'I Told a Camper That the Lord Created a Jewish Partner for Each Jewish Person. She Found It Hard to Take'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: An Israeli trying to instill Jewish values at a Chabad summer camp in Florida, and an opera stage manager coping with the coronavirus shutdown

Yael Benaya
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Daphna Sobko.
Daphna Sobko.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Yael Benaya

Daphna Sobko, 21; lives in Rehovot, arriving from Orlando

Hi, where are you coming from?

I was a counselor in a Chabad camp in Florida. It’s a camp for Jewish kids of 12 to 15 who don’t know anything about the Torah and mitzvot. So we give them a Jewish atmosphere and teach them about the tradition.

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What was it like for you?

It was interesting to be a counselor for boys and girls together. We’re looking at two different worlds that need to be unified. During the year, they go to public schools and have no connection with Judaism, and suddenly they come and are full of questions and want to know where they come from.

Do they connect with the mitzvot?

Yes, when it’s explained to them and they understand, they suddenly want to do everything. Prayer, let’s say. I explained to one girl about prayer, and she suddenly said to me, “Daphna, I’m starting to say ‘Modeh Ani’ [a prayer of thanks recited upon awakening]. You’re scaring me,” as if she’s saying, “What are you turning me into?”

Are there children who connect less?

There was one girl who has a Catholic boyfriend. So when I told them that the Lord created a Jewish partner for each Jewish person, like we marry Jews and don’t mingle with the whole world, she found that hard to take.

Did you understand why she thinks that’s okay?

She said to me, “Look, I’m a Jew, my children will be Jews – so what’s the problem?” I told her that if God created you a female Jew, he created your other half a male Jew, and that’s the perfect world for you. You can marry someone who’s not Jewish, but you’ll probably have a better life with someone that God created for you. And if you have a Catholic friend who’s a boy, then there’s a Catholic girl, or a non-Jewish woman, or whatever, who’s perfect for him. When it’s mixed, it can be good, but there could be a better version of your life.

What’s your original connection to Chabad?

My parents are Russian, they immigrated to Israel, and I was born here. My father is a scientist, a biologist, and when I was four months old we went to San Diego. We weren’t Chabad then, we were barely religious. When I was 3, we went to Moscow and lived there for a year, then we moved to Canada. When I was 8, we went back to Moscow and at 12 we made aliyah. I was in high school here, but for some reason, I don’t know why, I always connected with the American girls – that stayed with me. So, after high school, I went back to America and was there for three years. In a certain sense I’m more American than Israeli, even though I was born here.

When did your family start to become religiously observant?

My parents grew up in Russia, my mother thought there were no more Jews. This was after communism. When she suddenly realized that there are Jews, she made aliyah to Israel and gradually connected to the source.

How did Chabad happen?

We were always told, “Don’t hook up with Chabad, it’s dangerous.” And when people say that, you suddenly get curious. And the truth is that it seems to me it happened by mistake, as it always is with Chabad. We came across Chabad in San Diego. My sister was sick, we got a letter from them, I don’t really know how it happened, but we gradually connected. When the door to Chabad opens, it’s simply filled with love. Everyone accepts you, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, who you are or what your past is – you are simply accepted with warmth and love with absolutely no judgment. Completely. It’s the most natural thing to connect with it.

Is your whole family into it?

Yes. There are different levels. Some are stricter, some less.

And are you more or less?

I’m my own style. I’m the one who looks like a Jerusalemite and lives in Rehovot. I like to connect with people and bring them the warmth I received.

Do you play an instrument?

Yes, since age 13. But, mostly I write poems and set them to music.

Tell us about a song you wrote.

I wrote a poem with one of my pupils about the spotlight effect, about how every person feels he is in the world’s spotlight, that everyone is looking at him. So you always try to be perfect, because maybe someone saw me do something bad, but no one really pays attention, because everyone is so wrapped up in themselves.

Could you sing for us?

“Kol isha” [the prohibition some Orthodox Jews observe on allowing men to hear the “voice of a woman”]. I can’t sing it in front of you, but I’ll send it to you.

Rachel Dane.
Rachel Dane.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Rachel Dane, 29; lives in Givatayim, flying to New York

Hi, when did you dye your hair blue?

I did it during the lockdown. I was at home and not doing anything for a few months, so I dyed my hair from red to blue. I think it was a terrific choice.

Totally. And what do you do in Israel?

I immigrated to Israel almost five years ago, and I work in the Israeli Opera. Unfortunately, the opera is closed now, so I’m leeching on government money, because I’m not earning anything. I decided to go home to Washington, D.C., for a few weeks, risk being infected by the virus, and see my family.

What did you do in the Israeli Opera?

I’m a stage manager. That’s more or less my dream job. I studied stage management at college in the United States, and this job came to me from heaven. I also work as a barista, because the opera doesn’t pay enough. Please pay artists more.

Was that your childhood dream?

The dream was to be on the stage, but that didn’t really work out. I realized that I couldn’t act, and I don’t very much like performing for people. I found that out in high school, when I came to auditions and was terribly frightened. So I moved to behind the scenes.

What do you like about it?

I like to see how theater is created, to be at that first meeting and hear everyone’s ideas and watch a performance being built from the ground up, and then to bring it to the stage. I don’t get to see performances anymore, because I’m backstage, but I like to see how people react. That’s one of the things I love.

What does a stage manager actually do?

Overall, my job is to make sure that everything is going as it should backstage. There are other crew members from every side of the stage, who make sure that everyone is where they’re supposed to be before going on, that everyone has their props and that they’re wearing the right costume. I tell people when to go onstage, so I have to learn every performance from start to finish. Every entrance, every exit, every prop – I know them all. The actors might forget – they remember the lyrics of their songs, but that’s about it.

What were you working on before the epidemic?

We were supposed to mount a Russian opera called “Eugene Onegin” [by Tchaikovsky]. Just as we were about to do the first dress rehearsal, five days before the premiere, the artistic director came down and said we were shutting down. Everyone was onstage at the time and we all received the news together. The energy in the room just plunged. We’d worked on it so hard, and suddenly to find out that we wouldn’t be able to show it to anyone – it’s heartbreaking.

Since then, what have you been doing?

Until then I’d been working 12-13 hours a day, so the first two weeks were kind of a short, weird vacation. Then it sunk it that we weren’t going back to work, and I hadn’t seen my family for a year, so I decided to go.

How did your family take your move to Israel?

Everyone said, “Why do you want to live in Israel – it’s so dangerous.” But I never felt unsafe here. I think Tel Aviv is even safer than D.C. – I feel more comfortable going home after work at 2 A.M. from Hamasger Street [in south Tel Aviv], and I would never dare go at that hour in the same kind of neighborhood in the United States. In D.C., I would hold my key in my hand, in case I had to punch someone. I don’t feel like that here.

Are your parents also in the arts?

My mother was a dancer for a time. But besides that no one in the family was involved in the arts. I have three siblings and they all have jobs, I’m the only one who’s unemployed. And I’m the eldest! I’m supposed to be the most stable. Now I’m going home to hear about everyone’s jobs and I’ll sit there embarrassed, even though it’s not my fault that I don’t have a job at the moment. But it’ll be alright. I have the most supportive family in history. Because my mother was a dancer, she understands how it works, how little artists are paid and how hard they work.

Do you like opera?

I wouldn’t sit and listen to an opera, but I don’t have anything against it. It’s okay, but at times it can be a bit boring. A little while ago, I heard someone’s phone ringing and the ringtone was from “Carmen,” and I found myself tapping out the melody with my fingers.

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