She Does It Her Way

She may live in ultra-Orthodox Bnei Brak, but Holocaust researcher Sahra Blau is finding a niche in the world of secular culture. She writes plays, stories and newspaper articles, appears on television, and is also trying to redefine the term `religious single woman'

Sahra Blau enters Betty Ford, the trendiest bar in Tel Aviv, wearing a chic black outfit, and with a skillful glance quickly locates the best table. When the waitress comes over, Blau politely waves away the proffered menu and orders just a cup of coffee. Nothing about her appearance gives away the fact that she is a religious woman who grew up and lives in Bnei Brak.

"I was born and raised, and obviously I'll also die, in the ghetto of Bnei Brak," she declares. "I live in an apartment that belonged to my grandmother, who died four years ago, in a very Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] neighborhood. There's a status quo between my neighbors and me: I'm quiet, I don't have people over - certainly not men, and I try to slip out of my apartment in modest clothing. A good friend once said to me, `Sahra, if you move to Tel Aviv, within five minutes, you won't be religious anymore.' I don't want to put it to the test."

Is your religiosity really that fragile?

"I don't want to try it. Once, you never would have caught me in a place that didn't have a kashrut certificate. Then I started to go into places that don't have a kashrut certificate, but I wouldn't touch anything. I wouldn't even pour the diet cola I ordered into a glass - God forbid, the glass may have been wiped with pig fat. Now I've reached a more advanced stage - I will drink in a place that doesn't have a kashrut certificate, but I won't eat there."

You also don't dress like a typical religious woman, apart from your skirt, which is very fashionable, by the way.

"That's right. If it weren't for my big mouth, no one would know that I'm religious. When I first started being a talk show panelist, I was invited to some program to fill the `religious' slot. That day, I wore a top with a certain neckline and the host cringed when he saw me in the waiting room. He made a face and said, `This is the religious woman?' When they told him yes, he came up to me and without a drop of shame, asked: `So what's this neckline all about?' and I could see on his face how the whole thing was falling apart for him - He needed a religious woman on his panel and I wasn't religious enough in his view."

The happiest day of her life

Blau, 29 and single, has emerged lately as both a unique artist and a distinct presence on local talk shows. The eldest of three children, she grew up in what she calls a "classic middle-class religious home." Blau's primary occupation - both as a source of livelihood and in terms of its importance in her life - is at the Institute for Holocaust Studies in Haifa, where she has worked for the past 10 years as a teacher and researcher. She originally came to the Institute to do her National Service and never left. At the Institute, she deals with the Holocaust in the most traditional manner, but in her other work, she approaches the subject in a much more provocative way.

About five years ago, Blau (and a partner) created the "alternative Holocaust ceremony," an event that outraged many, including Tommy Lapid. At the ceremony, which is held at a Tel Aviv nightclub on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, artists, actors, media people and others talk about their personal relationship to the Holocaust. In the past few years, the ceremony has become a fashionable Tel Aviv intellectual event; the most recent gathering attracted a crowd of 600 people.

But Blau finds time for other things as well. She publishes essays and stories in Ma'ariv that rattle the consensus in religious society, particularly on matters relating to women. And tonight, Blau is celebrating the premiere of her first play, "Ha'aharona" ("The Last One"), starring Ruth Geller and Bat-Sheva Noam and directed by Ilan Ronen. The plot: Two women, the last two Holocaust survivors in the world, stuck in a small room in a nursing home, argue about which of them will get to be the last survivor on earth. They compete with each other over everything - who is the most unfortunate, who had the most terrible Holocaust experience and who made more high-school students cry when she told her story. The play will be presented as part of the Short Theater Festival this weekend. It starts out as a parody, with the embittered women clinging with all their might to their bygone glory days when they lectured to students about the Holocaust, but as the play progresses, the tone turns much sadder.

"I started to write the play when I realized that we were down to just four survivors who were actively involved in the Institute," says Blau. "Ten years ago, when I started to work there, we had at least 40 survivors. I suddenly saw how the Holocaust could end up in this small room in a nursing home.

"I remember one woman survivor who lived alone - Wednesday was always the happiest day in her life. That was the day when she would get dressed up and come to the Institute to tell her story and all the students were fascinated when they listened to her. It was incredible how the Holocaust was transformed into the most rewarding experience of her life. When you thought about it, it was twisted the way we would essentially be asking the survivors to `move the audience.' I remember saying to one survivor: `You were terrific today! You really moved them! They were crying!' We turned the survivors into a kind of mutation of the Holocaust. It was like we were distorting their memory, treating them like marionettes, saying things like: `Yesterday there was a terror attack, so try to move them more.'"

