Morality Plays

The ultra-Orthodox community has embraced the consumption of culture in recent years. All good, clean fun

Hours before the event began, the rumor of the expected screening spread and the plaza in front of the Great Synagogue on Rabbi Akiva Street in Bnei Brak gradually began to fill with people. After the doors opened, scores of men and boys pressed into the hall and stood mesmerized by the flickering screen. Above them, in the narrow women's section, the women and girls craned their necks to try to get a peek above the male heads. The film was none other than the Lubavitcher Rebbe's weekly sermon, but the fact that a large part of the audience consisted of people who were not even his disciples made no difference to anyone. In any case, many of them weren't listening to the sermon and entered and exited the hall in an endless promenade. For them, the event provided a suitable reason to get out of the house.

Even among the ultra-Orthodox today, there are those who find it hard to believe that two or three decades ago the entertainment possibilities for the ultra-Orthodox audience were so limited that they consisted only of participation in celebrations and "strengthening" lectures. However, along with the development of the leisure culture - and the growth of the ultra-Orthodox music and film industries on CD and DVD - there has been a new and expanding trend in the image of the consumption of culture among the ultra-Orthodox in recent years.

Rachel Greenwald, an ultra-Orthodox woman from Elad, introduces herself as a producer and impresario for performing artists - a decidedly new occupation. Most of the artists she represents are newly devout actors and singers. Most of the plays and performances for the ultra-Orthodox public come from private producers, she says. They are purchased mainly by community centers and are shown at small halls in the various locales that are hired for the purpose, or occasionally in banquet halls. She says that many performances are booked for vacationers at hotels and symposia. Girls' schools also buy plays.

Ultra-Orthodox culture is completely segregated for men and for women. Women and girls are the main consumers of culture. For men, who are obligated to devote their time to Torah study, this pastime is less legitimate and limited to the ben hazmanim period, the annual vacation from yeshiva study.

Large supply and demand

By its very definition and nature, ultra-Orthodox culture is openly and explicitly committed. The plays are mostly morality ones that are set during the Holocaust or in Jewish history of long ago. Even if the characters stray from the straight and narrow path, in the end they will be brought back to the bosom of Judaism, while along the way they succeed in drawing bursts of laughter and tears from the crowd. The audience, which is entirely made up of women, is especially tolerant of mothers with babies. It is not unusual to see them standing on the side and rocking a carriage throughout the performance, or changing a diaper on the seat.

Though it is possible to argue with the quality of the plays, it is hard to ignore the large supply and demand, not only in ultra-Orthodox population centers in the cities of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, but also on the periphery: Upper Modi'in, Upper Beitar and Ashdod. Before Hanukkah, in the Kav Le'itonut ultra-Orthodox local weekly newspapers, there were advertisements for the show "Queen+ of the Rejoicing," a play aimed at "girls of 6 to 90," directed by Michal Rand, as well as the sound and light shows "Giving is Life" (and, in English, "The Sound of Music") and "Rubik, the Amazing Cube." The "sound and light show" is a very popular form of entertainment among the ultra-Orthodox public. This is simply both a recycling of plays that have been filmed and a film substitute. The play is screened for the audience along with a program that includes live performances, such as dancing or staged connecting scenes. A ticket can cost NIS 25.

Even stern newspapers like Hamodia and Yeted Ne'eman regularly publicize performances. As in the general public, the peak season for such performances (and advertising) is during holidays like Hanukkah or Purim and, of course, summer vacation (for women and girls) and ben hazmanim (for men and boys).

Riki Gelbstein, the director of the Ma'aleh community center, which has served the ultra-Orthodox community in Ashdod for seven years now, is very familiar with the process. Initially, she says, there was a need "to search high and low for performances suitable to our public." Today, she says, there is a selection of suitable performances.

About a month ago, Gelbstein set up "The Ultra-Orthodox Women's Forum for the Advancement of Ultra-Orthodox Art and Culture." Her partner in the forum and the woman who heads it is Hannah Barda, the director of the culture division at the Upper Modi'in municipal council and the culture coordinator for the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox neighborhood there, Kiryat Sefer.

`No awareness of our needs'

Barda and Gelbstein, who can be said to belong to the very core of the ultra-Orthodox sector, want first and foremost to correct the impression that has emerged among the general public that there is no ultra-Orthodox culture. The organization, explains Barda, is aimed at exposing ultra-Orthodox culture to various bodies that support culture, such as the Culture Administration at the Education Ministry or Omanut La'am, in order to get budgetary support like any other organization through the "culture basket" for schools or annual budgets for culture. According to them, the problem is that ultra-Orthodox culture does not conform to the criteria of these bodies, due to the absence of representatives of the ultra-Orthodox sector on the review committees. Gelbstein talks about artistic freedom. She says that it is impossible to demand of the ultra-Orthodox public that the actors be graduates of drama schools. "In our community, even girls from the Bais Ya'akov schools can perform, but the play will be of a high quality."

