Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Reporter Atara Beck Praises ESTHER

It's absolutely thrilling to be appreciated by the audiences and the press.
Reporter Atara Beck wrote a terrific story about Raise Your Spirits' new production, "ESTHER and the Secrets in the King's Court" for the Jerusalem Post's In Jerusalem. Thanks, Atara.
You can read it here:


Spirited performances

Raise Your Spirits’ first production by and for women was conceived as some light relief from the second intifada.

Photo by: Rebecca Nathan Kowalsky
When Toby Klein Greenwald, Sharon Katz and Arlene Chertoff wrote Esther and the Secrets in the King’s Court, they had Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in mind as today’s Haman. However, the timing of this musical production by Raise Your Spirits – a non-profit theater troupe that women in Efrat and Alon Shvut created in 2001 to cheer people up at the height of the second intifada – seems to have coincided with the recent escalation of hostilities and launch of Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza.

“We started this project during a bloody intifada,” explains Klein Greenwald, director of educational and community theater and a resident of Efrat.

“There were people killed on the road from Jerusalem to Gush Etzion and elsewhere. People weren’t going out a lot at night. We were looking for something to do to raise our spirits. Some of us brainstormed, and Sharon Katz, also of Efrat, said, ‘Let’s put on a show.’” “It’s totally déjà vu now,” says Katz. “Thursday night [November 15] was the dress rehearsal, and that same afternoon a missile from Gaza had reached the Tel Aviv area. I took my Tehillim [Book of Psalms], asked the [young] girls to come onstage, and I told them that 10 years ago, when we performed Esther, it was a time of terror and fear, and the possibility of destruction was everywhere around us. The [original] story of Esther happened at a time when the Jewish people believed that, God forbid, they could be destroyed.... But God can make miracles, and things can turn around overnight.... So I told the girls: What’s happening now happened 10 years ago, and it happened 100 years ago, and it happened 1,000 years ago. The Jewish people are threatened from every direction. But if we believe in God, then we shouldn’t be afraid.”

The three women, along with musical composer Rivka Epstein Hattin, are all American-born and - raised, though they are longtime Israeli citizens. The dialogue in their current production – which is running at the Gush Etzion Community Center – is in English, and there are Hebrew subtitles to accommodate the many Israelis in the audience.

All Raise Your Spirits productions are performed by women and for women only.

“The idea [since its inception in 2001] was to do it for women, and I volunteered to direct,” Klein Greenwald says. “We would meet every night. We did Joseph [and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat] first because everyone was familiar with it. We licensed the rights from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s company in England, and almost every night in the summer we got together to rehearse.... We thought we would do two performances for our friends. But it was a smash success.”

Since then, Raise Your Spirits has done five original musicals and performed for almost 40,000 women.

“So what began as just a fun thing to do for the community actually became a model for many other women’s groups that mushroomed after us,” she says.

One might assume that such a community initiative would be amateurish. On the contrary: The productions, including the music and costumes, are professionally done by accomplished individuals. Klein Greenwald, for example, is a respected educator, writer, translator and photojournalist, as well as cofounder and editor-in-chief of, an award-winning self-help online site for families. In 2008, she received the Yaakov Egerest Award for Jewish Culture, presented by the Education Ministry, for her work in community educational theater.

The benefits of participating in Raise Your Spirits productions – whether it’s adult women who haven’t had the opportunity to express their creativity for a while, or religious women and girls seeking to use their performing talents in accordance with Jewish law – go beyond emotional support in times of war.

The musicals have been an uplifting experience for women and girls with personal challenges as well.

“Because it’s a social experience, it’s educational,” says Klein Greenwald. “My pet project is working with teens.... We tell everyone to read and study the original story in Tanach [the Bible]. They learn responsibility and what it means to give to the community.”

Production manager Eudice Spitz, who plays Bigtan, an adviser to King Ahasuerus, became involved in the spring of 2002.

“Two members of my family were very ill at the time – my mother and a sister,” says Spitz, also an American- Israeli and an Efrat resident.

