“Let’s put on a play, so we won’t sit around thinking about people being killed on the roads,” Toby Klein Greenwald remembers her friend Sharon Katz saying, back in 2001.
It was the height of the Second Intifada, and Ms. Greenwald, who lives in the West Bank town of Efrat, joined Ms. Katz in licensing, casting, and directing performances of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” in the Gush Etzion community center.
Thus was born Raise Your Spirits Theater, which followed up “Joseph” with original Bible-based musicals that Ms. Greenwald co-wrote. They had titles like “Esther and the Secrets in the King’s Court” and “Ruth and Naomi in the Fields of Bethlehem.”
The theater’s newest play, “Mikva the Musical,” which breaks that mold, is playing in Teaneck next week for women only. (See box.) The show started off as “The Mikva Monologues,” a collection of stories about Orthodox women’s experiences using the ritual bath to mark both the end of their menstrual cycles and the monthly halachically mandated abstinence from sexual relations. Ms. Greenwald’s co-producer, Myra Gutterman, started the project, and they worked on it together, off and on, for more than a dozen years.
“We were sitting in a coffee shop and she said something and I looked at her and said, ‘This sounds like a lyric.’ I had just gotten a CD of ‘Menopause: The Musical.’ We looked at each other and said: ‘Mikvah: The Musical.’
“We added songs. ‘Popular’ from ‘Wicked’ became ‘Purify. I’m going to teach you to get purified.’ We integrated the songs. It’s not a cohesive play. It’s a collection of stories and songs.”
The songs’ melodies come from other composers’ show tunes, and the words parody those songs’ lyrics.
The troupe performs only for women, choosing to follow a strict approach to the prohibition against men hearing women’s voices. That allows its cast and audience to include all stripes of Orthodox women.
“Some of the women only sing in front of women,” Ms. Greenwald said. “It’s more important to us that all women feel comfortable, including women who take a stricter halachic approach, than that that it be open to men as well.”
She said this policy has proven particularly fruitful for this performance about women’s experiences.
“Part of the message is that mikva is something that’s not just for one kind of woman,” she said. “It’s something that should unite all different kinds of Jewish women.
“There’s something so special about the sisterhood that is created in the course of the evening. It would lose something if it were before a mixed audience. And I think some of the topics and some of the details are things that women feel more comfortable talking about only among other women. The sharing that goes on afterward would be more inhibited if there were men in the audience.”
Which is not to say that the troupe doesn’t get requests to perform to men. The Orthodox rabbi who heads the Alon Shvut religious council asked the troupe to perform the play, in Hebrew, for students in a course he runs that trains men to teach grooms before their wedding. “He heard about it from some of the yoetzot halacha,” female halachic advisers, in the community.
Ms. Greenwald says she hopes to be able to present the show in Hebrew, which would allow it to reach a much wider audience in Israel. The book has been translated already, but translating the songs, with the requirement that the translation fit the original melody and include rhymes, is taking longer.
The play first was performed last August.
“Baruch Hashem, it was a huge success,” Ms. Greenwald said. “We did another show in Jerusalem. It sold out. Then another one in Efrat.”
Seed money for the production came from a group of women from the Five Towns on Long Island, who also have brought the cast to America for a week-long tour that includes Shabbatons in Crown Heights and Passaic.
Michele Gray Thayer is the one actress in the show who tells her own story. “She was paralyzed by an epidural gone bad 23 years ago,” Ms. Greenwald said. “Her stories are both inspiring and funny. One of her monologues is one of the funniest in the show.”
All of the actresses sing. “The choreography is simple,” Ms. Greenwald said. “Michelle joins in that from the waist up.” Ms. Thayer is in fact an expert in wheelchair dancing. “She created a troupe of women dancers in Jerusalem in wheelchairs who dance with what they call standing partners. She dances from the waist up, with her arms and shoulders.
“One of the challenges for us was finding accessible rehearsal and performance spaces,” she continued. “People talk a lot about inclusiveness. We really do it, and it’s very challenging.”
By traditional Hollywood standards, the most dramatic moment for “Mikva: The Musical” came in a post-show audience discussion when the troupe performed in the southern Israeli town of Kiryat Gat. The show was a fundraiser to rebuild the the community’s mikva after a Gazan missile had crashed through its roof.
The woman in charge of the mikva told the story after the performance.
“She was less than a minute away,” Ms. Greenwald said. “She was running a little late that night. She saw the rocket go through the roof. She said it was the only Saturday night she remembered ever where there were not four or five women waiting for her at the mikva. It was a miracle. The surrounding area was filled with debris and shrapnel.
“Another woman from Sderot said that they have 15 seconds to run for cover after the rocket sirens sound. Imagine that in the context of going to the mikva.”
One man has seen the performance — the sound engineer.
“After the first performance he told us it was all new to him, except for a scene called ‘The Excuses Rap,’ in which the mothers run through all the excuses they give their kids for when they go to the mikva. There’s a monologue about infertility. A song about miscarriage. A monologue about a new bride who feels insecure and doesn’t know exactly what she’s supposed to do.
“There are more difficult stories, like the story of an abused wife, and the mikva attendant notices the bruises. Michelle’s stories aren’t dark, even though they’re about paralysis. There’s one called ‘Dipping in Aruba,’ about a woman pushing aside her fear of sharks to immerse in the ocean.”
And of course, there are the stories that the audience members share. Ms. Greenwald doesn’t have to worry about spoiling the punch line when talking to this reporter.
“You demystified the subject,” one woman told her after a performance. “It’s something that, for reasons of modesty, we’re all hush hush about. As it should be. You’ve made it such a normal thing.
“One a month, my dad would put me and my sister into the car and say, ‘I’m dropping your mother off at her card game. When I got married, I realized that building was the mikva. I told my sister, ‘You know that card game mother used to go to? It was the mikva night!’
“My sister said, ‘No, it wasn’t. It was a card game.’
“I said, ‘I’m telling you, that’s the same building as the mikva.’
“‘Well,’ my sister said, ‘the card game must have been on the other side of the building.’ She couldn’t imagine her mother going to the mikva, so she held on to the story.’
What: Mikva: The Musical
When: Monday, June 24, 8 p.m.
Where: Black Box Performing Arts Center, 200 Walraven Drive, Teaneck
How much: $36
Who can attend: Women only. Recommended for 18 and older.
To buy tickets: Go to MikvaMusicalUSA.Eventbrite.com