“Mikva the Musical” comes to Beit Shemesh!
By Toby Klein Greenwald
More than sixteen years ago, a friend of mine, Myra Gutterman, came to me with a creative new idea. She had decided to record and transcribe the experiences of balaniot (mikva attendants) and of women who use the mikva, to be performed as a show for women. She called it The Mikva Monologues and invited me to join her in the project, as director and co-producer/editor.
Photo by Toby Klein Greenwald
We worked on it through the years, on and off, as we were both busy with other projects. Finally, we decided its time had come, and met intensively to finish the script. But a line that Myra suggested one day made me say, “That sounds like a lyric!” We looked at each other, and at that moment morphed it from The Mikva Monologues to Mikva the Musical, Music and Monologues from the Deep, that includes songs, and original monologues and dialogues.
Toby Klein Greenwald
Photo by Rebecca Kowalsky
As we auditioned and head-hunted actresses and singers, I realized this would be one of the most meaningful theater projects of my life. I knew it would be something extraordinary. And that defined it all the way. Myra says, “It did take a while from original idea to stage.... but I'm grateful it did.”
Everything about it – the subject matter, the cast, the women in the audience who react and share their own stories afterwards – is rich and moving, inspirational and funny, and sometimes heart-wrenching. Every woman who has ever been to mikva has a story. We also include a yoetzet halacha (female halachic advisor on mikva issues) in our post-show discussion. In the course of the writing and rehearsing, we consulted with rebbetzins, balaniot and kalla teachers.
We perform the show as open-book salon theater. We see the mikva through the eyes of self-conscious brides (some with comical experiences), a new mother, a convert, and women who have experienced challenges, such as hydrophobia, anxiety, and more.
From our first performance
(Photo by Shannon Nuszen)
This year, in Beit Shemesh, for the first time, we will be premiering a true story about a non-Orthodox couple from Tel Aviv, who had struggled ten years with infertility, visited the Chabad House of Katmandu, and the famous Rebbetzin Hani Lifshitz took the woman to the top of a mountain to toivel in a frozen lake. A totally inspiring story.
Photo by Edva Zaguri
We hear the stories of Michele Thaler, a woman who became paralyzed from the waist down from an epidural, yet maintains a wonderful attitude to life (she is the only one who tells her own stories on stage, with both drama and humor), of Rabbanit Shani Taragin, who discovers her breast cancer while dunking at a lake, and of a woman who dares a dip in the cold ocean while on a romantic vacation. Naturally we also have a new story, about COVID.
Our Kiryat Gat cast rehearsing
Our cast and crew
We intentionally chose a cast and crew who, in addition to being excellent at what they do, are religiously eclectic. Both Myra and I feel passionately about uniting people from diverse communities and viewpoints. Many of Israel’s English-speaking theater troupes are religiously mixed, but we’re the first ones to deal with such an intimate, religiously sensitive topic, and the discussions we had around the rehearsal table were as deep as the final product. We build bridges through stories, music and mikva.
As director, I didn’t just hand the cast scripts and say, “Learn your lines.” Due to family, work, and health issues, there has been a turnaround in actresses, but they all became a part of the process, and contributed to it exponentially through their input and personal stories (some of which appear in the show), and we have all bonded as a loving and supportive group.
Our Mikva cast includes Adina Feldman, our music director, an internationally recognized singer and choreographer, who also contributed significantly to the staging, and has provided most of
the new songs for this second time around.
Photo by Ohad Roman
Our musicians include women from the legendary Tofa’ah band, led by acclaimed drummer Yona Saslow Yakobovitz, the first women-to-women performing troupe (to the best of my knowledge) in the world, and the troupe that were my personal inspiration when I co-founded the Raise Your Spirits Theatre troupe.
Yona Saslow Yakobovitz
Several of their songs are also in our new production. Other actors, in addition to Adina and Michele, are Gaby Shine and Melissa Kay.
Photo by Michele Thaler
Additional musicians are Ruth Sokolov on the keyboard; and Mindy Fuhrer, Tamar Attias and Orpaz Harrison from Tofa’ah.
Ruth Sokoloff Mindy Fuhrer Tamar Attias Orpaz Harrison
One of the revelations in this production is the extent to which women will go to perform the mitzva of mikva. This is phenomenal. It shows how deeply this mitzva is in their souls. We’d like to see conversations opened about some of the issues we raise in the show, and I’d love to see more women be inspired by it to go to mikva, including those who don’t view themselves as Orthodox. We can offer specialized evenings for specific groups – for new brides, or for women dealing with infertility or miscarriage, or post-mastectomy, which has issues of self-image.
As the day of our Beit Shemesh premiere grew near, I add to my tefillot, as I added before our premiere almost four years ago, “Please, Hashem, help me so that everything I do is l’shem Shamayim” (“for the sake of heaven”). I think for our entire team, this is about bringing something meaningful to the world.
