neighborhood, which “made me nervous. I went to a coffee shop, called the guy and said ‘you come to me.'”
He did, and surprised Ragen. He had a rumpled Yale professor look and told her he was a former editor of Architectural Digest. He had a cookbook, the author of which “was driving him crazy. I told him ‘I’ll help you with your book if you help me sell mine.’ With his help I got one of the best agents in the business who sold the book two weeks later.”
Jepthe’s Daughter came out in 1989 and was a huge best-seller, as all her books have been, including the most recent one, Chains Around the Grass, which is based on autobiographical material. She’s currently at work on No. 6 and professes herself unsurprised by their success because “when a person lives a rich fantasy life, nothing surprises them.”
She is proud that Jepthe’s Daughter was listed among the 100 most important Jewish books of all time back in 1999 when everybody was making millennial lists. In the haredi world “my books were anathema a few years ago. But times and the culture change, and now everybody has read them.”
That the books are best-sellers, and not just among Jews, is because “they’re page turners, and because they deal with universal themes, even though they’re set in the exotic [to many] world of the haredim.” For instance, Sotah deals with adultery, Ghost with a family’s search for its history, and Jepthe’s Daughter with self-sacrifice to please a father. It’s true, she says, a little surprised by the hypothesis, that she writes about women whose faith has been violated by the religious society around them, one that flouts its own tenets.
She composes on a word processor and the novels are “always inspired by a true incident, read in the paper or heard in the neighborhood.” As for her characters, “I steal noses and mouths from friends and strangers. I freely borrow personalities and often I will hijack an entire human being I know. But sometimes my imagination just presents me with people in a complete form; the matchmaker in Sotah was one. I could even tell you the color of the crumbs in his beard…”
Creating Minyan, though, was a whole different ballgame. Writing this play, her first, “was six times harder than a book. It’s been a communal effort with many partners, especially Miriam Yahil-Vax [literary manager], and everybody has had something to say about the lines. Whereas in a book the words are everything, here they’re only a small part. It’s also gestures, silence, movements and music.”
For five years after she got married, Ragen lived in a haredi neighborhood. She wore a wig but “I hated the way my hair looked under it. It was flat, graying and oxygen starved. I went and got my hair done, and never put the wig back on.”
Since then, like many modern Orthodox women, she’d worn a hat, “until I ran into this story. It bothered me so much that I didn’t want to identify with this group. I’ll put my hat back on when Hannah gets back her children.”