We live in a world in which the horrors of wars and terror attacks are happening every day. Has this somehow diminished the horror of the Holocaust in our perception?

"Something has definitely changed. Nowadays, for a 16-year-old boy who has been exposed to severed limbs on prime-time TV when he sees reports of a suicide bombing, then - with all due respect to Dr. Mengele - the shock of Auschwitz isn't what it used to be. After the atrocity of the Twin Towers in New York, I remember coming to the Institute the next day and saying to myself: `Dachau again - so what?' It suddenly seemed irrelevant, and not powerful enough.

"I believe very strongly in teaching through shocking or horrifying, so I thought - How am I going to talk about the Holocaust on a day like this? The Holocaust has to be situated in the 21st century. The day the last survivor dies, we're going to have a problem, and I'm saying this as an educator."

What's the problem?

"We're at the end of an era. When all that remains of the Holocaust are the videotapes of the survivors, the deniers will go at it with all they've got, and I'm afraid we'll lose out to them. They're much more successful and work a lot better than we do. A friend of mine was in India and met someone from Amsterdam. He said to her: `Oh, you're from Israel? That Holocaust was so terrible! I read on the Internet how so many people died - 300,000!' Then my friend told him, `Not 300,000. It was six million.' And he said: `What are you talking about? I read it on the Internet. How did you come up with six million?'

"So my friend called over some other Israelis and they all told the guy that it was six million. And he said, `Okay, but where did you get that figure?' and they didn't know how to answer him. Because we all grew up hearing things like `six million' or `never again,' and we're at a point now where that's not enough.

"It's quite clear to us that six million perished, but a scientist could come along and explain in a very scientific way that it takes three hours to burn a human body and that, at its peak, there were 10 crematoria operating at Auschwitz, so in order to burn three and a half million bodies, the crematoria would have had to work for 20 years. So you need someone who knows the documents who can say that at the peak of operations, there were actually 24 crematoria in use and each one was fed three bodies at a time - and then suddenly the numbers look different. We're sitting here all complacent, but there's a lot of interest in this around the world and that's why I think the Holocaust deniers are going to win."

As a child, Blau became obsessed with the Holocaust, but unlike other teenagers, she never grew out of that phase. "My first year at the Institute for Holocaust Studies was the happiest year of my life. The place filled my life with light. It was the year that I understood that this is what I wanted to do every day. It sounds awful, but it was the most meaningful, formative and best year of my life. I wallowed in the Holocaust, I became a walking memorial candle. I didn't have a single association that was unrelated to the Holocaust. I was utterly dedicated to it."

She recounts how she became friends with a number of survivors and kept in touch with them outside of work as well. "I was trying hard to understand the experience, and they always said to me, `Sahrale, you weren't in Auschwitz and I hope that you never will be, so stop trying to act as if you'll be able to understand.' There was one woman who actually said to me, `So you want to be a survivor, eh?' She didn't like it."

Blau's parents also weren't very happy about their daughter's deep immersion in Holocaust research and asked her to quit. "My parents thought I'd gotten carried away, so I took a break from working on the Holocaust and went to the Eretz Israel Museum. For six months, I gave tours about pottery and then an Anne Frank exhibit arrived and, of course, I was chosen to guide it - and I felt that I'd come home."

Why does the Holocaust fascinate you so?

"I'm a very rational person, but I have no explanation for it. It's something that a lot of people feel; the only difference is that I put the feeling into action. The Holocaust was an extraordinary event that human beings perpetrated upon other human beings. I see students who are drawn to it - not to the question of what happened to their grandfather during the war, but because they're fascinated with the pure evil of it, of Nazism."

Perhaps your interest in the Holocaust is something that you absorbed at home when you were growing up?

"My father was born in the ghetto and never got to know his father, because he died at Buchenwald. My other grandfather lost his wife and two children in the camp. These are terrible stories of the Holocaust, but I wasn't raised on them. The Holocaust was barely present in our home. No one talked about it."

At age 19, Blau presented what she calls "an esoteric segment on religious trends" on the religious program aired on Channel One on Saturday nights. "I just remember that the first man who ever put his hand on mine was the technician who hooked up my microphone and I was in such shock, and in such holy awe of the whole television setting, that I didn't say anything to him."

When she completed her National Service, Blau continued working at the Institute for Holocaust Studies as a guide and also began studying at the university. Menachem Ichelson of the religious radio station Kol Hai remembered her from her television appearances and invited her to do a program on the radio. That's where she met religious journalist Uri Orbach and Rabbi Yisrael Eichler, but her work there also made her better acquainted with the Tel Aviv lifestyle. The program sometimes had secular guests and Blau continually expanded her social contacts.