Where have we performed?
Laya and Alan Lurie of Katamon, Jerusalem, graciously hosted us for the first show on August 27th, 2018. Fayge and Carl Posy hosted us on Succot that year. We performed two more shows in Jerusalem in 2019, one that was sponsored by The Nishmat Jeanie Schottenstein Center for Advanced Torah Study for Women, with the blessing of Rabbanit Chana Henkin, and one that was sponsored by the Eden Center. We also performed in Efrat, and in Kiryat Gat, where we volunteered our services, to raise money for a mikva that had been partly destroyed by a rocket from Gaza.
In June, 2019, we were brought to America and performed there five times in the New York area—at a shul in Queens, at an elegant home in Lawrence, at a black box theater in Teaneck, NJ, and twice in small concert halls at the National Opera Center of Manhattan.
Our American cast
(Photo by Rivka Lock. Robes donated by the family of the Missoni fashion house)
Our initial donors were five women from the Five Towns, who are passionate about this topic. They are Penina Batsheva Popack, Leah Eliana Popack, Rebecca Rosenbaum, Myrna Zisman and Henya Storch. They were also the ones who facilitated our trip to New York.
Performing in New York
(Photo by Rivka Lock)
We started as a small private enterprise, so Raise Your Spirits Theatre has taken us under their non-profit aegis, with their blessing. It was a natural shidduch, as some of our cast and crew have worked with them or currently work with them.
After the first performance, we held our breath, awaiting the reactions of the audience. They were exuberant. There was a wonderful discussion with questions, personal stories and excited feedback. This repeated itself at every performance, in both Israel and America.
Here is just a taste of the written feedback we received during the first two years of our performances:
The Biale Rebbe of B’nei Brak (who had the show described to him in great detail): “This 'Mikva the Musical' show for women should go throughout Israel, America and the whole world! Its influence will bring tremendous blessing to families, married couples, children born in holiness and to klal Yisrael.”
Rabbanit Chana Henkin, Rosh Hamidrasha, Nishmat, The Jeanie Schottenstein Center For Advanced Torah Study For Women: Magnificent!
Gila Manolson, Inspirational speaker, author of The Magic Touch: A Jewish Approach to Relationships and other books: LOVED THE SHOW LAST NIGHT! I laughed and cried. It was wonderful!
Dr. Naomi Marmon Grumet, Founding Director of The Eden Center: This show raises important conversations about a range of aspects of going to the Mikvah. It combines the funny, mundane scenes we are all familiar with, and touching situations which show how it can be difficult and a window into somebody's real pain.
Chana Jenny Weisberg, Creator of blog JewishMom.com and author of Expecting Miracles: The show was amazing, a huge yasher koach!!
Laurie Novick, on behalf of Efrat's Yoatzot [Halachic advisors on issues of nidda and mikva]: As a yoetzet halachah, I have the privilege of encountering first-hand the many different experiences women have when observing the laws of niddah. The show was remarkable in bringing a sense of that broader story to the wider community, with sensitivity and humor. I am confident that the audience left the show with a deeper understanding of other women's journeys, and inspired by the depth of commitment to this mitzvah.
Dr Hava-Yael Schreiber: I was very moved by Michele's stories, infertility, and the abused wife. I liked very much the piece on extreme anxiety (so real! I am an OB/GYN and have met/seen some). It is well done with the proper dose of realism and humor. I liked very much how the music interacts and underlines the dialogue. This was an amazing experience. So very human. Very professional, excellent quality show on top of it.
Channah Males Appel, Project coordinator at AISH, Cleveland, Ohio: I’m a kalla teacher… and I’ve dealt with many situations of women who have gone to the mikva, older women, younger women…and this show was amazing, and highlighted so many aspects of the experience. It’s a must see for everyone.
Bella Rubashkin, Crown Heights, New York: It's something that's long overdue and Baruch Hashem that it's available now. I think it's important to bring balaniot to see this and to know what's in a woman's heart and develop a relationship with a woman so that a woman can speak to her before she comes [if she has a special issue].
Ilana Dreyer of Jerusalem: What an amazing show! (From a gal who lived in Manhattan for 30 years and saw any number of off-Broadway productions) …for me “Mikva the Musical” brought to the stage the richness, messiness and humanity of every aspect of being a woman, and the amazing support that can potentially come from the mitzvah of mikva. Kol HAKAVOD.
Pnina Mor, CNM PhD, Coordinator of the NOGA clinic in Shaarei Tzedek, for women at high risk for breast cancer: I want to applaud you on a fantastic musical play... It reminded me that years ago I wanted to do something with the narratives of BRCA mutation carriers. Maybe someday I will get you interested.
Annie Orenstein, Co-founder of Spotlight on Women: It was really beautiful and very powerful, thank you!