7 Sivan 5779.
It's unusual for a play to keep me from sleeping well. But I was in for one of those patented tossing-and-turning nights after watching Miriam Metzinger's play at Jerusalem's Khan Theater a few days before Shavuot.
Directed by Yael Valier as part of her debate-provoking Theater and Theology series, In a Stranger's Grave strikes very close to home for me. Two religious Jewish sisters prepare for the funeral of their mother in Israel, only to receive the shocking news that the burial society will not allow her to be buried in the Jewish section of the cemetery next to her husband. Their once-pious mother had discarded Jewish observance after the death of her husband, resulting in the rabbinical court questioning her original commitment at the time of her conversion to Judaism decades before.
When my husband and I converted to Judaism in 1989, we were deeply touched by Frankfurt's Chief Rabbi's words just prior to our immersions in the mikvaot: "What was before no longer is. Once you go through this process, there is no undoing it. If chas v'shalom you would decide not to live as Jews, you would still be Jews, and would have to answer to God for failing to live up to your responsibilities." He said these words as a "last chance" for us to change our minds. But what resonated for us was "once a Jew, always a Jew," and with that privilege came responsibility. We understood that our Jew-ness could never be taken away.
In 2008, our world shifted tectonically. The unprecedented annulment of conversions that had been supervised by Rabbi Hayyim Druckman changed the lives of some of our friends, and created a ripple effect causing converts everywhere to doubt the security of their status within the Jewish family.
Throughout the following decade, we were personally affected by the Rabbinate's hesitation to accept conversions as valid which had been performed outside Israel. Were it not for the extraordinary efforts of our yishuv Rav in advocating on our behalf, not one of our four sons would have been permitted to have a kosher wedding in Israel.
Metzinger's play fairly addresses many questions. In the words of Yael Valier: "Can anyone but the convert judge the sincerity of her conversion? Can Jewish status be annulled? Can the pain of the individual ever trump the needs of the community? Must a society take risks that could lead to the erosion of its own values?"
The play's characters struggle with these questions, and the audience feels them, along with the conflicting and shifting loyalties toward and between the sisters, portrayed by Devorah Leah Jaffe and Avital Macales. Macales plays Esther, the central figure in the drama, whose sanity threatens to desert her under the weight of this life-altering emotional earthquake. Jaffe plays her sister Chana, struggling to keep her family together, even as she and Esther face the reality that it is not only their mother's Jewish status that is in question...
As a convert, I found all my anxieties welling to the surface, as the debate raged on stage. I tried to be fair to the rabbi representing the burial society. Played by Howard Metz, the rabbi's concerns for the larger Jewish community were deftly but compassionately expressed. Bakol Ruben Gellar, Charles B. Davies, Mordechai Buxner and Syma Davidovich all played the roles of friends, family and colleagues whose loyalty to the two sisters fluctuates sadly and believably throughout the story. (I joked with these actors after the play that it was good there was a question-and-answer period following their performance, because it gave me a chance to get over being mad at them.) Our hero is Rabbi Aaron, played by David Golinkin. In essence "playing himself," as Valier pointed out, Rabbi Golinkin argues passionately on behalf of the inviolability of conversions, bringing many textual proofs to support his position. Happily, the play is allowed lighter moments through Aharon Naiman's characterization of a police officer, during humorous and tender moments with the volatile Esther.
After the play, there was a discussion between Valier and Rabbi Dr. Natan Lopes Cardozo, himself a convert. Their discussion and the audience's questions touched on the personal as well as the larger Jewish community's needs. Not surprisingly, a large part of the discussion centered on whether the needs of the Jewish community are being met by the rulings of Israel's Chief Rabbinate.
I hope that the discussion will continue well beyond the drama depicted on stage in In a Stranger's Grave. It is an important discussion with far-reaching ramifications. This is not an easy play to watch, but I strongly recommend you take the chance of a sleepless night. Our Jewish family — our greater Jewish family — needs to address the questions Miriam Metzinger's story so adroitly presents.
In a Stranger's Grave is sold out! To be put on a first-to-know list in advance of our fall run, you are encouraged to send an email to Contact@TheaterAndTheology.com.
Photo credit: Yael Valier