Her play is immersed in deep discussion and in some circles in the Jewish community there is anger, so I asked playwright Hadar Galron to enlighten us about the themes of Mikveh, and to respond to the concerns from some in the orthodox Jewish community.
Joel: What is Mikveh about?
Hadar: On the basic story-level Mikveh is about women living in an orthodox community, their stories and secrets intertwining. Eight women, eight stories and one wave of courage that breaks the closed community’s codes – bringing them all together. The ‘scenery’ and sole location is the Jewish ritual bath – the mikveh – where women come to purify themselves once a month in order to be permitted (once again) physically, to their husbands.
Joel: The mikveh is considered a holy and private place for all orthodox Jewish women who go there to cleanse themselves. Why did you choose the mikveh as the setting for your play, knowing it could be controversial to do so?
Hadar: I’m not afraid of being controversial – and I don’t believe that I’ve taken any holiness away from the mikveh by putting it on stage. On the contrary – the beauty of immersing is fully shown, through its beautiful set and scenery. The physical exposure lies in perfect contrast to the strictly guarded secrets with which these women have learned to live.
Joel: I grew up in an orthodox Jewish family and saw some of the physical and emotional abuse that you address in Mikveh. Did you encounter any of this behavior when you were growing up in London, and after you made Aliyah to Israel?
Hadar: This question throws me to the oldest, most complex, beautiful, difficult, and rewarding relationship – my relationship with God. Growing up I received two very different faces of religion and orthodox life. The first was the face of a kind recipient God who sends good dreams to fearful children, who listens to every prayer. The second was the face of an “Angry God” who watches over every single step – forever punishing disobedient children (like myself!). I was confused – forever negotiating with Him. It took me years to understand that the fears and punishments were man-made inventions for inflicting power – and that sometimes the gap between ‘belief’ and ‘religion’ is so wide that there is no connection at all.
Joel: What do you think causes so much tension among orthodox couples? Is it Halachah? Is it societal? Is it family pressure? Is it due to the lack of social skills? Is it arrogance?
Hadar: I don’t know whether there is less or more tension among orthodox couples than other couples. Each society has it’s own rules and people will be people – but I think that the fact that in religion (not only Jewish religion) a woman is ‘bought’ by her husband and ‘belongs’ to him, causes much of the unbalanced relationship. Woman’s status in Jewish law is something that demands a change, and I believe that only women can make that change – first of all by understanding that they deserve more.
Joel: How much responsibility should be placed on the women in the orthodox community who stand by and do nothing to change the way they are mistreated, and turn their backs when they see another woman in their community abused?
Hadar: I’m not looking for anyone to blame. Mikveh is firstly a play about people. What happens around us is merely a reflection of ourselves. When we are able to look in the mirror honestly – we are ready to change. It’s much easier to point at others than at ourselves.
Joel: Why do you think orthodox women don’t stand up more to their husbands, and husbands to their wives – when the emotional, and physical unpleasantness occurs?
Hadar: Once again, there are abused people in all societies. What makes things more complex in this particular society is the estrangement that can occur from ‘matchmaking’ when the couple hardly know each other – and the expectations, rules, and confinements of a closed society that makes every deviation a threat to the whole.
Joel: Do you know of any real events where women did confront their husbands and the male leaders of their community, and positive changes were made because of their actions?
Hadar: Women today are gaining power – as awareness grows. I know of a few cases in which Rabbis have turned the Halacha inside out in order to correct a specific situation.
Joel: Mikveh ran for many years in its Israeli production at Beit Lessin, and was honored with many theatre awards, and, as you mentioned, has been produced outside Israel. So it was obviously successful.
Two orthodox Jewish men who I met on press night told me that they felt your portrayal of orthodox men was one-sided, that they and their wives and children have healthy and loving relationships. Other religious theatregoers I know refuse to attend the show because they have heard that orthodox men are not portrayed in a positive light. Did you get any similar reactions in Israel?
Hadar: As the play has no men in it at all – it seems strange to say that. The critique I have is against the institution that refuses to change and not against men. I don’t see the play as a ‘men v. women’ play – although it is very much a feminine play. Regarding the first part of your question – the problematic Halachic status of women will not be a problem in a good healthy relationship. It is when there is a crack that everything floats.
Joel: You were raised in an orthodox family. Was going to the mikveh part of your religious life?
Hadar: Of course. I don’t think I would have made the mikveh the setting of the play had it not been part of my life. As years went by, I stopped going to the traditional mikvehs and instead went with Daniel ( my husband) to the sea or to natural springs. It became an enriching experience instead of what was often a degrading one.
Joel: Did you base the events and characters of Mikveh on the women and experiences you encountered at the mikveh, or on real-life stories of people you heard?
