By Toby Klein Greenwald
More than 12 years ago, a friend of mine, Myra Gutterman, came to me with a creative new idea. She had decided to record and transcribe the experiences of balaniot (mikveh attendants) and of women who use the mikveh, to be performed as a show for women. She called it The Mikva Monologues and invited me to join her in the project, as director and co-producer/editor.
We worked on it through the years, on and off, as we were both busy with other projects. Finally we decided its time had come, and met intensively to finish the script. But a line that Myra suggested one day made me say, “That sounds like a lyric!” We looked at each other, and at that moment morphed it from The Mikva Monologues to Mikva the Musical: Music and Monologues from the Deep, which includes parodied songs and original monologues and dialogues.
But G-d had other plans. I was diagnosed with breast cancer, so we were on hold again for a year. When my operation and treatments were over and we began again, Myra came to my home once a week. We’d edit, write the parodies, and she’d cook lunch. A great deal!
As we auditioned and head-hunted actresses and singers, I realized this would be one of the most meaningful theater projects of my life. I knew it would be something extraordinary. And that defined it all the way.
Everything about it — the subject matter, the cast, the women in the audience who react and share their own stories afterwards — is rich and moving, inspirational and funny, and sometimes heart-wrenching. Every woman who has ever been to the mikveh has a story.
We perform the show as open-book salon theater, a unique performance concept I learned from Ronda Spinak of Jewish Women’s Theatre in Los Angeles. We see the mikveh through the eyes of self-conscious brides (some with comical experiences), a new mother, a convert, and women who have experienced challenges, such as hydrophobia, infertility, and more.
We hear the stories of a woman who became paralyzed from the waist down from an epidural yet maintains a wonderful attitude to life (she tells her own stories on stage, with both drama and humor), of a woman who discovers her breast cancer while dunking at a lake, and of a woman who dares a dip in the cold ocean while on a romantic vacation.
We intentionally chose a cast and crew who, in addition to being excellent at what they do, are religiously eclectic. Both Myra and I feel passionately about building bridges and uniting people from diverse communities and viewpoints. Many of Israel’s English-speaking theater troupes are religiously mixed, but we’re the first ones to deal with such an intimate, religiously sensitive topic, and the discussions we had around the rehearsal table were as deep as the final product.
As director, I didn’t just hand the cast scripts and say, “Learn your lines.” The actresses became a part of the process and contributed to it exponentially through their input and personal stories (some of which appear in the show), and we have bonded as a loving and supportive group.
Casting Michele Thaler, our eloquent disabled actress, opened our eyes to the lack of accessible buildings in Jerusalem. There is always space for rent if one can afford it, but we were on a modest budget, so we turned to friends with ground-floor homes, and to friendly organizations, like Gesher.
Laya and Alan Lurie of Katamon, Jerusalem, graciously hosted us for the first show on August 27, and we’re seeking others to host us in their communities. We’ll be performing in Jerusalem on Sukkot, and after that in Efrat and Hashmonaim. (Details will be on our website, mikvathemusical.com.)
Our donors, so far, are five women from the Five Towns who are passionate about this topic. They are Penina Batsheva Popack, Leah Eliana Popack, Rebecca Rosenbaum, Myrna Zisman, and Henya Storch. We hope to come to the East Coast to perform.
Our cast are professionals — though they’re taking very modest salaries for this project — and there are also the costs of sound; occasional rental of rehearsal space; the website; printing of scripts, playbills, and flyers; and more.
Our Mikva cast includes Adina Feldman, an internationally recognized singer and choreographer, who also contributed significantly to the staging; Riva Schertzman, a pianist who studied composition under an opera composer; an actress who originally performed in the West End of London; another actress who also directs her own theater company; and an actress who is also a balanit and kallah teacher. We built bridges through stories, music, and mikveh.
One of the revelations in this production is the extent to which women will go to perform the mitzvah of mikveh. This is phenomenal. It shows how deeply this mitzvah is in their souls. We’d like to see conversations opened about some of the issues we raise in the show, and I’d love to see more women be inspired by it to go to mikveh, including those who don’t view themselves as Orthodox. We can offer specialized evenings for specific groups — for new brides, for women dealing with infertility or miscarriage, or post-mastectomy, which has issues of self-image.
As the day of our premiere grew near, I felt a sense of fear and trembling, and every night before I went to sleep, I added to my tefillot, “Please, Hashem, help me so that everything I do is l’shem Shamayim (for the sake of heaven).” I think for our entire team, this is about bringing something meaningful to the world.
After the show, we held our breath, awaiting the reactions of the audience. They were exuberant. There was a wonderful discussion with questions, personal stories, and excited feedback. Here is just a taste of the written feedback we received:
- Yehudit Jessica Singer, marketing and public relations, Koren Press: “The production showcases women’s creativity and innermost thoughts and feelings about the most personal, intimate ritual in Jewish life—something that we all do, but hardly anyone talks about openly. It was raw, honest, funny, and eye-opening—all at once. Every Jewish community needs to see this production and, more importantly, discuss the messages that the monologues address.”
- Pnina Mor, CNM PhD, coordinator of the NOGA clinic in Shaarei Tzedek, for women at high risk for breast cancer: “I want to applaud you on a fantastic musical play…It reminded me that years ago I wanted to do something with the narratives of BRCA mutation carriers. Maybe someday I will get you interested.”
- Ilana Dreyer of Jerusalem: “What an amazing show! (From a gal who lived in Manhattan for 30 years and saw any number of Off-Broadway productions) … For me, Mikva the Musical brought to the stage the richness, messiness, and humanity of every aspect of being a woman, and the amazing support that can potentially come from the mitzvah of mikveh. Kol ha’kavod.”
- Dr. Naomi Marmon Grumet, founding director of The Eden Center: “This show raises important conversations about a range of aspects of going to the mikveh. It combines the funny, mundane scenes we are all familiar with, and touching situations that show how it can be difficult and a window into somebody’s real pain.”
For more information go to mikvathemusical.com.
The author is a journalist, playwright, poet, teacher, and the artistic director of a number of theater companies. She is the 2018 recipient of the Lifetime Achievement award from Atara — the Association for Torah and the Arts — for “dedication and contributions in creative education, journalism, theatre, and the performing arts worldwide.”