There is a moment during the performance of the play “Judge! The Song of Devora” when you’re not entirely convinced that this is, in fact, an all-women production. When Sisera, the legendary 12th century Canaanite general described in Judges (chapters four and five) appears on stage played by the inimitable Yael Valier of Efrat, the performance is so convincing as the womanizing, megalomaniacal warrior, that you can momentarily forget that a woman is playing the part. Valier, bursting with charisma, nuance, personality, humor and expressiveness, has the wonderful acting gift of letting you forget for a moment where you are.
“Judge!” an original play written by Valier and director Toby Klein Greenwald of the religious theater group “Raise Your Spirits”, tells the story of how the biblical heroine Deborah led the Israelites to victory over the Canaanites and provided the Israelites with forty years of peace, their first extended period of calm since Joshua led the people into the Promised Land. Deborah is also the only recorded woman leader of the ancient Israelites, and as such the story raises provocative issues about gender, leadership and Jewish life — then and now.
For Orthodox women, some of whom do not sing in front of men and among whom sexual innuendo is a major taboo, the all-women’s theater group — a reversal of the all-male Shakespeare casts of old — enables women to do it all. Here, women can go places and take on roles that would be out of reach in real life, such as singing in public, acting with sensuality, and wearing pants or perhaps even showing a bit of extra skin. “We can let our hair down, literally,” Valier says. Women also do the lighting, directing, producing, marketing, publicity, graphics and sales. In fact, the only parts that women did not do were composing and arranging the music — and the man who did, Mitch Clyman, has never seen the show.
This production, then, offers the freedom and empowerment that is often lacking for women in mixed-gender settings in which men often take charge and dominate. “It’s about women’s leadership, demonstrating that women can be strong and independent minded,” Greenwald said. “I live in my bones the empowerment of girls and women, and I feel that our concretizing that empowerment and getting it out to the world, as we get Torah out to the world, in our special way, is a holy mission.” This is the sixth production of the Raise Your Spirits theater group, and Greenwald has directed them all and been involved in writing the last five. Several plays have directly related to women in the bible: “Esther,” “Ruth and Naomi,” and “Courage” about King David’s wife, Michal.
The messages of some of the song lyrics in “Judge!” also promote women’s empowerment. One of the most evocative scenes in the play, when Yael, the biblical character in the story who kills Sisera, is about to hammer a peg into Sisera’s skull, she freezes and goes to a quick reprise of the song of her youth, “Be a good girl; be a good girl; what’s a good girl?” The superb acting of Avital Macales as Yael poignantly reflects the internal dilemmas of so many women around conforming to societal expectations of womanhood versus thinking and acting courageously and independently.
“Of course when I wrote those lyrics I was writing from my own experiences,” the 40-year old mother of six boys said. “It goes to all of our experiences as women. Even today women face all kinds of guilt when they buck the system, and so I wanted Deborah to explore that too.”
In another song, “Shine your light”, Deborah’s husband, Lapidot, encourages Deborah to go out and be a judge, despite her own self-denigration and doubt. “I wanted to write a feminist love song”, Valier says, “in which the man fully supports the woman. Some women come up to me after the play and say, ‘I want my husband to be like Sisera’. That kills me. I try to tell them, ‘Sisera is not a good guy. Lapidot is the kind of husband you want.’ But some women don’t get it. I think those comments say a lot about gender and relationships.”
The interpretation of Deborah as hesitant in her leadership role also speaks to the lives of contemporary women. “I would have liked to make Deborah more of a feminist”, Valier said, “but that may be superimposing my 21st century sensibilities onto the story. This is more loyal to the way it probably was”.
Raising Your Spirits, then, is walking the tightrope of maintaining a traditional reading of this text while pushing the feminist envelope. “Judge!” offers some powerful interpretations of ancient women’s lives while maintaining, for the most part, the poise of the traditional Orthodox woman in contemporary society.
Raise Your Spirits was founded in 2001, in the midst of the second intifada, by Sharon Katz of Efrat. “We were all depressed”, she said, recalling friends and neighbors who were killed and injured during that difficult period. She took inspiration from Mickey Rooney who acted during the height of the Great Depression in America and whose solution to everything was to put on a show. “I literally told people, ‘We’re gonna put on a show and it’s gonna be the greatest show you’ve ever seen!’ And that’s exactly what we did.”
Some of the most memorable elements in “Judge!” were Sisera’s mother, played by Katz, and her hysterical sidekicks; Yael’s mother, played by Bayla Zinger who has a spectacular presence; the “bat kol” narrator Chaya Lapidot who chanted the verses in a haunting pitch; the cast of spirited young girls throughout the play; the wonderful dance choreography; and of course Deborah played by Gayle Berman with her opera-quality voice. Throughout the play, lyrics are displayed in Hebrew and English, offering a great opportunity to appreciate Valier’s wit. She also has a CD at “Tremendous Earth” that features educational songs.
Perhaps the greatest feature of all-women’s theater is the warmth. “I have never seen a cast so loving, so giving, so supportive, as a Raise Your Spirits cast, Katz says. “At a Raise Your Spirits show, we are all backstage holding our breaths for one another, cheering our friends on stage even when our friends don’t know it.”
”Judge!” is playing at the Gush Etzion Community Center through January 26.