“I work very hard in business as well. It was a very depressing time for me. I was looking for something that would literally raise my spirits.”

She heard about the audition 10 years ago and tried out.

“It really saved my mental health,” she affirms, stressing the camaraderie among the cast.

Spitz’s 11-year-old granddaughter, Meirav Mann, also appears in Esther. According to Spitz, she is “just one of a number of daughters or granddaughters of original cast members who are carrying on the Raise Your Spirits tradition.”

All children in the cast are Israeli-born, although some of their parents are native English speakers. The cast and crew range in age from seven to 70.

According to Klein Greenwald, performances usually attract a full house. During a typical season, between 5,000 and 10,000 people attend over a period of roughly four months. Usually the shows take place at the Gush Etzion location, although some have been done elsewhere.

In general, however, a lack of official funding from any local or national body is problematic, Klein Greenwald points out. The company is in search of partners. Still, they continue to host terror victims’ families and bereaved relatives of soldiers killed in line of duty at their performances, which is a large part of its raison d’etre.

At the opening night performance of Esther last Sunday evening, the troupe honored Jerusalem Post columnist Barbara Sofer.

“She was one of the first journalists who ever wrote about us and has been supportive from the beginning,” Klein Greenwald says. “We wanted to show our appreciation.”

For more information on performance dates and to reserve tickets, go to A special Hanukka performance will take place on the evening of December 9.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Columnist Greer Fay Cashman Praises ESTHER

Journalists present at the opening of ESTHER last week, B"H, loved it.
Jerusalem Post journalist Greer Fay Cashman attended with fellow writer and columnist Barbara Sofer. Photographer Rebecca FLASH Kowalsky of was there to catch the moment.
Greer wrote a wonderful article for the Jerusalem Post, Grapevine: When the Spirit Moves You.
It can be accessed here:
You can read it here:
In December 2001, Jerusalem Post columnist Barbara Sofer wrote in her regular column about the formation of a group of female performers who had found a great way in which to raise their spirits and those of other women. What she wrote then was, “Last summer, the careworn women of the Gush Etzion were seeking a Joseph-like solution to the tough question of how to face the combination of bleak current events with no discernible solution and maintain optimism.

Seven members of the community had already been killed. Even close relatives made excuses for not traveling to the Gush to celebrate bar mitzva parties or make shiva calls.

Cars traveling on the once picturesque tunnel roads had become moving targets for snipers. A new gemah, a free-lending society, was offering bullet-proof vests. Each new government plan felt more like a clinical trial than an inspired solution kept in a drawer for just this problem. The old arguments between Right and Left that used to liven up Shabbat dinners had succumbed to gloominess.

“That extra dimension of Jewish womanhood – the need to be a fountain of optimism even in dark times – ruled out slumping into downheartedness. Busy though they were with large families and challenging careers, they decided to do something about it.

“The women of Gush Etzion started by sending out emails on the Efrat internal list suggesting different activities like bringing a circus to town, game days, or screening old episodes of Wagon Train. Then Sharon Katz, a magazine editor and mother of five, suggested putting on an all-women production of Joseph [and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat].

She was joined by Toby Klein Greenwald, editor-in-chief of, a mother of six with a lot of drama experience from American summer camps, and by Arlene Chertoff, a professional choreographer and assistant director and a mother of three. Any girl or woman who wanted to act or sing could join the huge cast. There were several caveats. Because these were women who observed stringent rules of modesty, they would perform before audiences of only women. No performance would be cancelled because of a terrorist attack. Not even the September 11 show was called off, although it was preceded by the reading of psalms, and followed by a public singing of Ani Ma’amin, (“I believe”), our somber Jewish hymn of faith.

The few scheduled summer performances stretched through the winter to sold-out audiences, arriving by bullet-proof buses along beleaguered roads and by more conventional conveyances. But the play went way beyond community therapy. It was simply sensational, a great night at the theater with the elation and catharsis that good theater brings. ‘Joseph,’ a ketuba artist and mother of six by day, and her 11 siblings infused the story with so much effervescence and conviviality that one had to wonder how the original story would have been different if it had focused on 12 daughters.