Blau was amazed by her new friends, who nonchalantly told her how, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, they rented a video. "I expected that everyone would be going to the city's memorial ceremony. I felt a dissonance here, because before, whenever I'd tell people that I worked at the Institute for Holocaust Studies, there was always some point of connection, some expression of interest - as if everyone had something to say about the Holocaust. But here, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, people were going to rent a video. So I thought about how to put together a ceremony that would get these people out of the house on Holocaust Remembrance Day."

The Holocaust now

Blau called the first ceremony she planned "Preservation of Memory," printed fliers and hung them up around town. No one came. "A year later, I called it `The Alternative Holocaust Ceremony,' and held it at the Logos pub; suddenly, a lot of people came."

What's the idea?

"It's very simple: It lasts 50 minutes, and 10 people from `Israeli culture,' or what some would call `young Tel Aviv,' get up and present their outlooks or ideas. The speakers go on stage one after the other, between one speaker and the next you hear the sound of trains, and in the end you get an overview of what the Holocaust means to people now. Our ceremony was not `The nation of Israel remembers the six million.' It was individual: I remember the six million, but I also relate to it in a personal way.

"At the ceremony, Yehuda Nuriel talked about the tyranny of memory, that there's a `right' way to remember the Holocaust and a `wrong' way to remember it. Shimi Ron took the stage after him and gave an Mizrahi-style performance of `Serefa Ahim,' Yedidya Meir and Kobi Arieli spoke as Haredim. Yedidya Meir talked about how he, as an ultra-Orthodox person, feels when he hears the siren: `When I stand during the siren, what goes through my mind is not the Holocaust, but the picture that will be in the newspaper the next day, showing Haredim continuing about their business during the siren. I see you secular people looking at me and saying, "Look, there's a Haredi who is standing at attention." It's true that we say not to stand during the siren, because we prefer to recite Tehillim [Psalms], but my father told me that if I'm among the secular, then I should stand.' Eran Sabag talked about hatred for the Germans, how as a philosophy student, it's hard for him to hear the German language, and Amir Orian booed him from the audience ... Shimon Adaf gave an interesting interpretation of the poem, `I never saw another butterfly.'"

The events organized by Blau gave people who aren't used to giving speeches a chance to feel comfortable speaking candidly about the Holocaust. Critics of the events have been disturbed to see such people lamenting the Holocaust from the personal angle, almost as if they were its victims.

"The ceremony is really very dependent on the individuals and it's true that it has a very contemporary tinge to it, but if that's what gets people out of the house, then I don't care," Blau responds. "These ceremonies are just an option. There's nothing wrong with state ceremonies. If I was charged with preparing just one ceremony for the entire country, of course I'd go the classic route of spotlighting survivors, singing `Eli, Eli' and lighting memorial candles."

She says an alternative can only arise if there is "something very strong on the state level." The alternative ceremony isn't meant for someone who has never heard about the Holocaust, but "for people who are searching for an additional perspective. The last ceremony we did corresponded with the national ceremonies because the same poems and songs shape our consciousness of the Holocaust."

Still, in earlier ceremonies, you had speakers like gossip columnist Gil Riva and actress Orly Weinerman. It seems that with the choice of speakers, you're trying to make waves and draw attention.

"Orly Weinerman was in it the second year, when we still did some acting segments. Gil Riva came because he has an obsession with the Holocaust and because I knew, in the most cold and calculating way, that his participation would bring in more people. But after the people come - usually with this kind of scornful tone of, `Let's see what type of nonsense they're spouting there,' they are surprised to experience something very strong and genuine. At the last ceremony, which was very cool in an `avant-garde' theater kind of way, the last person to speak was a woman who was a Holocaust survivor. She said: `I was in Dachau and you can make alternative ceremonies and dance in nightclubs, but the bottom line is this - We bequeathed you the Holocaust and you will continue to do what you wish with this memory, but like it or not, this seed is planted in you."

A single woman

At midnight, Bnei Brak is a lot more bustling than Dizengoff Street. Couples with strollers walk the main streets, supermarkets are still open and loud music spills onto the street from the banquet halls. Blau's apartment still looks much as it did when her grandmother lived there - full of old, heavy furniture and devoid of any modern appurtenances. But one item quickly catches a visitor's eye: An ornate wedding gown is laid out on an armchair, with a pair of red shoes sitting beneath it. "None of my friends come here," an embarrassed Blau hurriedly explains. "And I'm so used to the dress being here that I totally forgot about it. God, who knows what you think about me now!"

That you were going to get married and you called it off?

