What if?

What if?

Playwright tells the sort-of-familiar story of the four matriarchs in the garden

Sigal Samuel’s play reconsiders the four matriarchs.

One of our frequently told stories is of the four sages who enter Paradise. Of the four, one dies, one is struck mad, one becomes a heretic, and one leaves unscathed. It is a powerful, mysterious, and unsettling tale.

Sigal Samuel of Brooklyn, a writer and editor for the Jewish Forward, thought a great deal about that midrash. “I remember studying it in school” – a modern Orthodox day school in Montreal – “and with my father,” a former professor of Jewish mysticism in that city’s Concordia University, she said. “I’ve been sitting with it for many years.”

Last year, Ms. Samuel was a fellow at the Laba program sponsored by the 14th Street Y in Manhattan. Laba, which its founders called a laboratory for Jewish culture, uses classic Jewish texts “as a springboard to artistic creation,” Ms. Samuel said. The year’s theme was mothers. So when the idea of Jewish texts in general, the idea of mothers in general, and this text, which had floated around in her subconscious practically forever, came together, they were catalyzed by another realization.

Four sages entered Paradise.

There are four matriarchs in the Bible.

So Ms. Samuel asked the question that talmudic sages, artists, and dreamers always asked. What if…?

The answer to that question will be on view at Temple Emeth in Teaneck, when her play, “Four Women Enter Paradise,” is presented before Slichot services at Temple Emeth in Teaneck.

In the play, Ms. Samuel reframes familiar stories to allow viewers to see them from different angles, yielding new questions that logically demand new answers. How did Sarah feel when her husband, Abraham, told Pharaoh that she was his sister, thus freeing Pharaoh to take her as his wife? Did Rebecca really prefer the mewling Jacob to the charismatic Esau, or did she favor him simply to carry out God’s perceived will? And what about the complicated relationship between Rachel and Leah?

And, for that matter, what about Eve? The first woman also makes an appearance, and what she says is both logical and surprising.

Although the play was not written specifically for Slichot, it makes good sense to see it then, Ms. Samuel said. “It will be an interesting thing to think about as we go into the new year, because it takes our traditional texts and twists them. It turns them on their head, and lets us look at them with new eyes.”

Temple Emeth will present a staged reading of the play at 7:30 p.m., performed by synagogue members and directed by Michael Bias, who also belongs to the shul. Ms. Samuel will be on hand to answer questions and moderate a discussion; after dessert, Slichot will begin at 10.

Who: Playwright, novelist, and journalist Sigal Samuel

What: Presents a play, “Four [Women] Enter Paradise,” directed by Michael Bias, featuring Emeth members, and talks about it afterward.

Where: Temple Emeth, 1666 Windsor Road, Teaneck.

When: Saturday, September 20. Play at 7:30 p.m.; discussion and dessert follow; Slichot services at 10.

For information: (201) 833-1322 or www.emeth.org.

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