Where have I been???

November 7th, 2014

I am a little tired of prefacing blog posts with excuses and explanations of my lack of posting.

Today, I am only posting a recent piece in the Jerusalem Post Blog by Varda Epstein, to explain my absence… more of my long and wandering thoughts on this life-changing experience in future blog posts…

LEARNER”S PERMIT

 By VARDA EPSTEIN \

In the wake of the heavy pain that gripped the Gush Etzion community, a novel sort of summer stock group was founded by Sharon Katz under the artistic direction of Toby Klein Greenwald, both of Efrat. Raise Your Spirits (RYS), would produce musical theatre by and for women only. And 13 years on, the brave little theatre troupe is still putting on shows for women who come from all over the country to get a dose of theatre for the soul. The troupe is currently in production with Count the Stars, the Journey of Avraham and Sara, set to premiere on December 3, 2014.It seemed only appropriate then, for me to interview the two principles of this show, Avital Macales (Avraham) and Rachel Moore (Sara), the two “stars” who feature in Stars, an original musical written by Katz and Macales, and directed by Klein Greenwald. I thought the best way to explain this feisty theatre troupe would be to have the actors speak for themselves. As it happens, I had an in: this is my second time around as a cast member ofanRYS production. So IhadAvital and Rachel come by and we had a nice long chat.I want you to get a real feel for what this is, so get yourself a nice hot cup of tea, sit back and relax, and get to know these two women who are bringing their own brand of light to the fore, to banish the darkness and raise the spirits of their sisters.Rachel Moore, left, and Avital Macales
Rachel Moore, left, andAvitalMacales
VE: Avital, how did you end up in the performing arts?AM: I come from a musical family. Music was always a part of my home. But as a teenager, I was shy and quiet, and not many in my grade knew who I was and I didn’t know who I was. Also, this was in the 90s, and there still weren’t many artisticmegamot [high-school majors], so there was nothing I could do in theatre at school.Then when I got to my senior year we put on The Sound of Music. I auditioned and thought, “Maybe I’ll have a chance to be Leisl.”                                                                                                                                        ( Far right, Sharon Katz, left Deena Lawi)
I was cast as Maria.  Deena Lawi, left, and Sharon Katz

I decided to keep my role a secret from my mother until she sat there in the audience on opening night and realized it was me on stage. I kept the rehearsals a secret all that time and during the rehearsals I was developing into the real Avital. I began coming out of my shell, and that was the beginning of the rest of my life. The beginning of who Avital is today.

VE: Rachel, how about you? What’s your background in the performing arts?

RM: I started singing when I was about eight. I sang in my shul choir, and at a young age was apprenticed to the cantor, a woman. I started private lessons when I was twelve, thinking I would go into chazzanut. I was lucky to have as my teacher, Elizabeth Coss, a soprano at the Metropolitan Opera and a big advocate for classical training. She was friends with Pavarotti. I was twelve, mind you, and I said, “Whatever you do, do not make me sound like an opera singer.” (Laughs)

So I sang wherever I could; whatever musical theatre came my way, whatever choirs I could find; but mostly I focused on private lessons for over fifteen years – until my fifth child was born. I continued to study privately in Boston, Montreal and eventually in Israel.

I was in high school when my family moved to Boston, so I was able to participate in the Boston University Theatre Conservatory summer program. Many of the participants are professionals with agents and budding careers. It’s a very intense program where you are treated like a professional (child) actor and the staff is brutally honest – it was great training.

Some time after graduating university I began the process of making Aliyah. I came on a pilot trip and auditioned for singing teachers. I was fortunate to find Judi Axelrod and moved to Jerusalem to work with her and to prepare for entry to conservatory.
I became more religious and at one point Judi said, “You’re preparing to audition for conservatory and I think you can make it if this is what you decide to do, but I want you to think about whether this is still what you want.

“If you study opera, you will have to leave Israel, Shabbat will always hurt your career, and you’ll be lucky if you can have two kids, because that’s the life of an opera singer.”

Rachel Moore with daughter Shira and Avital Macales.
Rachel Moore with daughter Shira and Avital Macales

So I took a deep breath and made the decision not to go to conservatory. It was a big moment for me to decide this would be a hobby and not a vocation after so many years. And then I basically stopped singing altogether when my fifth child was born. I didn’t realize I would be taking a decade-long break from music and theatre!

