Women-only arts group getting under way

When Miriam Leah Droz became observant 10 years ago, she felt she had to choose between her passion for singing or her religious way of life. She couldn’t have both.

It turns out that she was wrong. Or, rather, that she is righting that wrong.

Debuting her new organization, Atara, a network of performing artists who adhere to halacha, Droz is finally able to give to Orthodox women what she always craved, an observant lifestyle, strengthened and empowered by their talent.

"We think that there is a contradiction between Torah and art, but if Torah is true, than there can’t be a contradiction," Droz said, explaining that she created the nascent organization because of the prohibition of kol isha, a woman’s performance in front of men.

"The Torah is there to make our lives deeper and more meaningful," she said. "The Torah can only help you."

"We think there’s a limitation on art, but art can’t function with limitations —that’s the whole point of art. Atara is a reconciliation of art and Torah," she added.

The "reconciliation" is to have women perform for audiences made up only of women. Women-only performances are common in Brooklyn and have even sprung up locally, in Passaic and Teaneck. But Droz has created something new, an umbrella organization that will provide workshops by professionals, direction for start-ups, and an annual event showcasing their talent.

At a weekend-long event starting Nov. 10, Atara will host a variety of performances and workshops at Stern College in New York City. The weekend begins with a women-only showing of "A Light for Greytowers," a musical movie acted by young Orthodox girls mirroring their world and its tensions. The movie was produced by Robin Garbose, a Hollywood producer turned Orthodox, who like Droz, faced the choice of an observant lifestyle versus a Hollywood career. And like Droz, she found many girls and newly observant women painfully making a similar choice: the arts or Torah. That’s what prompted her to think "women only."

"There are needs that aren’t being met," Droz says of the hundreds of women who came to auditions for a February ‘007 and a June ‘006 concert that she organized. "We had more performers than audience, and we needed to figure out how to mobilize this arts community."

She hopes that at Atara’s inaugural annual event she will start that process by showcasing new talent with a concert called "Shir Lamalote." One of the artists being showcased at the concert is Aliza Dubin. Performing at a women-only concert won’t be new to Dubin. She successfully put together a concert to benefit Hurricane Katrina victims in her Passaic home — ’00 women showed up.

"I’m a fulfilled person when I sing and write music," Dubin said. "When God gives you a gift, you have an obligation to put it out."

Dubin has put her talent into a CD that’s available on aish.com. It reflects her journey of becoming observant. She is working on her second CD.

Many of the professionals are mothers, who, like all other moms, juggle dinner and carpools, but also deeper issues, like self-expression and halachic adherence.

"Perhaps some of the struggles teenage girls in the religious world go through, there will be less of with these forms of expression, " Dubin mused, as she thought of her 5-year-old daughter.

And while the focus for this conference is all women, Droz said that there is an Orthodox male community that also doesn’t get to have theatrical expression. "The mission of Atara is to address the needs of halachic performing artists."

She also hopes a rabbi will take the time to perhaps put out a halachic guide for the arts. She says it remains a gray area, where no one quite knows what’s permitted and what’s forbidden, because no one has written such a compendium. To Droz it would be as natural and essential as having the laws of kashrut accessible to an observant Jew.

As a full-time student at the Drisha Institute in New York, Droz is rounding out her Torah education, post-Israel. While she had a musical theater background, she felt she needed a stronger Jewish education. She feels it has helped her to solidify her understanding of the Orthodox population, and her vision for Atara.

She sees the Orthodox world as two communities, a group that is very religious and therefore won’t pursue the arts, and a group that is so committed to the arts that they leave religion behind. She hopes to address both populations. She also hopes the arts will bring peace between these two populations.

But at the moment she is busy with the minutiae of event planning: schedules, programming, and getting the word out to potential artists.

For more information, go to Atara@ataraconference.info