The happiest surprise was that the acting and singing were superior to much of the socalled professional productions at city theaters and much-touted festivals. Nor did the show bear the slightest resemblance to the stiff and over-serious plays parents endure at schools and youth movement celebrations, or in that new ubiquitous genre of “religious theater.”

Although most of the staff members lacked professional resumes, they brought along experience of the arts from countries where school and informal educational systems afforded a more laid back setting. They could dance, they could sing and they could act.”

This week, the Raise Your Spirits Theater presented a 10th-anniversary premiere of another of their productions – Esther, with a multi-talented cast playing to a packed house in the attractive Gush Etzion Community Center, where facilities include a fully equipped theater. Sofer, who has written about Raise Your Spirits several times over the past decade, was sitting in the front row to receive a special honor from Greenwald in appreciation of having put the ensemble on the English-speaking map. A similar honor was accorded to Hebrew language author, editor and journalist Dr. Hatuya Deutsch.

Alluding to the almost déjà vu atmosphere in the country, Greenwald said: “The situation is what it is, and we’re still here.”

Sofer would have liked to have been there for the whole of the brilliant performance as she has been at other performances, but she had to be at Hadassah Hospital before midnight – not because she is the Israel director of public relations of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, but because she was having serious surgery first thing the next morning and she had to check in the night before.

There were people in the audience from Ra’anana, Modi’in, Rehovot, Efrat, Jerusalem and Ramat Beit Shemesh, among other places. For them, solidarity is more than a word; it’s personal commitment through action.

Writer Varda Epstein Praises ESTHER in Times of Israel Blog

We began performing in our latest production, ESTHER and the Secrets in the King's Court a week ago on Thursday night. B"H, we had a marvelous time performing, and the audience loved. it. Thank G-d, the press loved it too.
Our first article was written by Varda Epstein, a prolific freelance writer for many publications, including Times of Israel, where she blogs on line. Varda played Hever in our last production, JUDGE! The Song of Devora.
Here is the link to Varda's piece:

And here's the text of Varda's article in the Times of Israel.

I didn’t feel much like going out last night. The last thing I wanted to do was indulge in escapism. I just wanted to stay at home and monitor the war from my personal computer, where I receive email alert after email alert of every siren and every rocket in the South, but a promise is a promise.
I had promised to be an usher at the opening night performance for a revival of Esther and the Secrets in the King’s Court by the Raise Your Spirits Theatre troupe (RYS). I’d made that promise before this latest escalation of missile attacks on Southern Israel and the subsequent call up of my (newly engaged to be married) son. There was no bowing out of this commitment.
Raise Your Spirits is not just a bunch of theater-crazy women with pretensions to fame. Raise Your Spirits is about Sistah Power.

Eunuchs in Tunics, a scene from Esther and the Secrets in the King’s Court.
(photo credit: Rebecca Nathan Kowalsky,
Raise Your Spirits is a response to the constant bombardment of my people on every front in Israel whether it is on the roads in our cars and buses, or in our homes and bomb shelters. It is a thumbing of the nose to that which would extinguish us. It’s our insistence on remaining strong and invincible in the face of world censure and condemnation. It’s our proud example to the world in the face of the lies and distortions of Hamas and of the mainstream media: CNN and others of that ilk.
Against this background, Raise Your Spirits was born in 2001, when an Efrat wife and mother, Sarah Blaustein, and a young girl who’d hitched a ride with her, Esther Alvan, were killed in a drive-by shooting on their way to Jerusalem. Sarah was on her way to visit the Western Wall.
Actually, there were many terrible events that year. It was a bad, bad year.
One woman in our Efrat community, Sharon Katz, in a surreal incarnation of some Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland hybrid responded by saying, “Let’s put on a show!”