Other than, of course, watching.

And… it’s been amazing for me. Amazing to be back! I didn’t realize how much I would miss it. It was part of a different chapter of my life. It’s life-changing to have it back.

VE: Avital, what about the kol isha issue, the prohibition against men hearing women—other than close family members—sing?

AM: I came from a circle where it was a complete given. It was completely natural to me to sing in front of women only. In recent years, I began to better understand the complexity of [Kol Isha], and I challenged myself more about whether or not I wanted to get out there and perform in front of mixed audiences. I wanted to see where my boundaries were, as my understanding grew. After much thought I came to the decision that I’m still going to sing only in front of women and my personal reason is… Gosh, this is where it gets a bit tough… There’s a certain intimacy that I want to bring to the stage. I want to be completely intimate with my audience, and I don’t want anything to block that. I just want to be completely open, and I feel completely open in front of an all-women’s audience.

VE: What does RYS mean to you?

AM: RYS is unique in my eyes because while there are now quite a few theatres for women who put on musicals, RYS is one of the only ones who put on biblical musicals. It seems that as you go more to the right on the spectrum, religiously, there is less of a tendency to adapt a biblical story into a play because it is almost taboo to give righteous biblical characters a face, and to give a psychological and emotional interpretation to the biblical text. So RYS is one of the few who does that, and at the same time has clear boundaries based on Halacha and takes into consideration the geist of the target audience.


Cast members Racheli Ettinger and sister Chaya Lapidot

VE: Rachel, what is the scope of your part? So much dialogue, a lot of staging to memorize. I mean, how many pages is it? How many hours?

RM: Every word and every line and every thing that’s asked of me is a gift. Every single one, so I’m not really looking at it as this huge heap of how am I ever going to get all of that, but rather, I don’t know if I’m ever going to do this again.

So I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about whether I can learn it all. I spend time worrying that I can do justice to the other people, who have worked so hard and have learned so much and are so amazing and have been doing this for ten years, twelve years, and I’m just coming in, that I feel like I owe it to them.

To be performing in this show together with both of my daughters (Michal Moore, Ishmael, and Shira Moore, Yitzchak) is the opportunity of a lifetime for me. I never imagined it possible to have a theater experience that was such a supportive, kind, generous, holy group of people. It is like a dream.

The cast of Count the Stars.
The cast of Count the Stars

VE: What’s next for Rachel Moore?

RM: I hope I am blessed with lots more opportunities to perform. I don’t know where, but I will not be on a ten-year hiatus ever again. That will not happen.

VE: Avital, how did you end up in the RYS theatre troupe?

AM: It was very unpopular for religious girls in my circle to consider the performing arts in general, so it wasn’t an option for me. But after I finished high school I met a girl from Efrat in sherut leumi (national service), and she said, “We have a women’s theatre.”
And I didn’t even know where Efrat was. But she said, “You must come audition for ‘Ruth.’”

With some encouragement from my mother, I had just begun my studies with Nomi Teplow of Ginot Shomron. She’s wonderful.
So I did audition, but I thought, why am I auditioning? I live in Rehovot, what am I going to do with this play in Gush Etzion? I don’t even know how to get there.

But I went anyway, I got in, and the rest is history.

And all I knew was that there was something bigger than me that was making me willing to endure all this sacrifice that I was making. Wanting to be on that stage, on the Raise Your Spirits stage, was bigger than I could understand. In fact, if we rewind a little bit, the first Raise Your Spirits show that I saw – and frankly, the only one I saw, because after that I was IN the shows – was “Noah.”

At the end of that show that evening, RYS director Toby Klein Greenwald invited everyone onstage to speak to the actors, so I went over and I said hello to Noah and “his” wife Naama, when this strange voice came into my head out of nowhere, and said, “This is going to be your stage one day.”

Younger cast members have girly-girl fun in between rehearsing their scenes.
Younger cast members have girly-girl fun in between rehearsing their scenes

VE: So what was it like, writing a musical?

AM: More than any solo, more than any lead role, creating this musical has been the epitome of so many things that I love, in one project. I love Tanach (bible), emotions, writing. I love composing, singing, and drama, and I got to do everything in one project.
There was a learning process, a lot of learning. We read any book we could get our hands on, looked at any website we could find. We learned, studied, thought, and analyzed. We spoke to scholars. We did all these things until we had our artistic idea, because you could take the same story and do it 70 different ways. So we had to choose our way.

