The biblical Book of Ruth is a story of epic proportions whose larger-than-life main characters take part in a timeless drama of conflicting values and cultures, one that contrasts self-interest with loving kindness, loyalty and courage.
Imbued with love of the land of Israel and its people, the story vividly describes life in ancient Judea, where Torah-mandated care for the poor and adherence to the command to see to the continuity of a family's name and inheritance are the norm. Ruth, the Moabite princess who converts to Judaism and refuses to abandon her destitute mother-in-law, is a central figure against the backdrop of this milieu, exhibiting the moral stance that justifies the choice of her direct descendant, David, as king of Israel.
If this sounds like the perfect subject for a play, or even an opera, that is just what Toby Klein Greenwald, producer-director and co-founder of Israel's "Raise Your Spirits" English language theater company in Gush Etzion, succeeded in doing, along with co-authors and founders Arlene Chertoff and Sharon Katz. The story of Ruth, mother of royalty (the title of the book by my unforgettable teacher, the late Rav Yehoshua Bachrach, whom the authors mention as a source) is about a woman of integrity and nobility – so that it is entirely fitting that an all-women's theater group performs the inspiring play written by women and performed for women's audiences only.
"Ruth and Naomi in the fields of Bethlehem" is an original musical production that combines drama, music, dance and song, telling the story in a unique way that makes the audience laugh, cry and above all, identify with the very real characters, whose modern dress, down to their mobile phones, makes their situation all the more timeless. Somehow, we also stay rooted in ancient times, as selected verses from the Book of Ruth, sung poignantly to the melodies of the synagogue reading by Esty Holland, introduce each new scene.
The music, composed and arranged by Mitch Clyman, is simply wonderful, as are the lyrics. All the singing is highly professional, with special kudos to the choice of Rubin Academy's classical vocal department graduate Audelia Zagoury as Ruth, US trained Rachel Moore as Naomi and women's choir performer Deena Lawi as Boaz – all from Gush Etzion. Supporting them Michal Moore as Mahlon, Eliana Flaschner as Kilyon and the King of Moav, who encourages their becoming one people, played by Chavi Eisenberg.
The rhythms are sometimes spirited – a square dance (which actually seemed quite appropriate) at the village gates had the audience clapping and stamping their feet - and at other times hauntingly beautiful, as in the inspiring song "The Voice Within" in which Ruth tells us to listen and have faith, as she did. Local youngsters and teenagers are outstanding in the dance troupe and choir.
It is clear that the writers not only delved carefully into the nuances of the text itself, but did much more, using midrashic sources and other commentaries – and in the playbill, they mention consulting with known Tanach scholars and teachers to add dimensions and psychological depth to the play.
Staying within the bounds of traditional interpretation, they nevertheless managed to insert perceptive and really funny original touches, as the Raise Your Spirits theater group does in all its productions. For example, the description of Moab, the pagan country to which Elimelech emigrates from famine-stricken Bethlehem and where his financial success comes at the price of his sons marrying out (that's in the biblical story, folks – no, nothing changes under the sun…), seems to be a stab at those who prefer the luxuries of America to the Jewish State –and in case you don't get it, the sign outside the king's palace says "Make Moab Great Again." The rousing "Land of Plenty" has a cleverly put anti-BDS overtone.
Look for the play if you live in Israel or are visiting – it will 'raise your spirits,' reboot your Zionism and remind you of why you love this country.
Strangely, it is about ten minutes from the real town of Bethlehem to the Gush Etzion Junction, where one turns right to reach the Community Center auditorium. As I drove south from Jerusalem several nights ago to enjoy "Ruth and Naomi in the Fields of Bethlehem," I had to pass the turnoff to PA-controlled Bethlehem and the nearby Jewish city of Efrat, also mentioned in the Book of Ruth, a separate municipality but located in Gush Etzion,.
I found myself picturing Ruth in the fields outside the town, gleaning stalks of wheat from those dropped by the reapers, carrying out one of the compassionate mitzvahs that the Torah commanded an agrarian society to keep so that the poor could find sustenance. I couldn't help thinking of how Bethlehem is the last place a Jewess, even one who was originally a Moabite princess, can expect compassion today. How ironic it is that an ancient, once pastoral town with so much historical significance for the Jewish people, from the story of Mother Rachel to those of Ruth and King David, is now off limits to Jews. Israel grants passes for Palestinian Arabs to be able to work out of PA controlled areas, but woe to the Israeli who makes a wrong turn into Bethlehem or other areas under PA control (big red signs in Hebrew and English and IDF soldiers at junctions prevent the occurrence of such dangerous mistakes.)
Gush Etzion is known as a wonderful place to live, not only because it is attractively planned, but because its residents are upbeat, love their communities and are constantly planning new ways to improve the quality of life in the area. The theater group is, perhaps, the most outstanding example, with performances in Jerusalem and other venues.
Just two weeks ago, I was at the end of term performance of the clubs for intellectually gifted children, hearing about their plans for launching a large hot air balloon and trying to solve the mathematical puzzles the young students were working on. Last Saturday night there was a piano concerto with a gifted Russian pianist who played to a full house. There is always something going on, the restaurants are excellent, parks lovely and the shopping just as good as in the city. There are synagogues, yeshivas, ulpanas, the Har Etzion hesder yeshiva and teacher's college and the elementary schools add more parallel classes every year.
Yet the performance I attended took place just minutes from the spot where three young yeshiva high school students were abducted and later killed not so long ago, and where others were killed and wounded by ramming cars, stabbings and shootings – all by the Palestinian Arabs who have taken over the places where Boaz and Ruth showed the world what compassion and loving kindess, chessed, are. The IDF soldiers now manning the route to keep us safe are true to that legacy, another proof that the land is ours.
Raise Your Spirits Theater Company was formed when Gush Etzion was the target of murderous shootings during the first Intifada. The women whose brainchild it was, decided to enlist local talent – religious, secular, Sabras and new immigrants – to make people feel good – to raise their spirits.
Times have not become easier, but let "Ruth and Naomi in the fields of Bethlehem," a creation of the talents in Gush Etzion, work its joyous theatrical magic and renew your faith in the future of G-d's people in His land.