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Gush Etzion Women Find Respite From Terror Through Theater

I was backstage behind a curtain at the Alon Shvut Community Center in Gush Etzion, when my phone pinged. I read in the dark on my tiny phone screen. My heart sank. I quickly scanned the brief article. I knew there’d be more. This was a big one.

And then I heard my cue. It was time for my solo. I tucked my feelings away for later, when I could examine them in private: give air to them, turn them over in my mind, and try to make sense of them.

I entered stage left, dressed in a sequined vest and patterned purple plastic boots, my head wrapped in a turban. My role? A Man of Menashe, the husband of Mahla, one of the five daughters of Tzelofchad, mentioned in the Bible. These sisters radically changed the Jewish tradition regarding inheritance from a formerly all-male affair to one which might be inclusive of women, under the right circumstances.

As an alto, I’m always a guy in these shows, original musicals based on Bible stories and our Jewish tradition. That’s how we roll in Raise Your Spirits (RYS), a community theater project by and for women only. Raise Your Spirits was founded in 2001 in the midst of the Second Intifada and is the brainchild of mover and shaker Sharon Katz, against a backdrop of near constant terror and the attendant grief of a shell-shocked community. It was something to do, to keep the pain at bay. It helped us function. It drew us closer.

Back then, it was drive-by shootings, and suicide bombers in pizzerias and supermarkets. Now it’s stabbings and car rammings. And a lot of it is happening within walking distance of my home. Moreover, they’re stabbing women. Pregnant women. Women shopping. Women cooking supper, or just standing at a bus stop marking time.

Image by Esty Holland

I tell my husband I don’t worry. Only special people are murdered, and I am nothing special. We laugh, a bit awkward, neither of us quite convinced I’m making sense.

Fear. You push it away or it chokes you. That’s where Raise Your Spirits comes in. Onstage, I’m a completely different person and totally in the zone. I’m not thinking about Dafna Meir, not much anyway.

I’m not thinking of the horror her now-orphaned children would have experienced as they watched their mother’s life come to an end in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor. I’m not thinking of her widowed husband and the new reality of yet another shattered family unit, the cowardice of a terrorist who surely chose to target easy prey, a slightly built woman in the bosom of her home. There would be time for that later.

Instead, right now I’m doing something constructive, something positive. I’m acting and singing my heart out on a small stage in the middle of Gush Etzion, not far from where Dafna Meir was stabbed and murdered, and even closer to where Hadar Buchris and Dahlia Lemkus were murdered, each in her turn. I’m dancing and putting it out of my mind. Because if I think about it too much, the terror, I’m not good for anything. I can’t concentrate at work, and I can’t be a mother to my children.

You need to have a break, sometimes, you see. Because if you think about it at length, you’ll lie down on the floor and cry. You won’t be able to move. So you compartmentalize. That’s how you beat the terrorists: you don’t let them get you so far down you can’t cope. You shove those thoughts away. You have to.

And yet, it’s a constant presence. Mostly because the terror doesn’t let up. Day by vicious day the enemy is tenacious, and women are not off-limits. Au contraire.

In fact, the day after Dafna was murdered, Michal Froman, a pregnant woman in Tekoa, was also stabbed (thank God, still alive and recovering). Her late father in-law was a symbol of Jewish Arab coexistence.

This did not keep Michal safe.

A woman named Naomi was stabbed in the parking lot of the local Rami Levy Supermarket in October. An acquaintance of mine who ran to her assistance is still shell-shocked. Imagine: a woman afraid to shop.

It’s not just the Gush that suffers, of course. This week it was Shlomit Krigman of Beit Horon who lost her life to terror. And before that there was Naama Henkin who died in a car, her children watching from the backseat. Her husband trying to protect them with his last breath.

All of them are with me onstage, their stolen breaths, their cruel absence a constant presence in my heart and mind.

They are the reason I’m dancing as fast as I can, simply to stay in place. They are the reason I am performing in a show ironically entitled “Sisters: The Daughters of Tzelofchad,” a show that is all about sisterhood. These women, my fellow performers, are my sisters in truth. When I falter, my RYS sisters raise me up. They hold my hand when the news is bad, or straighten my manly turban gone askew. Among these strong Jewish role models, the women of the Gush, I am strong, my faith unwavering.

Under the hot lights I am the spirit of my murdered sisters. And when I dance, I am one with the sister performers who dance beside me. We are the very heartbeat of our people, our nation. That is why you will find me on a stage throughout February, dancing my heart out for Dahlia, Dafna, Michal, Naama, Shlomit, and Hadar. Because the more I dance, the stronger we are.

Varda Meyers Epstein is a mother of 12 and a communications writer at the charity at Kars4Kids, a car donation program that funds mentoring and educational initiatives for children.

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