And I found that I was putting my own stamp on Avraham’s story, because it could be told in many different ways, but that this would be my own journey that I’m going through in this particular period: the journey of singlehood.

Avraham wants to become a father. Avraham and Sara want to become parents on a universal level. They start a new nation, but they also want to become parents because they’re human beings and they want to have a child. They want to nurture, give. I want to become the head of a family too.

After I began co-writing this show, I started looking up at the skies whenever I despaired. I was searching for stars.

I’m looking for my stars.

There was a night I went with my family to payashiva calltoRacheli Frankel, the mother of one of the three boys who were kidnapped and killed. It was a dark night and there were no stars and I just wanted one star. I just wanted one star to glimmer and to… there’s a line in the show, “We searched for a glimmer to console us,” and there was not a single glimmer in the sky.So Avraham’s story of counting stars is my story and the Jewish people’s story, of just finding glimmers here and there: reminders thatHashem is here, “I’m here. You may not always see me. You may be in a dark time, but I’m here.”VE: And now you’ve co-written Stars. You’ve watched this thing grow from a glimmer to something real.
AM: Yes! It was all about the connection between my heart and my mind. As if my heart and mind connected and then flew forward.And I want to write at least a hundred more musicals, a thousand more musicals!
I want to inspire people.
COUNT THE STARS – The Journey of Avraham and Sara
Opens December 3
Gush Etzion Community Center
For more information:
http://www.raiseyourspirits.org/count-the-stars.html (All photos,Bati Katz. Poster design, Chana Singer) Click here to see the original at the Jerusalem Post

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Meeting Rita

July 1st, 2013

While most people have written and filed their experiences and impressions from the President’s Conference in Jerusalem two weeks ago, I am only getting this published now. While it may only be an excuse, I doubt from what I saw that most of the participants, especially writers, at the conference were leaving behind 6 children finishing up their first year of school in Israel. For me, there has been a lot of “pay back” for that precious two day absence, so I hope this interview comes better late than never.

Rita Yahan-Farouz

Of the many fantastic moments for me at the President’s Conference, meeting Rita definitely stands out as the highlight. This was for me a rare, unforgettable life-moment. There is the rush of fandom, of meeting a star, but this was something else.

Meeting someone for the first time that has left a fingerprint on your soul and having the chance to tell them personally is truly incredible, and something I do not take for granted. The fact that Rita was personable, charming, beautiful, interesting and kind is really icing on the cake.

For those of you that do not know, “Rita”, Rita Yahan-Farouz is an Iranian--born Israeli pop singer and the most famous female singer in Israel. She has had an unprecedented career in Israel in film and on stage, and has sold countless albums and sold-out concerts.

In 2011, she also became popular in Iran as an underground singing sensation after the release of various pop records which she sings in her native Persian language. In 2012, her album “All My Joys,” also sung in Persian, was popular in both Israel and Iran, going gold in Israel after three weeks. She has since been referred to as a cultural ambassador between Israeli and Iranian citizens. You can learn a lot more about Rita, her stardom and her career here.

***

When I was 17 years old, I came to Israel for the first time on what was then a brand new program called “USY High”. Although it has since changed, at the time it was a Conservative Movement form of the standard AMHSI two-month high school in Israel program based in Hod Hasharon.

My teacher, Yossi Katz, who still teaches at AMHSI, could see right away that I was one of those kids that was falling in love, very quickly and deeply with the country. Yossi is the author of “A Voice Called”  and is someone I have always described as someone who creates zionists for a living. The number of Yossi’s former students that have made aliyah is staggering.

As early as my first week in Israel I explained to Yossi emphatically that Israel could never be home for me. It would of course conflict with the long, successful stage career as a singer that was waiting for me back in the United States. Yossi reacted by creating a mantra that I could be the “next Rita in Israel” over and over, and backed this up by giving me my first taste of Israeli music, a Rita cassette.

I spent the remainder of those 8 life-transforming weeks on a bus, learning the history of the land of Israel from the time of Avraham until today almost entirely on tiyul. And every minute we were on that bus, I was looking out the window wearing a walkman and listening to Rita.

