Counting the Stars in Gush Etzion

A dramatic, original musical about the courage of the first Jew produced by the women's English theater group of Gush Etzion.

Rochel Sylvetsky,

"Count the Stars"
"Count the Stars"
INN: R. Kowalski

"Raise Your Spirits" Theatre, the all-women's Gush Etzion (Etzion Bloc) acting troupe, which has seven successful seasons of English plays to its credit, was born in 2001 as the response of the women of Efrat and Gush Etzion, located just ten minutes south of Jerusalem, to the terror that then surrounded them during the Oslo War (a period also called the 2nd Intifada). 

The abduction and murder of the three boys, Naftali, Gil-ad and Eyal this past summer from a Gush Etzion shared ride site and the more recent terror attack at a nearby bus stop that took the life of young Dalia Lemkos, have made the troupe's name all the more meaningful.

The Jewish people have always fought to keep their spirits high despite the trials of history and they have often done so by recalling with pride their unique national and religious roots. Today, when Israel is being delegitimized and the Jewish people all over the world are facing the same barbaric and irrational anti-Semitism of yesteryear, "it is a good idea to raise our spirits by reminding ourselves of who we are, how we began and when we came to this land" to paraphrase the play's director, Toby Greenwald.

Perhaps this is what motivated the troupe to take on the difficult challenge of producing "Count the Stars", an original musical play about the lives of the Patriarch Abraham and his wife, the Matriarch Sarah. Difficult, because this is a musical venture that attempts - and succeeds - in turning the two larger-than-life figures into people to whom we can relate, while filling us with awe at the G-d inspired nature of their accomplishments as founders of the Jewish People and teachers of monotheism. After all, it is Abraham, the first Jew, who is told by G-d to go outside to "count the stars" and understand how numerous his descendants will be - but it is also Abraham whom we see washing the feet of his unexpected guests and in ordinary conversation with Sarah. 

It is evident that much scholarly research went into writing this play. Using, for the most part, the "pshat" (literal, rather than midrashic) methodology of Torah study favored by the Tanach (Bible) Department at Herzog Teachers College in Gush Etzion, the story unfolds as the saga of a couple – and they are portrayed as a couple, with joint aspirations, hopes and doubts throughout – that spreads the word of G-d fearlessly throughout the areas through which they travel. 

There are, of course, biblical scenes that are not depicted. The play ends before the binding of Isaac and does not reenact the war between the four and five kings, for example. It cleverly has the Words of G-d (Whose Voice obviously cannot be part of a play in a religious setting) brought through the melodic singing of young actresses dressed as angels. The audience feels Sara's pain at her lack of a child and at her dramatic selection of Hagar as a mate for Abraham, while laughing with her at the prophecy of the angels who arrive at their tent.  

There are touches of wry humor in the script and scenery, such as asking those at the idol contest to put away their tablets or hanging a sign at the entrance to Sodom's tent that adds the word "not" to "Welcome".  Clever humor is one of the specialties of "Raise Your Spirit" plays, but wisely, there is less of it here than in former plays, as it could detract from the epic nature of the play.

Sara, played by Rachel Moore, is an especially notable singer, but all of the singers are impressive and professional-sounding. 

Authors-composers Sharon Katz and Avital Macales, music arranger Amit Ben Atar and musical director Gayle Berman, choreographer Sara Orenstein and above all, indefatigable director Toby Klein Greenwald, along with a cast ranging in age from seven to seventy, who manage to change into a plethora of costumes, all project an air of unity and enjoyment in what they are doing.  That is a not insignificant part of the palpable good feeling one could notice in the audience at the end of the performance, and since I saw the play in Gush Etzion, there was a good measure of well-deserved local pride (for which the Gush is known)  in the air as well. 

"Raise Your Spirits" shows have been been seen by close to 40,000 people, have been performed by license in New York, Cincinnati, Hamilton, Ontario, various summer camps in North America and India, and by the troupe in many locations in Israel. They have been featured at the International Bible Quiz and in news shows and interviews. There is no doubt that this addition to the troupe's productions will become a staple of the modern Jewish theater repertoire as well as did "Noah, Ride the Wave", "Ruth and Naomi in the Fields of Bethlehem", "Esther and the Secrets in the King's Court' and the others. Due to demand, there have been performances added on three dates: Dec. 31, Jan 4 and Jan 8.    



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