Hadar: The mikveh of the play is a micro of society. Mikvehs of today are less social places (I mean women’s mikvehs). The stories, however, are all based on true stories.
Joel: How much of Hadar is in each of the characters of the play? Which character do you relate to the most?
Hadar: Shira and Miki are mostly me. Although never actually an outsider, I often felt like one. When writing, I felt each of the characters, identifying with them all in certain places. I suppose the main conflict of my play is my main conflict in life – the need to change opposed to the fear of throwing away the good roots together with the dry leaves.
Joel: This is the premiere of the English language version. Did you write the translation?
Hadar: My mother and I translated the play together. The fine-tuning for the American version I did over the phone with director Shirley Serotsky.
Joel: Hebrew is such an emotional language, especially when speaking words with the letters “Chet” and “Chaf”, which are not in the English alphabet. Did any of the emotion of the Hebrew text get lost in the English production at Theater J?
Hadar: I feel much of the emotion in the language is conveyed via the Yiddish words and expressions, which are well kept in the English version.
Joel: Why did you agree to have the play’s English version produced at Theater J?
Hadar: Why not? I met Ari Roth in Israel a couple of years ago, where he saw Mikveh. We had a great talk of the potential for the Jewish American community. Time passed and Mikveh went on stage in Prague, Mexico, and Budapest and the non-Jewish audiences seemed to appreciate it none-the-less. But I was waiting for the Anglo premier and I am proud that Mikveh’s life in the US is beginning at a Jewish theatre-– with a mixed audience.
Joel: Do you believe that if Chedva had gone to the Bet Din, and/or the local city police – and they saw the bruises on her face and body – they would have done nothing to make her husband stop the physical abuse, or would have not found her a safe haven?
Hadar: I cannot speculate on ‘what would have happened if’. It depends who is standing on ‘the other side’. But from the moment Chedva herself is willing – truly and deeply – to change her life, her life changes.
Joel: Would the male modesty police have physically harmed the women in the mikveh if they stormed them?
Hadar: The modesty patrol have physically harmed many women. They are merely thugs using ‘religion’ as an excuse to pour out their abusive natures.
Joel: We hear about Shoshana’s daughter leaving the community. Why are women so afraid to leave the community and why do so few leave?
Hadar: Leaving the ultra-orthodox community is basically cutting one’s own umbilical cord. The community – fearful of change and outside influences – will force the family and friends to excommunicate the ‘straying soul’. So someone who ceases to believe in this way of life will not necessarily leave, it is something that takes a lot of courage.
Joel: What impressed you most, and what did you learn from the Theater J production?
Hadar: What impressed me most was the intensity and sincerity in which the non-Jewish actresses came through.
Joel: Shirley Serotsky is the first American director to direct Mikveh. Was there anything different in her approach?
Hadar: Shirley’s approach – as reflected in the work of the actresses and in all the other production aspects – was very sincere, not only in the professional meaning of the word. We held long-distance discussions regarding the text and the characters – their way of life and reserved output.
The revisions we made were mostly fine-tuning I had a chance to revise the text once more via Shirley. I had to make the English more American than British, and some things that read well in Hebrew seemed ‘heavy’ in the translation. Those parts I either shortened by cutting out lines or changed to something else that had the same subtext. Shirley’s femininity is felt on stage.
Joel: When you saw the Theater J production, was there anything that you identified as “American”?
Hadar: The need to put all the sources of the phrases quoted in the play. Fine-Shmekers!
I must admit that because it is not in Hebrew – it seems right to include the sources, although this was the first production of Mikveh to request them!
Joel: The set design by Israeli designer Kinereth Kirsch, especially the mikveh and ritual scenes, was visually stunning. How is the set at Theater J similar and different from her award-winning set she designed in 2004 for the Beit Lessin Theatre’s production of Mikveh?
Hadar: It is similar but far from identical. The stage in Theater J – although still visibly realistic – is far less realistic than the Israeli stage, and leaves more space for theatrical magic.
Joel: Are you working on any new plays? Will there be any other productions of Mikveh in the near future?
Hadar: Where should I start? Mikveh is currently on stage in 4 countries Thank God! I’ve written some screenplays, acting and directing since, including two films: The Secrets with director Avi Nesher, and Bruriah co-writer and director Abraham Kushnir. My one-woman stand-up satirical show Pulsa is still on stage, and I’m currently working on two new screenplays, including one for Mikveh.
The film version of Mikveh will be a co-production. Israeli producer Eitan Even (“Evenstone Films”) has a few options for co-producers, but nothing has yet been decided. We have a screenplay draft ready for when the timing is right. We are in no hurry because the play still has a long stage-life – Thank God! I’ve written my next play and Praise God will have it produced this year.
Mikveh plays through June 5th at Theater J, in the DCJCC in Washington, DC.
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.