In 2001, in the midst of the terrible Second Intifada, a group of women in Gush Etzion gathered together almost every evening, when people were afraid to travel the roads, and rehearsed the show Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – an operetta by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, that many of them were familiar with from school and camp productions.
Toby Klein Greenwald, originally from Cleveland, who directed the show then and has remained director all these years, relates that when the cheap black backdrop fell apart after their third performance, the scenery director asked if she should buy more cheap material or more expensive.
“With a leap of faith,” says Klein Greenwald, “I said, ‘the more expensive.’” Women came on buses from all over Israel and instead of doing three shows, they did 12.
After that first production they began to write their own original biblical operettas and since then more than 50,000 women have seen their productions in Israel, and even more people abroad, as they are licensed to Jewish schools, shuls, and camps (and once to a Christian street theater in India).
On November 27 and November 30, they return Joseph to the stage again in the Heichal Hatarbut in the community center of Gush Etzion, with performances also at the Shalva Center in Jerusalem on Dec. 4 and 7, and in the Heichal Hatarbut in Beit Shemesh on Dec. 11. There will be subtitles projected above the stage both in English and Hebrew. The translated Hebrew lyrics are by the late Ehud Manor, one of Israel’s legendary songwriters.
The cast includes more than 50 actresses, aged 7-71, who span the spectrum of haredi, Religious Zionist, and traditional, olim (immigrants) and sabras (native Israelis). Their actresses come from Gush Etzion, Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh and Mevo Beitar. The role of Joseph is played by Maya Faverman, who began her career with them at the age of nine and recently turned 17.
The cast includes Halleli Markowitz, 12, a student with Down Syndrome. Her mother, Gaby Shine Markowitz, also performs in the show and is exuberant about what being in the show has meant for Halleli and for her. It has also been an important lesson in inclusiveness for the cast.
The cast also includes Charrish Samuel, a 14-year-old student whose family fled Pakistan and are living in Alon Shvut. They are completing their giyur (conversion) here. Klein Greenwald, who knows the family, says, “I asked her mother if she could sing and dance. She said she could sing but not dance. She sent me an audition recording that made our casting team cry - hearing ‘Hatikva’ and a song including the words ‘Sh’ma Yisrael’ in her Pakistani accent. Then she came to rehearsal and Maayan (Haller) Allen, the choreographer, told her to dance and she's one of our best dancers. It was a real discovery. Where was she going to dance in Pakistan?”
Some women were in the original Joseph show, including Elisheva Savir, who was a teenager then, and today is the musical director, in addition to reprising her role as Joseph’s brother, Gad. She has a B.A in Musicology and Literature and a M.A in music therapy, both from Bar Ilan University, works as a music teacher, choir conductor, and music therapist in various schools in Jerusalem, and directs a women’s choir.
Other team leaders are head producer Tammy Rubin, originally from Chicago, who is also the Raise Your Spirits chairwoman; Shayna Levine-Hefetz, originally from Miami Beach, who is the assistant director and a co-producer; and co-producer Heather Gelb of Alon Shvut, originally from Kent, Ohio. Rubin, Levine-Hefetz, and Gelb also perform in the show.
Raise Your Spirits, which performs with the generous support of the Matanel Foundation, is defined as community theater, but in addition to both newcomers and veterans of the theater troupe, who have natural talent and theater and choir experience, the cast includes women who have studied at the Jerusalem Academy of Music, and several who have recorded albums, such as Rachael Rosenbaum, who is a singer-songwriter and harpist, and Shalomis Koffler Weinreb of the famed Ayelet Hashachar band in Baltimore, who plays Pharaoh in the show. Yael Yehuda, who plays Jacob, also has original songs posted on YouTube and plays with a band.
In their day jobs the women in the cast and crew include a Ph.D. geneticist, a lawyer, a wedding planner, a nurse, teachers, several yoga instructors, reflexologists, a guitar teacher and performer, journalists, PR people, and hi-tech workers. In fact, if you come on aliya, or already live in Israel, and are a would-be thespian, Raise Your Spirits may be more than an evening of great entertainment – it may open up a door.