By Toby Klein Greenwald
In 2001, the women of Gush Etzion created an all-female theater group known as the Raise Your Spirits Summer Stock Company, today called Raise Your Spirits Theatre. The goal was — like its name — to raise spirits during a bloody intifada. To date we have performed before more than 40,000 women.
Our fourth production was Ruth and Naomi in the Fields of Bethlehem. We performed it during the theater season of 2006–2007 and again, as a revival, costumed and staged as if in modern times, in 2017.
Both times, like with all musical theater, we sought actresses who could sing, dance, and act. We also sought actresses for whom the material was close to their souls.
We had almost finished casting Ruth and Naomi in 2006, but were missing one more character. I went scouting to women’s talent shows and to community center recitals. But we still had not found the elusive Ruth.
And then came the evening of a Gush Etzion women’s talent show at which a statuesque, blonde, hazel-eyed young woman got up and sang, and her soaring soprano captured my heart. She was not even a resident of Gush Etzion, but a music student of pianist Rachel Ferency of Bat Ayin, who discovered her while teaching in the Malchus Seminary, a Chabad school in Jerusalem. Her name was Sara Joki.
Her last name reminded me of the last name of my non-Jewish high-school geometry teacher, Jokinen, a Finnish name. But I didn’t ask any questions at the time. Rather, I invited her to audition for the role of Ruth. (I later discovered that our choreographer and co-author, Arlene Chertoff, had also taken Sara’s card the night before, when she heard her at the dress rehearsal. The third co-author of the show was Sharon Katz, and the composer was Mitch Clyman of Efrat.)
Sara came out to my home on a Friday morning and I invited our music director, Aviva Karpel, to hear her as well. What preceded her arrival was an event that felt like Divine providence. That very morning, I awoke with the awareness that we had written duets for Ruth and Naomi, and for Ruth and Boaz, but there was no solo for Ruth herself that spoke to the spiritual journey she had taken.
So that morning I ran to my computer and wrote — with that rare feeling of the song being written not by me, but through me — “The Voice Within.” I hadn’t even given it to our composer to set to music, so I wrote it with one of the melodies of Les Mis in mind, just to ground it in a particular beat.
When Sara showed up, I gave her this new song to audition with, explaining to which tune she should sing my lyrics. Somewhere in the middle, she began to cry, sat down, and said, “How did you know? This is exactly how it feels.” My eyes had already locked with Aviva’s as we silently acknowledged that we had found our Ruth, and then Sara proceeded to tell us her story.
She was born to a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish (indeed, of Finnish heritage) father and had grown up with little Jewish education but with a very strong sense of Jewish pride. Her family made waves when her parents insisted that the local public school she attended remove a Christian biblical mural from their auditorium.
At a young age, Sara was discovered to have a G-d-given magnificent voice. She performed in 50 musicals, starting at the age of five. She was attending State University of New York at New Paltz aiming for a BA in vocal performance when she decided to take a summer trip to China following her sophomore year.
But at the last minute the trip was canceled. She stood looking at the school bulletin board and saw a Birthright notice offering a “Free trip to Israel!” and figured, OK, if not China, then Israel.
The rest was history. In the course of those two weeks, friends on the bus with her asked, “Would you ever consider studying more about Judaism?” She recalled, “My exact words were, ‘I am completely content with my level of Judaism.’ Then a voice within screamed out, ‘No you’re not!’” Sara decided to stay six weeks longer in Jerusalem at the home of her mother’s friend who was a ba’alas teshuvah. She began to study Judaism and to observe Shabbos and kashrut.
Upon her return to New Paltz, she thought, “What will I do now? How will I keep Shabbos and kosher?” And on her first day back, she saw another notice on the same bulletin board. This one said, “Chabad House opening.” It became her second home, and she subsequently came to identify with the Chabad movement.
Sara returned a year later to study at the women’s Nishmat Center in Jerusalem. It was there that she heard, for the first time, of the halachic issue of kol isha — of women not singing in front of men. She was devastated. Her whole life was singing. But, she thought, in a conversation with Hashem, “You brought me this far. Get me through this, too.”
