A Woman's Rebellion Comes at a Price in Yiddishpiel Theater's 'Mikveh'

Hadar Galron's play is a bold statement about an attempt to change the rules so that men and women will really be able to use them, instead of being used by them.

Gerard Allon

Hadar Galron’s play “Mikveh” – about the place where women have a body and a voice, a soul and wisdom – was presented in Hebrew in a Beit Lessin production 10 years ago, and back then I wrote that “the play’s main strength lies in that the writer, Hadar Galron, who herself comes from that place [Orthodox society], does not want to go somewhere else. She wants to change women’s place within religious society, and to thus transform it, inside and out, to a different place The sense is imparted that there is something so right about the place from whence this play comes that there is a glimmer of hope that it will indeed change yet still remain a ‘place’ in which one can live as a full person, at least for these women, if not for all of us.”

I see no reason to change my view after having seen the play in Yiddish at the Yiddishpiel Theater, with an (almost) entirely different cast, directed once more by Micha Lewenson. Then as now, the melodrama interwoven with the women’s complex and painful stories tugs at the emotions in just the right way, all the while aiming to show that it’s not a matter of black and white, good and bad, pure and impure, or secular versus religious. Rather, the overarching desire is to find a place that is genuinely humane, a place where the human being takes precedence over rules, conventions and halakhot.

The central conflict is between the long-time mikveh attendant (Tracy Abramovitz in a subdued and convincing performance; she played a different role in the original production) whose mantra is “that’s just the way it is” and the new mikveh attendant (a very impressive and credible Miri Ragendorfer) who is willing to risk the little she has in order to help the women she immerses, rather than the society in which she lives. At one point, the new attendant says to the old: “You distinguish between what’s more important and less important, and insist on choosing the less important.”

As a viewer, I mostly asked myself how I would separate the important from the less important here. And I couldn’t help but think that the story, its message, and the identification one comes to feel with the characters and their troubles is the main thing, while the artistic means used to obtain this is just the supporting part. But without the latter, we couldn’t achieve the former.

Compared to the 2004 production, it seems to me that this time, the emphasis is more upon the emotional happenings, and less upon the aesthetic framework (although the set designer, Kinneret Kisch, is the same, as is the realistic visual conception of the setting and the scrim behind which the immersions take place, and upon which the words of midrashim are projected, lending another level of depth to the proceedings).

And precisely because the play is put on in Yiddish, a language I do not understand (I followed the text in the surtitles, aside from the moments when Hebrew was spoken), some of the actresses were completely new faces to me and I was a better, more untainted viewer. For some reason, it felt even more current to me today than it did a decade ago. I found the acting as a whole to be very good, including the more stereotypical characters (Anat Atzmon as a high-class religious woman who maintains a façade that is eventually broken down), Irma Stepanov as a nave young religious woman, Elian Debal-Shor as Chedva, whom the other women must rescue, Hilit Daitch as Tehila, the innocent victim, and Aluma Rozenblum in a wordless and very touching role. Playwright Hadar Galron plays the secular woman who finds herself captive among the Jews (and makes good use of the little stand-up routine she wrote for herself).

The play carries an element of a women’s rebellion (think Lysistrata), but the ending remains open: there appears to be relief and salvation, but it comes at a heavy price (Pardon the vagueness here; trying to avoid a spoiler).

With this production, Micha Lewenson is back to doing what he does best, after a longish break. Will the language of the play – Yiddish – bring to the theater the type of audience for whom it was intended most of all – Orthodox Jews of both genders? I have my doubts. But it certainly underscores what has also been said in other places (including “TheMarker”): that the best chance for change in the haredi world lies in the hands of women. According to this play, a woman’s voice is wisdom and courage, despite whatever Jewish men may say about it.

“Mikveh” will be staged at the Arison Hall of the Arts, Tel Aviv on Saturday at 20.00 and Sunday at 17.00, and at Heichal Hatarbut, Petah Tikva on Monday at 20.00.