Everyone's eyes are on S. as she strides energetically onto the stage. And when she begins - without a pause - to tell her grim story, the story of a battered woman, the murmur in the audience dies down at once.
The advertisements - which were plastered around every ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem - had prepared the ground for the main event by the Yad L'Achim organization in the city, and filled with anticipation the ultra-Orthodox women who packed the wedding-hall venue for "the story of a Jewish mother who was rescued with her two little children from an Arab village that will move you to tears," as the advertisement promised.
And indeed the women came here, to the Heikhalei Simha wedding hall, squeezed between ultra-Orthodox chain-food stores in the Romema neighborhood, ready to shed tears. They are moved to the depths of their souls by the lecture S. delivers, a distillation of motifs of Jewish heroism combined with racist anti-Arab messages propagated by the organization that combats mixed marriages.
The evening was sold in a kosher and elegant package but the contents are salacious and sensationalist, though implied. Where else can ultra-Orthodox women hear first-hand about a woman who was abducted by an Arab, "the enemy," raped countless times - though the women are spared the explicit words of course, bore two sons to that Arab even though he abused her, and managed ingeniously to escape from the father/captor to have them ritually circumcised as Jews?
The two children from that forbidden romance, aged 4 and 5, run about the hall during the intermission and make the story even more palpable and intriguing.
Although one can object to its vitriolic messages, Yad L'Achim's welfare project, in the form of shelters for battered women and women whose lives are threatened, should not be scorned. The women whom the organization rehabilitates are explicitly victims of Arab husbands or partners, as though there were no ultra-Orthodox or even Jewish abusers in the world.
From time to time, the organization holds assemblies like the one in which S. serves as the star attraction of the evening. Their aim is to spread the organization's message but also, and perhaps as the supreme goal, and as is common in the ultra-Orthodox sector, as an annual fundraiser for the organization.
The tears help in opening pockets. About 200 women attend such an evening, not counting the babies in carriages. Rows of carriages stand next to the chairs and all of them are amazingly quiet. The women, however, are not. They are active participants. They sigh, they express their shock aloud.
"I lived in Be'er Sheva's Dalet neighborhood. A criminal neighborhood. And where there is crime, there are Arabs." S. cites the text like a record. Later, after she descends from the stage, she confirms that she had appeared several times before at Yad L'Achim events. She looks completely extinguished, an appearance typical of battered women, when she relates that Yad L'Achim activists did indeed rescue her from the Arab village where she was living about two years ago. Now she is living in a secret apartment and still fears for her life.
But onstage, the magic works. Erect and slender in a long skirt, S. who is good looking and Mizrahi (of Middle Eastern descent) in appearance, could easily resemble Queen Esther, imprisoned in the court of Ahasuerus only in order to bring rejoicing and light to the Jews.
The evening is devoid of effects. There is no backdrop, but the imagination works overtime. The ultra-Orthodox public is a very verbal public. The dry descriptions S. relates hint at suffering that cannot be described in words, and become vivid pictures. Although the event is not officially open to young girls, quite a few of them are present. There is no doubt that the voyeuristic presentation provides catharsis for hidden emotions and fears.
Comedienne fails to raise a laugh
Evenings for women that are sponsored by various benevolent organizations are quite common during the Hebrew month of Adar, during which "gifts to the poor" are ordained. The fundraisers serve as a legitimization of the need for entertainment in a society in which the leisure culture still needs justification.
Each organization has a style of its own. Yad L'Achim, for example, charged NIS 20 as an entrance fee and during the course of the evening raised annual contributions, collecting the women's signatures on commitments to $10 a month.
A week earlier, Bonei Olam, an organization that helps childless couples, charged NIS 100 for entry to a grandiose and elaborate event, which also included a dramatic performance. The bulk of this relatively high entry fee for this audience was a donation. And the audience was large.
But in the month of Adar one also rejoices a lot, and rejoicing is a justification for being entertained. Thus, for example, last week in another ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, Har Nof, a lovely concert by the Ron Shulamit Conservatory was held in the auditorium of the ultra-Orthodox seminary for girls, Neveh Yerushalayim.
The evening was arranged by the Har Nof neighborhood administration (the community center) under the sponsorship of the Torah Culture Department of the Jerusalem municipality and was intended mainly for the parents of the girls who were performing, but was also open to the general public. Classical music is not exactly the ultra-Orthodox public's cup of tea. Perhaps for that reason, during the second half of the evening, a stand-up comedienne was invited. Tickets: only NIS 20.
A busload of seminary girls from Ofakim who came to the concert lost their way and the entire auditorium, including the large orchestra of girl students and their female teachers, sat waiting patiently and quietly for the guests to arrive. No one complained. Finally, after a considerable delay, the director of the conservatory, Arieh Chasid, decided to start.
The signal was given and the notes of the work - the second movement of Tchaikovksy's Fifth Symphony - flowed harmoniously and softly into the space. But the devil had his way and just at that very moment the lost girls arrived. With a flick of her baton, conductor Rina Schieffer unapologetically and charmingly stopped the music and the guests slipped into their places.
What? Don't those poor girls deserve to enjoy themselves a bit? In any case, a bit of noise and tumult at performances has never hurt the pleasure. At most performances the doors never close hermetically at the designated time and during the entire performance there is a kind of parade of latecomers and no one complains.
After the concert, the comic interlude. A sharp-tongued ultra-Orthodox stand-up comedienne, the mother of nine children, ridicules the norms of ultra-Orthodox society and slaughters a number of sacred cows, but gently. From arranged matches to the separation between boys and girls, mothers in families - there is no area left unscathed.
For some reason she does not succeed in eliciting the laughs she deserves. Apparently the women are in shock. Laughing at themselves - that's too much.