And He heard her prayers. She began studying at Malchus, where she met Rachel Ferency, the pianist who invited her to perform at the talent evening, where we discovered her.
The story didn’t end there.
We introduced Sara to the young woman who would play the role of Naomi. Rivkah Adina Kanush, a student in the Emunah College theater program in Jerusalem, was the daughter of a Mexican mother who had converted to Judaism and a ba’al teshuvah father. She had undertaken her own journey, and when the two of them, as Ruth and Naomi, made the stage journey from Moav back to Bethlehem, and through the rest of the story of the Megillah, they were echoing the stories of their families, coming to the land of Israel, and the discovery of Torah Judaism.
Sara, who began to call herself by the Yiddish name she had been given at birth, in memory of her Orthodox great-grandmother, Shaina Ettel, married a young Chabad rabbi, Yitzchak Menda. Together they moved from Israel to the San Francisco area, and then to Chabad shlichus in Virginia, where Yitzchak works in education and Shaina Ettel is a wig maker and developing her Mary Kay business while they raise their six children.
Rivkah Adina and Eliyahu Kanush are raising their booming family. She continues to perform occasionally in Raise Your Spirits productions, but most of her time is given to the thriving DJ and event business she and her husband built, performing at bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, and other events.
So when we decided to bring a Ruth and Naomi revival to the stage in 2017, we needed new lead actors.
Aviva and I sat through three evenings of auditions. We had already cast Rachel Moore, who had appeared in an earlier Raise Your Spirits show, as Naomi. She was a ba’alas teshuvah who worked in PR and was the owner of Hub Etzion. She had extensive musical theater and opera background, and a rich and exquisite voice that was pure as a bell. The mother of eight children, she was warm and loving and perfect for the role. But we were still seeking Ruth.
We heard some wonderful singers and actresses, but none of them had the extraordinary talent of Sara Joki Menda, and we were concerned that our loyal audience would remember the original Ruth and find anyone else lacking.
We had one more audition scheduled, for the day after Shavuos.
On the morning of erev Shavuos, Aviva got a phone call from the house mother of the Zohar Midrasha in Bat Ayin, asking if she could host two students from their Torah study program for a yom tov meal. Aviva said yes, and in the course of the meal asked them about their backgrounds.
One of them, Audelia Zagoury, said she was a ba’alas teshuvah who had graduated from the classical vocal department of the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance in Jerusalem, and her rich and varied performance experiences included being a soloist in the Ankor Choir for the president of Italy and a choir singer for the Israeli Opera under M. Zubin Mehta. Her family had returned to Israel from French Morocco 12 years earlier. In addition to singing, she worked in the City of David and had her own line of natural cosmetics.
After yom tov, Aviva gave her the sheet music to “The Voice Within” and invited her to audition.
Audelia was the last one to arrive. It was 9 p.m. when she came in, opened her mouth, and began to sing. Like ten years earlier, pure déjà vu, Aviva and I looked at each other and said, “Ruth.”
Audelia’s mother tongue was French, and she had studied opera, so she also understood Italian and German, and, of course, she knew Hebrew. But only after a few weeks of singing in English did she comprehend the full meaning of the words to “The Voice Within.” I remember when she came to me, very emotional, and said, “This is my story.”
What were the chances that in the space of ten years we would find four women so perfectly suited in their personal lives to Ruth and Naomi?
The story of Megillat Rut is a story of return — a return to one’s roots, a return to the land of Israel, and reconciliation within a tribe.
The words that resonated with Sara and Audelia, with Rivkah Adina and Rachel, and with our audiences, a decade apart, included these lines:
“You can wander through the universe
And wander through your soul
You can seek in every corner
But beyond your own control
A voice within is waiting,
Willing to be whole
I can hear the voice within …
“You are not the first to question
You are not the first to fall
We’re surrounded by diversions
By wonders that enthrall
A miracle is waiting to lead us through it all
We can hear the voice, we can hear the voice,
We can hear the voice
Toby Klein Greenwald 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.”