At a variety show held earlier this month at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, an audience composed entirely of ladies sat in rapt attention as female performer after female performer sang, danced and acted her heart out. Many of the women onstage had not performed in a long time. The talent sang about God and Jerusalem and about the importance of family. They danced to convey messages of spirituality and mysticism. Many wore ankle-skimming skirts and long-sleeved shirts. Those who were married wore headscarves, hats or wigs. The production, “Shir LaMaalote” (Hebrew for “Song To Elevate”), was the second performance put on by Atara, an association of Torah observant artists. The new group’s mission is to bring Orthodox female artists — who, according to Jewish laws of modesty, cannot perform in front of adult males — out of the shadows and back into the spotlight. At least in front of other women, that is.
“There are people with musical talent in the Jewish community who never get to use it,” said Miriam Leah Droz, one of the show’s organizers and a founding member of Atara. “They check it in at the door when they decide to become religious. But why should they have to?” Atara offers performance opportunities, arts education and artistic resources to Torah-observant women who wish to express themselves creatively but require circumstances that the secular world simply cannot offer.
To be sure, the recent performance’s roster was largely composed of ba’alei teshuva — women who grew up in secular homes but eventually became Orthodox. Many were trained in musical theater or studied dance or voice, yet abandoned their pursuits of the arts when they found God. Droz, 31, studied musical theater at Penn State before she became religious during a year abroad in Israel. “I couldn’t imagine that I was the only religious person in the world with a musical background,” she said.
In fact, she was not. And she also wasn’t the only one excited about reawakening long-dormant creative muscles. According to Yocheved Polonsky, a Cleveland-based dancer and choreographer who performed in the show, “Atara is the natural progression of a community of artists recognizing Godliness in themselves, their world and the world around them.” Other performers included Buenos Aires-born vocalist Leah Sigal and former Broadway actress Judy Winegard, who became religious 15 years ago.
Atara was born late last year when Droz began speaking to some friends about the need for more artistic expression in the Orthodox world. “Secular entertainment isn’t trayf *because it’s entertainment,” she said. “It’s *trayf because it’s secular. But there’s nothing wrong with singing and dancing. Music and dance can lift people up. With Atara, we’re taking the same modes of communication the secular world uses and using them to communicate Torah values.” The organization is run by volunteers at the moment, since, as Droz put it, “there’s no budget.” But, she added, “We’d love to get a grant.”
In conjunction with the performance, Atara organized its first annual Torah & Arts Conference, held that same weekend. The seminar offered workshops in playwriting, songwriting, choreography, vocal coaching, dancing and acting. In addition, the event featured a sneak preview of “A Light for Grey Towers,” a movie musical directed by Hollywood’s only Orthodox female filmmaker, Robin Garbose. Four years in the making, the movie was completed under rabbinic supervision and is intended for the eyes of women and girls only.
Droz hopes that this conference and performance are just the beginning for Atara, which she prays will help create a community of artists who are as committed to Torah values as they are to their art. “People don’t know that their neighbors or friends are so talented,” Droz said. “It’s not like these women can sing at the Shabbos table. It’s like they’ve been hiding for years.”
Despite Atara’s commitment to bringing women out of their artistic shells, the group isn’t limited to the fairer sex. “It happens that the needs of women are for women-only affairs, and that needs to be addressed first,” Droz said. She stressed that in the future, the group intends to focus on men, too. “I’m sure there are tons of guys who don’t fit into the yeshiva world because they want to act or sing or just express themselves differently,” she said.
Leah Hochbaum Rosner is a freelance writer living in New York.