Last year, Jerusalem’s community theater group Theater and Theology put on a remarkable play. The show tackled the issue of how a religion deals with an ever changing world. Off the Derech Dolorosa was not only a pleasure to watch… I’d definitely give it two thumbs as a fantastic play to propose after.
And this year, they’re back to tackle an extremely divisive and potentially painful issue: The retroactive cancellation of Jewish conversions.
The Conversion Crisis
There are some crazy and complex things that happen in Israel’s religious community. Sometimes they’re amusing. Sometimes downright heartbreaking. And sometimes so perplexing, they feel impossible to wrap one’s head around.
In Israel, there are assorted issues surrounding conversion to Judaism that are complex talking points in our community. Small and enormous travesties abound. These issues inspired Miriam Metzinger to tackle them in her play, In a Stranger’s Grave.
“I … was re-reading Sophocles’ Antigone,” Metzinger said, “about Oedpus’ daughter Antigone who was not allowed by the king … to bury one of her brothers because [he] felt this burial would cause a kind of moral pollution. I immediately thought about a story I had read in the newspaper about someone whose body was denied burial … because the conversion was not recognized in Israel … The issues in Antigone … are still … current many centuries later.”
One of the show’s stars, Avital Macales, said, “Before getting to know this play, I had not heard that something like this could happen. I found it quite shocking when I finally heard about it. And I look forward to hearing the scholars speak after each performance and finding out what they think about the matter.”
Personally, I was stunned as well. I’ve been studying Judaism for quite some time now. And despite my many reasons to be wary of the actions of Israel’s Rabbanut, initially I thought the play was addressing either a non-issue, or an extremely obscure topic.
After all, in Jewish law, a Jew never stops being a Jew. Even if one wants to, the DNA sticks to you like super glue. Neither casting off your beliefs nor renouncing your connection to the Jewish people, will have any impact whatsoever. And, of course, when one converts to Judaism, there is no difference. A Jew is a Jew. And once you’re a part of the tribe, there’s no going back. No matter what happens.
In a Stranger’s Grave
Sadly, I was wrong. In a Stranger’s Grave is based on real stories. True events that challenged the lives of real people, with real feelings. Tragedies that hurt people, and caused long-lasting impact.
Macales plays Esther Gottlieb, in her words “a 23-year-old woman who grew up in an Anglo Yeshivish environment in Jerusalem to a loving mother (a convert) and father, and one sister, Chana, with whom she is very close. [They] unfortunately suffered the loss of their father and, six years later, their mother.”
The story centers on the Rabbinic reaction to Esther’s mother’s conversion and the issue of whether or not the conversion can be retroactively invalidated. “The different reactions of the family and community members to the crisis highlight current conflicting values in the Jewish and Israeli world,” according to Yael Valier, the show’s director and the founder of Theater and Theology.
Macales describes Esther as “strong, opinionated, idealistic, and [someone who] looks truth straight in the eye”. Thus she is the perfect character to stare right in the face of a complex issue that can easily be misconstrued as black and white. She’s also a delight for Macales to play, seeing as she pours on the sarcasm, whereas her portrayer offstage likes to “keep all [her] real-life sarcasm bottled up inside”.
A True and Present Danger to Israel and the Jewish people
Valier describes this conversion disaster as “a fraught subject that is reaching crisis proportions in Israel”. But how can it be that something so complex and damaging is simultaneously obscure and ignored? Valier says, “the people affected don’t talk about it because by their very nature, conversion problems are kept quiet.” This topic, and others like it, is a true and present danger to Israel and the Jewish people. “It can [happen], it does [happen], and we should be aware.”
Miriam Metzinger wrote In a Stranger’s Grave to address an issue that needs to be discussed. Yael Valier and Theater and Theology produced In a Stranger’s Grave to make sure the word gets spread. But it’s up to the rest of us–those who care deeply about our country and people–to make sure issues like these are not swept under the rug.
I’ve said it many times before: We could be doing better.
What is Theater and Theology?
There are many community theater companies in Jerusalem. However, this group is different. One of the novelties of the Theater and Theology experience is the speakers. There is a scheduled talk after each performance, a scholar who addresses the play’s subjects. The scholars approach the issues from a number of different perspectives. Some noted speakers include Rabbanit Shani Taragin and Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo.
The fascinating subjects are all meant to get you thinking. They spur conversation and open up doors for discussing topics we’re not always comfortable talking about. All of these fantastic scholars help us delve just a little deeper into subjects we care about immensely; however, we sometimes don’t know exactly how to collect our thoughts and feelings about them.
In a nutshell, Valier says that Theater and Theology “brings fascinating, current angles on philosophical questions to theater goers, and it takes scholars out of the lecture hall and into the theater. For me, that’s heaven.”
You can click here to learn more about Theater and Theology and to buy tickets for In a Stranger’s Grave. And keep your eyes wide open for more interesting productions in the future. Miriam Metzinger has upcoming dramas and comedies in the works. And Jerusalem’s theater community is a hidden gem in Jerusalem, with a lot more to come.
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