She was the background music for my burgeoning love affair with Eretz Yisroel. 24 years later, as I drive to work on a mundane commute, I still feel pangs of fierce, passionate love. And I still hear the background music.

…. and in Binyanei Hauma, I got to tell Rita herself.

I tried to assure the true (well-earned) Diva that I wanted to talk to her about HER and not me, but opened with the personal connection anyway. She responded by gasping, telling me that I gave her the chills and giving me a big hug. I know she has a successful long-standing career as an actress so perhaps I should be cynical about the reception, but it certainly felt amazing.

We spoke first and foremost about motherhood. Since I explained that this is the subject of much of my blog, we both talked about being musical moms raising musical kids. As if we are “both” in any category. But when she stopped her manager in her tracks to exclaim in shock the number of kids I have, insisting that it is impossible because I look 26 years old, she had me even more hooked than ever.

She explained to me that motherhood didn’t change her as a musician, it just changed the centrality of her very successful career in her life. “Being a mother just instantly became the most important thing in my life, and remained so.” She spoke about the challenges of finding the right balance of (stellar) career and motherhood. She had a neighbor that would needle her incessantly about not being home for her children, as this neighbor of course was. She was so irritated by the constant badgering that she wound up going to a family psychologist who asked her one simple question. “When your daughter grows up, gets married and has a family. Will you tell her that you think she should drop her life-passion and stay home to be with her family? Will you tell her to table her own happiness for the sake of her children?”. Rita didn’t need any more information and went home empowered to find that balance every one of us struggles with.

How telling – and familiar – that the the social pressure to please others’ is at least as much a part of that struggle as the personal balance we each have to find.

 We talked about the most significant influence on her as a musician. It was not a particular band or favorite album… but the rich singing and dancing her Persian mother did around the house.

She described very, very early memories of resting on her mother’s legs as she sang constantly to her children.  It wasn’t appropriate for a Persian woman to publicly dance and sing, she explained, so she would perform with flair around the house for her entranced daughters. And these are the sounds that have informed and influenced Rita throughout her career. I restrained myself – with effort – from launching into my background as a Music Together teacher. Music Together teaches us through science and study the profound impact that this kind of musical behavior by any mother has on every child and their love of music. Rita knew through her gut and didn’t need my affirmation. (And it wasn’t about me.  I wasn’t going to make this a two way conversation of “sharing” no matter how much it is my inclination. This was an interview.)

It made so much sense when she later talked about her 2012 album, All My Joys, which is sung in Persian, as a deeply personal “return home”. The fact that it has seen unprecedented international success and has turned into a surprising bridge-builder between Israeli and Iranian people has been a wonderful unintended outcome. I now understood how despite meteoric success and international attention she could still describe the effort as a deeply personal one.

We discussed the raising of her musical kids. Both of her daughters are very musical which is even less surprising when you know that their father, her ex-husband, is Rami Kleinstein a hugely successful Israeli artist in his own right.

Meshi is 21 and very well may pursue a career in music,”  Rita told me, “I don’t think she can run away from it. She is so talented… She sings in English, Davka.”

Her younger daughter, Noam, is 12, is also an incredibly creative musician. Rita tells me she is “so talented at so many different instruments. And she seems to have rhythm and blues down in her kishkes. It is amazing. But she very well may decide not pursue music as a profession…. she knows very deeply first hand the price that one pays to be in this business, and isn’t sure she wants to pay it.”

I asked Rita if she had any message for my very musical 13 year old daughter who also has the “bug” and wants a lifetime of singing. With the added challenge of being Orthodox and all that that means in Israel today. I didn’t know how Rita would react, and how careful she would want to be to veer away from religion or politics. I didn’t know if it would be an opportunity to criticize the limitations of religion on musical expression (particularly for women).  She didn’t go there at all, and impressed me yet again.

“Tell her that singing is mentioned even the Kabbalah – that music has a vibration that is like a prayer. It is the strongest way to connect to Heaven, to G-d. Like a straight cable to connect directly to G-d. You can’t tell someone to run away from such a love. She has to find her own destiny.” She said. “And tell her to never, ever stop singing.”

She had described for me her earliest memory of being asked to stand up at a large family gathering when she was only 4, to stand on a chair and sing for everyone. The world stopped, and she felt this incredible “oneness”. A moment of pure joy and clarity that has always stayed with her, and was the defining moment in which she knew this is what she had to do for the rest of her life.