"The idea of establishing the forum grew out of our distress," explains Barda. "For several years now we have been active in the field of culture, making an effort to bring good performances to our audience, but we are having a hard time because of the lack of funds. We have found out that there is no awareness and recognition of our needs, not only in the government ministries but also among the bodies that are supposed to provide support in the communities themselves. No one understands how hard it is for us to `get up an evening.'" Once a month, women from Upper Modi'in can come to see a play in one of the two small and completely full halls in the Kiryat Sefer neighborhood or in nearby Brechfeld, Barda says. The men are invited to evenings of cantorial and liturgical music. The budgetary difficulty also derives from the price of a ticket for a performance. It is impossible to ask for more than NIS 10 for a ticket to a show for children, because "every family comes to the play with five children," Gelbstein says. A ticket to an evening performance for women will cost about NIS 15.

Gelbstein says that the first meeting of the forum, which was publicized by word of mouth and held in Upper Modi'in, was attended by more than 30 women, cultural coordinators at community centers and local councils, and ultra-Orthodox producers. The founders were astonished by the interest. The forum was presented at the Knesset Education Committee; Barda and Gelbstein met with Natan Eitan, the director general of Omanut La'am, and with Micha Yanun, the head of the Culture Administration at the Education Ministry.

Eitan says he is aware of the change that has occurred in the ultra-Orthodox public and is trying to meet it halfway. "There are two trends here: true ultra-Orthodox culture and secular culture that enters the sector after receiving a kosher seal of approval," says Eitan. According to him, now and then Omanut La'am funds performances, mainly musical ones, as well as art courses, but not on a regular basis. Not long ago, he says, he was at a performance in the Gur Hassidic community in order to evaluate its level, and it was granted the requested funding. "It is hard for us to evaluate the content," he admits, "but we examine other criteria like diction and the level of the scenery. Now we are looking for independent ultra-Orthodox people who will be able to sit on our review committee and evaluate the performances. This is what we do in the various sectors, such as the Russian sector or the Arab sector."

Eitan is not concerned about the fact that the ultra-Orthodox plays are too committed to the cause. "Are there no plays that are committed to a cause in the secular schools?" he asks. According to him, plays that talk about road safety, avoiding drugs and so on are also committed to a cause.

Context of gentile culture

At the last minute, Barda obtained a budget for 2005 from Omanut La'am, but this does not satisfy her and she is gearing up to fight for the principle. It is only grudgingly that Gelbstein and Barda admit that ultra-Orthodox culture had not been funded because there hadn't been any available. Not only did the ultra-Orthodox public not take an interest in theater or music, it also rejected them outright, because of the perceived connection to gentile culture. Gelbstein, who is from the Slonim Hasidic community and was educated at the strict Rabbi Wolf Bais Ya'akov Seminary in Bnei Brak, says she was raised in a family that was open to culture. "I don't know whether this is because my mother grew up in Europe and immigrated to this country. Around me the girls all studied something, painting or guitar, in after-school classes." She relates that she had a talent for dance and at the end of elementary school she was invited to direct the end-of-the-year plays at various schools in the city. She also had private guitar lessons. However, her parents objected to her continuing in secular settings, and therefore she did not complete a formal education.

Now she is talking about the professionalization of education in the cultural field: No more accordion or guitar or painting lessons in the homes of private teachers, the way it was during her girlhood in Bnei Brak, but rather at professional schools. At ultra-Orthodox community centers like Ma'aleh, or the Neveh Hemed branch in Jerusalem, there are now art, music and photography classes. At Ma'aleh there is a branch of the private ultra-Orthodox art school Tsur in Bnei Brak, where a newly observant woman who is a graduate of Bezalel teaches. Recently, 15 women completed a course in Judaica illustration that was offered through the school. They studied styles of painting and visited museum exhibitions. They did not go to the Tel Aviv Museum for fear of exposure to lewdness.

A Yamaha conservatory will open at the community center next year. "Why shouldn't ultra-Orthodox children study violin or piano?" she asks. According to her, there is no objection to children learning to play classical works by Beethoven or Bach.

Yet she still admits that the ultra-Orthodox public is pragmatic. Women learn Judaica illustration as a profession and not simply painting in order to become artists. They learn to play instruments in order to become music teachers, not to become members of an orchestra. In any case, both of her daughters, who play the electric keyboard, will be able to get diplomas from an ultra-Orthodox school. After that, the choice is theirs.

The kosher seal of approval

MK Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism, who was present at the forum's meetings with the Knesset Education Committee, says that today there is a gradual development in the ultra- Orthodox community of all the areas that are familiar to the secular - plays, films, art and music. "This isn't happening in a dramatic way. The ultra-Orthodox public is still lacking in organization, so I am helping with this."

And hasn't there been rabbinical opposition, for example, in light of the explosion of performances at Hanukkah? Isn't this gentile culture? Apparently the supervision is not close. For the most part, it was noted in the advertisements that "the program has been approved by teachers and educators." With respect to some of them, it was noted that they had been given a special kosher seal of approval by the Guardian of Sanctity and Education, a body in Bnei Brak that sends its representative, Rabbi Mordechai Blau, to see the performances and approve them or disallow them as he sees fit.

According to the producer Greenwald, the best way to ensure that a performance is kosher is by telephone inquiry. "If you know that one performance or another was on at Belz, or some other place you can trust, it passes. By this method, performances that were at Kiryat Sefer, the bastion of the strictest Lithuanians,are suitable for appearing anywhere else."