A few years ago, a Jewish women’s theater group from Pittsburgh performed a short piece at the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance’s fourth International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy in New York. Called “Dancing With the Torah,” it was about a girl who is banned from the men’s side of the synagogue on the holiday of Simchat Torah when she turns 12. Prior to her bat mitzvah, she rejects the role of passive onlooker, instead singing, dancing and basking in the holiday’s intoxicating glory.
The piece — which was performed by Kol Isha, a group devoted to issues of womanhood within the Jewish community –– could have been a metaphor for the life of one woman: Amy Gordon Guterson, co-founder and artistic director of Kol Isha (which, in Hebrew, translates as both “a woman’s voice” and “every woman”). Ten years ago this month, Guterson herself emerged from behind a barrier of sorts, when she made the decision to form an all-women’s Jewish ensemble. The goal was to attract Jewish women of all ages, backgrounds, sexual orientations and, most importantly, religious affiliations — the group agreed that certain performances had to be for all-female audiences, respecting stricter standards of those members who wouldn’t perform for men — and the subject matter always would address issues pertaining to women’s identity and Jewish unity.
“Women have a way to heal the world more so than men,” Guterson noted. “We don’t let division get in the way because we’re building something together.”
Seventeen years ago, Guterson graduated from Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women with its first theater degree. Guterson, who was raised in a Modern Orthodox home, dreamed of embracing a career usually off-limits to observant girls. She didn’t want to be merely an observer, sitting in the audience and watching others create theater. She wanted to both direct and act, to be behind the scenes as well as on the other side of the curtain — the side deemed inappropriate for a young Orthodox woman.
But between performances on the Sabbath and the objectionable content, Guterson decided that it was “fairly impossible to have a career in theater as an observant girl.” There seemed to be a clear choice: religion or theater.
At first she chose theater, but she found that she missed a life infused with religion and spirituality. Leaving the New York theater world behind, Guterson got married and eventually settled in Pittsburgh’s Jewish neighborhood, Squirrel Hill, home to Jews of all religious affiliations — Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox and Lubavitch.
It was her husband’s idea to form a Jewish theater group for women after the couple’s second child was born. Guterson had a chance encounter with Barb Feige, an Actor’s Equity professional and stage manager in Pittsburgh, and the two women formed Kol Isha. In their first play, in 1996, titled “An Invisible Thread,” each member shared her personal life story through a series of vignettes, performed at Squirrel Hill’s Jewish Community Center. Guterson wrote the ensemble’s second play, “Journey Through Ruth” (also performed at the center), in which modern women on a tour of Israel meet the biblical figures of Ruth and Naomi, portrayed as powerful women with eternal struggles. Their next play was performed at Pittsburgh’s City Theatre in conjunction with City’s production of “The Chosen.” Called “The Choosing,” it’s about a woman “struggling to find her way inside her home, community and world.” “Hanukkah Lights” was next, performed at the Squirrel Hill center, where members found stories featuring female heroines. Next, “Spirits of Valor,” presented at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, portrayed five female subjects in celebration of Jewish Women’s History Month: Bella Abzug, Barbara Meyerhoff, Molly Picon, Emma Lazarus and Gluckel of Hameln.
The group also has presented workshops combined with small performances. These productions have taken place at such venues as JOFA and Pittsburgh’s Congregation Beth Shalom, and they explore various themes, including “Finding Your Jewish Story” and “Stereotypes of Jewish Women in the Media.”
“People are scared of limitations,” Guterson explained, noting the irony. “I found that ‘limitations’ pushed me to grow creatively and open myself up to a new identity.”
Kol Isha is currently working on a play based on the members’ grandmothers’ stories, which the group plans to perform this coming winter. Guterson grew up inspired by a story that her grandmother used to relate about a young girl who saves her family during the Depression. While working on the current play, Guterson decided to develop her story into a short film, called “Becoming Rachel,” which premiered in April at the Pittsburgh Jewish Israeli Film Festival.
By weaving together stories from a diverse web of female voices, differences and similarities emerge, as well as a sense that theater and religion may complement each other well.
Sara Trappler Spielman is a freelance writer living in New York City.