Toby Klein Greenwald as an owl in "Noah! Ride the Wave!" Photo by Rebecca Nathan Kowalsky

By Toby Klein Greenwald

Shortly following the Gulf War, in 1991, I was invited to write a first-person essay on the war by Rabbi Matis Greenblatt, the literary editor of Jewish Action, the magazine of the OU (Orthodox Union). I called it “Boxes with Rainbows” and it described, among other experiences, how I had my children decorate the ugly cardboard boxes that held their gas masks. “[They] spent an entire afternoon cutting and pasting and drawing,” I wrote, “decorating these shields against death with hearts and balloons, flowers, their names, stars, and rainbows.”

I ended the essay thus: “We took into our sealed rooms fears, and uncertainty, and prayers. We must now ask ourselves what we brought out.”

Fast forward ten years.

In the midst of a bloody intifada, in early summer of 2001, in order to have something to do at night other than watching the news and lamenting the body count from terror, some friends and I created a women’s theatre troupe in Gush Etzion called, appropriately, “The Raise Your Spirits Summer Stock Company.” I thought the idea of calling it a “summer stock company” was clever as we would be performing (we thought) only in the summer. We expected to do two shows. We licensed the rights to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s company in England, since it was biblical and we live in the biblical heartland.

We were all volunteers working on less than a shoestring budget. When our cheap black backdrop fell apart after the second performance but we had already sold tickets to the third, our scenery mistress asked me if I thought she should buy cheap material again. In a wild leap of faith, I told her to get something more expensive. Since then we have performed for more than 40,000 women (and licensed our shows abroad) and gone through many black backdrops.

The three women at the helm of the company — Sharon Katz as producer, Arlene Chertoff as choreographer, and myself as director — following a wildly successful season, began to write our own biblical shows (and since then, we’ve had shows written by six lyricists and four composers). The second one, performed in 2004–5, was Noah! Ride the Wave! with music composed and arranged by Mitch Clyman. We performed it in Gush Etzion, Kedumim, Gush Katif, and in the Jerusalem Theatre, a hall that holds almost 1,000 people, as a fundraiser for Hatzalah, a first responder’s organization.

I wrote the lyrics to the finale, a song called “Rainbow,” and, recalling my essay on my family’s experience during the Gulf War, I wrote a line, “We know what we have taken deep into the ark, the question now is what we’ve brought ashore.” It was clear to me that those words were not just about Noah’s family, but about anyone who experiences trauma or tragedy, and seeks a meaningful takeaway.

Fast forward again, to April 2020 and COVID-19.

We are in lockdown in Israel, as elsewhere. People are asking philosophical questions alongside medical and practical ones.

One of our Raise Your Spirits fans, Phyllis Hecht, a teacher of Jewish studies, English, and debating, sent me a WhatsApp message one day: “Your ‘Rainbow’ song has been one of my favorites since I heard it when I saw Noah! It has always resonated within me. This time period we are in — it is as if we are all in our separate ‘arks,’ with our own challenges. B’ezrat Hashem (Please G-d) someday we will come out and I hope change the world in many ways. And so your song needs to be played.” Her idea was to get famous singers and religious figures from all over the world to contribute their voices, as they did in the iconic song, “We are the World.” I thought, her idea is too ambitious and will take too long. Let’s use our Israeli talent.

I reached out to male and female singers; some of the women had performed in Noah! 15 years earlier. (I played an owl back then.) Each of them recorded privately, in their homes. There were 20 singers from all over Israel. There were also two from London. There was one survivor of COVID-19. Our singers included attorneys and teachers, a speech therapist, musicians, dancers, a nurse, a jewelry designer, an artist, and a reflexologist.

Several were professional vocalists with better recording equipment, but most recorded into their cell phones. They sent the files to our sound engineer for vocals, Elisheva Neomi Savir, who did a mix in her tiny home studio, and I asked Yehuda Gelb, who is a local composer and filmmaker (when on leave from the Air Force), to create the visual of the clip. We posted it on YouTube on the Hebrew calendar date of the 15th day of Av.

I asked Yehuda to use visuals that are inspirational, and to include scenes of nature, including animals. He sent me the first draft, which included forests and oceans, gloriously colored parrots and swans, and also featured people expressing love and friendship.

I realized that there was no one in the clip who was identifiably Jewish. Even though I intentionally wanted it to be universal, I thought it would be nice to have at least one quick shot of a little boy in a kippah. I turned to my daughter, who filmed her daughter and son skipping down a pathway in their Negev community. Interestingly, his large white kippah is the same style worn by Muslims. Cool, I thought, let anyone see what they want to in it.

The song includes some Hebrew singing of the verse in Genesis 9:16: “And the rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will see it, to remember, the everlasting covenant between G-d and between every living creature, of all flesh, that is upon the earth.” I asked Yehuda to let the reprise of that verse run a bit longer, after the credits; that’s when we see his beautiful drone shots of Israel.

The day we were finished and about to post it, that same daughter sent, to our family WhatsApp group, a few seconds of her recently bar-mitzvahed son reading the Torah on a Monday morning, with his friend alongside. We put the biblical verse on screen next to them, at the end of the clip.

The responses to “Rainbow” were exuberant.

“Beautiful,” “Heartwarming,” “Kol hakavod (Kudos),” “Wondrous! Much needed during these crazy times….” “What a beautiful song! What lovely lyrics!” “Absolutely wow!” “OMG love it!!!” “… the perfect project for what the world is experiencing right now.”

A rebbetzin from Venice wrote to me, “Such unity!” And one of our professional singers wrote, “Absolutely brilliant! Well done. Privileged to be a part of this project.”

And now here we are, in our arks once more. The rules in Israel change almost daily. Weddings, school, High Holiday prayers … we long to be together. But we also long to be safe.

Our newest Raise Your Spirits show, “REBECCA! Mother of Two Dynasties,” has gone into rehearsals, on Zoom. We try to keep our spirits up as we deal with technical sound delays on that platform, and try to reach out to each other with joy and love beyond the screen.

The ultimate message from “Rainbow” will, I suspect, accompany us perhaps for a lifetime: Each of us is taking different items and thoughts and prayers into our respective arks. The question now, as always, is what will we bring ashore, when it’s all over.

May we all be sealed for a year of joy and life.

Toby Klein Greenwald is an award-winning theater director and a recipient of American Jewish Press Association awards for Excellence in Jewish Journalism.

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