"No, no. My younger sister got married recently and she asked me to keep the dress here until the wedding. I hung it up in my bedroom, so for a week, I was sleeping with my sister's wedding gown across from the bed. All the emotions I felt about this led me to start writing a story, but then my sister got married and brought the dress back to the store and I was stuck in the middle of the story - without the dress that gave me the inspiration to write it. Across from my house, there's a gemach [charitable society] that gives out wedding dresses. It's run by an old woman I know, named Ida. I asked her for a dress and she gave me this one, which they say once belonged to the rebbe's daughter. You can see that it's also very expensive. I put the dress here and continued writing the story, which is called `Mironiva.'"

Why haven't you returned it to the charitable society?

"I'd gotten used to having it here, until a friend told me that it would bring me bad luck, because it was from a gemach and maybe I was preventing some impoverished bride from having a dress. So one day I ran over to return the wedding dress to Ida and I saw an obituary notice posted there. Ida had passed away and the gemach was closed."

"Mironiva" is about two girlfriends, one of whom is getting married. "On that day, a barrier is created between them, because one is moving on to a full sex life and the other isn't." Blau chooses her words carefully; she obviously isn't comfortable talking about sex. "There's a serious problem here, since you're not supposed to touch your mate until the wedding day, and that's fine as long as you get married by, say, 23. But what if it doesn't happen and you reach the advanced age of 28? I find it very unnatural that there are 30-year-old women who have never experienced a kiss. There are a lot of women like that, and they'll never do anything about it. They certainly won't go to ask the rabbi's advice."

So what can one do?

"You become your own little authority who decides what's permitted and what's forbidden, but it's all accompanied by so many guilt feelings that I think that there has to be some conceptual reform in Orthodoxy. I'm sure that as soon as they read this, some people will be up in arms, but the reform I'm talking about has to come from within Orthodoxy, for my sake and for the sake of all my good women friends, for whom everything about this matter is very problematic, especially when the marriage age is rising and especially when you don't manage to get married for some reason. What Orthodoxy is basically saying is that you're supposed to wither away without human contact."

Is your choice to remain single a kind of rebellion against the norms you were raised on?

"Not everything with me is a rebellion. It just didn't work out. I was an unattractive girl for a long time and my little sister was always the pretty girl in the family. She also found a husband very quickly. I didn't have an easy time with all of this, but on the other hand, my other interests - the play, the television program, the newspaper articles - have saved me. At family occasions, people would always ask me, `So what's new?' until the truth came out - that there was nothing new, meaning that I hadn't found someone. Now, when they ask me, `What's new?,' I tell them about what I'm doing and it helps me feel that I am a strong and independent person who isn't dependent on a husband. So, for me, this article in Haaretz is worth six months of quiet."

You chose not to follow the path that was laid out for you - marriage and children at a young age. Have you put yourself into a trap that will leave you single?

"Whereas, once, an unmarried religious woman used to be sour and grim, with her environment having sapped her zest for life, now there is a relatively large group of single, independent religious women who do quite well on their own, and the environment needs to adjust its attitude toward them. For me, the worst problem is the limited pool of available men. I'm not that attractive to religious men, and secular guys have a problem with me because I'm religious."

Can you see yourself with a secular guy?

Blau is silent for a moment, rolls her eyes and then giggles in embarrassment. "My attraction to the secular cultural world is above all a practical attraction. It's the world in which I can create my art. I couldn't organize an alternative Holocaust ceremony in Bnei Brak - only in Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is a wonderful city in which there is openness and one has the option to do different things. The stories that I write, the plays - I could never put them on in the ghetto of Bnei Brak, or in the settlements, because the subjects that interest me don't interest the public that I'm supposed to be speaking to. The religious public has a sense that I've betrayed them. They've realized that I don't represent the `proper' opinions. They come to me and say, `You're making your way in the secular world by airing dirty linen.' Sorry, but I'm not on a religious mission."

So what keeps you religious?

"Habit. I'm a very conservative person. For me to become non-observant would be a total upheaval. First of all, there's the wardrobe - wearing pants, for example. Then there's the intellectual, conceptual upheaval - and I don't have the energy for that. I'm content the way I am. The other reason is fear of God. There's this primitive side of me that believes that if I travel on Shabbat, I'll be electrocuted the very same day. There's fear of God and, then there's faith and the insight that this is how I believe." Would you call yourself a religiously observant person?

"I'm an autonomous religious woman. I'm not on automatic pilot. Sometimes, a whole day goes by and I haven't done the ritual washing of hands. I say a blessing only before eating bread, not before eating fruit. Why? I don't know. There are things that are hard-core for me and those are Shabbat and kashrut. For now, I control my religiousness, not the other way around."