Sharon Katz, founder of Raise Your Spirits Theatre, as Haman.
(photo credit: Rebecca Nathan Kowalsky
A little creepy? Maybe. But you know what? She saved us. Along with director Toby Klein Greenwald and then choreographer Arlene Chertoff, who early on, threw in their lot with Sharon to turn Raise Your Spirits into something huge, beyond what any of us ever expected. We put on musicals, by and for women only.

Writer and Director Toby Klein Greenwald (photo credit: Rebecca Nathan Kowalsky,
The musicals are, in the main, about classic Jewish heroines: Esther, Ruth, Naomi, Yael, and Deborah. The scores and scripts are superlative and the shows have HEART. The women do their darnedest to give you a good show. They spend hours and hours of their time, working very hard on their labor of love and the audiences cannot help but respond to their fervor.
My first time with Raise Your Spirits was during the troupe’s previous production: JUDGE! The Song of Devora, in which I played Hever the Kenite. I got to brandish a plastic sword  and wear facial hear. But more than that, I gained the largest, warmest sisterhood ever by joining that troupe. They are my Sistahs.

Choreographer Sara Orenstein (photo credit: Rebecca Nathan Kowalsky,
When I went backstage last night before the performance, I was surrounded by women who seemed, no WERE, ecstatic to see me. Maybe it was just the adrenaline that pervades the air before a performance, but I felt embraced, LOVED. And that is something that is rare in my life.
I work at home and I can become somewhat insular and not see people for days on end. I have many virtual friends, but not so many in-the-flesh friends. Or so I thought until last night.
That was the main reason I tried out for the previous show. I wanted to experience that sisterhood. And now I have it for life. I know these women will always be my sisters. This is something that only women have between them and it is a mightily good and beautiful thing.
But let’s talk about the show.

Music Director, Pianist & Opera Singer Gayle Berman in “Choose Me” (photo credit: Rebecca Nathan Kowalsky,
Our very capable RYS director, Toby Klein Greenwald, came onstage, looking elegant and professional, for her introductory remarks. “Turn off your cellphones [blah, blah, blah], thank you to so-and-so [blah, blah, blah],” and then a chill came over me when Toby succinctly, in Hebrew and English, outlined the procedure for what the audience should do if a siren goes off.
Clearly, this was not just another amateur hour women’s musical. This had been going on for eleven years. Performances go on NO MATTER WHAT. Sometimes the pain and the sorrow are unbearable. Still, the women go onstage, insisting that the enemy will not prevail over our ability to carry on as usual, or as in the case of RYS, to carry on with superlative talent and beauty.
Then, as is the custom of RYS, the youngest cast member read out a psalm for our soldiers. I said my son’s name silently, hoping that my love and the love of my sisters would find its way to him, offering him some measure of mercy and protection.

Assistant Music Director Avital Macales as Esther (photo credit: Rebecca Nathan Kowalsky,
Then it was curtain time, pure delight. The air was filled with splendid sweet female voices ringing out in gorgeous harmony, transforming the notes of a lush and imaginative music score (written by Rivka Epstein Hattin; with musical arrangements by Paul Salter, Amit Ben Atar, and Mitch Clyman; and with choral arrangements by Gayle Berman) to sound. The show was an amalgam of sparkling performances and a whirlwind of color, light, sound, drama, humor, and dance. The story was a timeless one: on the brink of extinction, the Jews are saved by a series of miraculous “accidents,” by dint of the purity of purpose displayed by a lovely heroine, Esther.
I admit that I am not prone to tears or displays of emotion. It is the Kalte Litvak* in me, who saves expression for what you read here in my texts. But I confess that last night, there were times I felt the tears welling up and threatening to spill over. The first time was in response to these lyrics (written by Sharon Katz with co-lyricists Arlene Chertoff and Toby Klein Greenwald) from Echoes of Jerusalem:
“To Jerusalem, to Jerusalem
We will return
Jerusalem will one day rise again
Its streets will fill with joy and song
Our people will rejoice in glory
And they’ll walk there free and strong”
“Yes!” I thought. “We HAVE returned to Jerusalem.”
But are we free?” I wondered.
“But are we free?” I wondered. “What kind of freedom do we own when one million civilians are living under a constant barrage of rockets? Will we EVER be free? What will it TAKE to be free, to PREVAIL?”
As it turns out, what it took in Persia, all those centuries ago, was an Esther with the rich voice of an angel as played by Raise Your Spirits’ lovely ingénue Avital Macales. Narrator Darius (Yael Valier) posits the age-old dilemma: “Will the king still love her when he’s heard she’s a Jew?”
And I thought to myself: “Will the world ever accept our right to exist—our right to our land? Will the world ever tolerate the existence of the Jewish people in their midst?”

