‘Women’s Minyan’ powerfully confronts abuse

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Naomi Ragen, a native of New York who attended Brooklyn College and who received a master’s degree in English from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has made her home in Israel’s holy city for the past 30 years, earning an international reputation for her highly acclaimed novels, which passionately advocate for Israel in international affairs, and which defend with equal passion women’s rights within Israel’s “ultra-Orthodox” Jewish community. In her first play, Women’s Minyan, now appearaing as the third production this season at The New Jewish Theatre at the Jewish Community Center, Ragen proves that she is not only an outstanding novelist but a first-rate playwright with multi-layered sensibilities, an ability to make her audience really care about her characters, and the ability to pack powerful, heart-wrenching drama into practically every moment, especially in the climactic second act.

Ragen has strong credentials for taking on the controversial subject matter of Women’s Minyan, describing herself as “a very religious woman who relates to religion with great seriousness.” That seriousness permeates nearly every line of her play, which receives a truly first-rate production at The New Jewish Theatre. Deanna Jent directs with great skill the 10-woman cast, which is headed by Mary Schnitzler as Chana Schnitzler, a fictionalized representation of an actual woman in the ultra-ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem section of Mea She’arim, a Jewish enclave so strictly observant that its adherents do not recognize the “Zionist state,” believing that only the Messiah and the ingathering of all Jews to the Land of Israel could justify formation of a reborn Jewish nation. Schnitzler, with superb backing by all of the highly talented supporting cast, delivers a truly riveting performance that tugs at every emotion through the dialogue and drama-packed two acts.

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Ragen, who has explored complex religious and gender issues in such previous works as her novels Jephte’s Daughter, The Sacrifice of Tamar and The Ghost of Hannah, was inspired by the TV play and 1957 Sidney Lumet film Twelve Angry Men to retell the story, in dramatic form, of an actual case, which arose in Jerusalem in 1995, when a woman known as Rachel S. was attacked by her husband and flees to a friend’s apartment to seek refuge. Rachel was escaping years of physical, sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband, a respected rabbinic Talmud scholar in Mea She’arim. Taking the almost unheard of step of divorcing her ultra-Orthodox husband, the mother of 12 children, is forbidden by her ex-husband from seeing her children.

In Women’s Minyan, the desperate Chana Sheinhoff, based on Rachel S., appeals to her shattered family and confused neighborhood circle of women to give her a fair hearing, to act as a Women’s Minyan, or perhaps more properly a Bet Din, a Rabbinical Court, to swear an oath to listen to her case and to judge her fairly. The diverse group of women who make up the hastily arranged Minyan-Court include her estranged and antagonistic mother, Frume Kashman (Suzanne Greenwald in a believable, strong performance); her two older daughters, Eta (Jenn Bock) and Tovah (Margeau Baue Steinau); her woman friend Zehava (Monica Parks in a passionate portrayal) her mother-in-law Goldie Sheinhoff (Nancy Lewis, in an emotion-packed depiction) and her sister-in-law Adina Kashman (Kirsten Wylder). The complex stage management is handled well by Mary Jane Probst, the production manager and stage manager, and Liz Spray, assistant stage manager.

Within the Jewish community, there is often a tendency to self-righteously deny that such things as physical, emotional or sexual abuse of spouses or children occur, but it is obvious that the tragedy of such actions occur across the full spectrum of all religions, including both progressive and traditional Jewish communities. Here in St. Louis, the Jewish Council Against Family Violence, in cooperation with such groups as Legal Advocates for Abused Women, among others, do an outstanding job in empowering those who are victimized by violent spouses or significant others or parents, to obtain orders of protection (restraining orders) to prevent abusers from access to their victims, or in finding shelters and other assistance for them.

Without being preachy, pious or judgmental, and without pulling any punches, Naomi Ragen’s Women’s Minyan brings a sensitive topic to the stage of The New Jewish Theatre in a production and performances which are stunningly powerful, moving and meaningful. Women’s Minyan not only deserves a “Bravo” for directing, acting and script, but for bringing into sharp focus an urgent problem which has been kept under wraps for too many years.

(Women’s Minyan is appearing at The New Jewish Theatre at the Wohl Building of the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive, through April 1. For ticket information, schedule of performances, etc., call 314-442-3283, or visit the Web site at www.newjewishtheatre.org).

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