I asked Rita for her proudest career moments. She said that the two peaks for her were singing “Hatikvah” at the Knesset for Israel’s 50th birthday celebration, and her recent performance at the UN General Assembly in March as a representative of Israel, where she sang in Persian, English and Hebrew. She explained that three of the tickets were taken somehow by the Iranian delegation, but they will never know how or by whom.

When I pointed out that these are both moments of national representation as opposed to commercial success, she explained that her 8-year-old immigrant self is still inside her, remembering her move to Israel, being mocked and feeling “different” . That that little girl jumps for joy when she has these moments as the representative of Israel.

Once again, I restrained myself and didn’t talk about how much I can relate, as I watch my children struggle through their first year of aliyah. I pushed down tears of emotion and made a mental note to simply share this insight with my own little immigrants as soon as I got home. (Which I did.)

These were the highlights for me of what felt like a too-short intimate conversation between two people who live in different worlds but could so easily be friends. I wondered then, and still do, if she just has an amazing gift of making everyone feel that way, and it really has nothing to do with me?

meandRita

I hope Rita will get an opportunity to read this, and that she feels it has done justice to our conversation. She had so many fans approach her on that one day alone, and it must go on throughout the year. But if she does see it then she will know that she left a second fingerprint during our conversation and there is a strange part of me that is absolutely convinced that it will not be our last.

 

If you missed Rita at the President’s Conference, you can watch her on the panel here

 

For more information about Rita’s amazing career, her latest album, or how to order any of her music, be sure to visit her website. 

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Mama Doni’s Chanukah Concert

December 19th, 2011

I have to blog such a big thank you to Culture Mom & Mama Doni for their giveaway of tickets to a Chanukah performance this past Sunday. It was a blast to win, and a much bigger blast to attend.

Alia was right. Mama Doni was warm and engaging and did a great job on Sunday. I knew that Mama Doni’s performance wasn’t geared towards a frum audience. To be honest, I was a little apprehensive, about religious / propriety issues, and about feeling like I would stand out in this crowd.  I was hopeful it would be okay with my little ones. When Mama Doni came right over and welcomed us before the show like old friends, and all of my apprehensions went out the window. And that was long before my three year old spun around like a dreidel,  or jumped with glee to a song about gelt.

Even though I did completely stand out in this crowd. I seem to have had quite a run lately of meeting performers and of standing out in the crowd.  But I digress.

Mama Doni choosing volunteers to boogie with her on stage.

Mama Doni knows her job, and she does it well. Preschoolers are a tough group to play for. For the record, moms, so are the parents of preschoolers!  As a Music Together teacher and occasional Library Story & Song Hour performer, I can tell you that parents often think their kids will stay engaged without their parents, who would prefer to catch a break and let someone else do the entertaining rather than having to be goofy and participate. So they talk and schmooze on the sides. That can be really challenging for those on stage trying to keep the focus of the crowd. Far more challenging than most parents realize. The next time you go to a kid’s concert and you see a grown woman acting all silly and involved down in the front it very well could be me. And now you will know why. (Ask anyone who attended Shira Kline’s performance with me last year, or Yosi’s last week; they will agree with me here.)

I give Mama Doni so much credit for not only handling this tough scenario so well but managing to engage the parents despite themselves.

Towards the end of the concert Mama Doni asked if anyone knew Maoz Tzur, and my aspiring-singer-young daughter raised her brave little hand. She went up on stage to sing it with Mama Doni, and after she got going Mama Doni handed her the mic and let her just do her thing…It takes a tremendous Diva to command the stage and keep two year olds and chatty dads interested and involved – and then in another moment be able to hand over the spotlight like that. Not only did she make my daughter’s day (week, year…), but she signed a poster for her with a personal message at the end, which was such a huge affirmation for such a young woman with such a love of singing.

I would have blogged that it was a great concert and a great day even if she hadn’t picked my daughter and given her a moment of a lifetime. I promise. The band was great, the performance was great, and all of the kids and families there left with “Chanukah Fever”.

As expected, Mama Doni and I didn’t have much time to talk about my big plans and ideas, but now that we have met (and hugged), I am certain we will. Although I think I will be cemented in her memory forever as the “mother of” the young lady singing Maoz Tzur….

Mama Doni cheering on my daughter.

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