Sisterhood Will Triumph

During the standing ovation and the singing of our national anthem Hatikvah, followed by Ani Maamin as an expression of Jewish faith, I knew that this was what counted: what was real. This expression of unity and sisterhood would triumph over all, by creating a force of goodness in the world too great for anyone, anywhere to eradicate. This goodness would remain on earth, embodied by our future generations, long after the women of Raise Your Spirits are but a memory, long after this raging battle to help the suffering people of Southern Israel has come to its conclusion.
Most of what we do is ephemeral. But the good deeds we create are tangible and last forever.
Go see Esther, if you can. It’s a good deed: a mitzvah.
For ticket information, see:
*Cold Lithuanian Jew

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Deja Vu - Didn't This Happen Already?

Ten years ago when Arab terror against the Jewish people was at its height, the women and girls of Raise Your Spirits went on stage in ESTHER and the Secrets in the King's Court.
ESTHER is the story of the threat back in Persia against the entire Jewish population of the world.
It seemed then that the Jewish people were doomed, but with faith and courage, with unity and a return to G-d the Jewish people earned their salvation and G-d overturned the evil decree against them. The Jewish nation was saved and is enemies destroyed.
It's ironic that as ESTHER goes on stage the Jewish people are threatened once again.
As we got on stage to rehearse on Thursday night we heard that missiles had been launched against Tel Aviv. We stopped what we were doing and gathered together on stage. Together as a family we recited tehillim, and then we went on with our rehearsal, so that when our audiences come, we will be ready to really raise their spirits.
We couldn't have picked a more perfect production for this year!! ESTHER's message is clear - G-d can save His nation in the blink of an eye. And BE"H He will. Have faith.
The women and girls of Raise Your Spirits are back with their tenth anniversary production of one of their most inspirational musicals ever - ESTHER and the Secrets in the King's Court.
See it: November 18, 22, 29, Dec. 9 and 27
Order your tickets:

Friday, November 16, 2012

Back Stage Bosses

When things go smoothly on stage of any production, it means that the bosses backstage are taking care of business.
They don't get the applause of the crowd or the spotlight, so I wanted to show them my admiration and appreciation.
Thank you to our Stage Manager Bati Katz (my owner daughter) and her assistant Elisheva Ariel. Thank you to our Mike Ladies Hilary Hurwitz and Shellie Ben David.
Thank you to our Make Up Ladies, headed by Zohar Mendelson. And thank you to our Sound and Light Team, headed by Yair Balams. (I noticed our director Toby Klein Greenwald up there too.)
Thank you to Michal Yechieli and Tzippy Cohen who were running the subtitles. And more folks....we'll get to you too.
We've all been together for so many years. The on stage performers depend on our back stage gals.
I just wanted to say THANKS!!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Ten Years Later - The Same Story

Ten years ago when Arlene Chertoff, Toby Klein Geeenwald and I wrote ESTHER and the Secrets in the King's Court, the intifada was raging. Terror was everywhere. It was a frightening time. It actually reminded us of the days of HAMAN, when the very existence of the Jewish people was threatened.
It took Jewish leaders with faith and courage to lead Am Yisrael in repentance and help bring about the salvation of the Jewish people.
SIGH!! I guess things haven't changed much. Am Yisrael is again threatened, but we must have faith and improve ourselves to deserve G-d's protection.
ESTHER encouraged us to strengthen our faith ten years ago. IY"H it will do its job again!!