Naomi Ragen’s Women’s Minyan is a tough play to watch, particularly for any 21st century American women still feeling the sting of the regressive rhetoric from the last presidential election.
The world evoked by the Brooklyn-born Israeli writer is a different one – the play is set a decade ago in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox community of Meah Shearim – but the denigrating words aimed by women at one of their own earn gasps, moans or derisive muttering from the audience at Boca Raton’s Levis Jewish Community Center.
Certainly, the playwright, producer Myrna Loman and director Shari Upbin aren’t suggesting that what happens to Chana Sheinhoff, a woman forbidden from seeing her 12 children (yes, 12) after she leaves her husband, is a good or just thing. But the truth is that such condemnation, shunning and adherence to rabbinical rulings happens: Women’s Minyan is based on a real case.
Though Ragen’s play deals with a haredi or ultra-Orthodox Israeli community, and Yiddish or Hebrew words and phrases are sprinkled throughout the script, Women’s Minyan is perfectly accessible to any Jewish or non-Jewish theatergoer. Narration by Jeffrey Bruce explains ultra-Orothodox beliefs and traditions, including the practices women follow in dressing modestly and covering their heads with scarves or wigs after marriage. The 10 women in the cast arrive onstage wearing contemporary outfits, then proceed to transform themselves as Bruce’s voice sets the scene.
That scene is an emotionally volatile one. After walking out on her husband in 2001, the now-divorced Chana (an appealing Jaime Libbert-Smith) has come home two years later demanding to see her children. She has a rabbinical court order backing her up, but several of the women gathered at Chana’s former home are determined to drive her away for good.
Two of the women, Chana’s former mother-in-law Goldie (Blanca Bassion) and former sister-in-law Adina (Clelia Patrizio), are somewhat sympathetic toward her. Chana’s eldest daughter Bluma (Mary Stucchi), now a married woman, is bitterly resentful. A younger daughter, Shaine Ruth (Margo Gellert), is confused but relieved at seeing her mother again.
Chana’s own mother, Frume Kashman (Renee Rogoff), and sister, Gitte Leah Kashman (Merry Jo Cortada), are the nastiest of the lot, haranguing the prodigal Chana nonstop. Two comedic gossipy neighbors, Eta Leibowitz (Gail Byer) and Tovah Klein (Fern Katz), stick their noses in everyone’s business and repeat rumors, including the one about Chana’s roommate Zehava (Elli Murray) actually being her lover.
A minyan, as the program glossary explains, is a group of 10 men, the minimum needed to form a congregation or society to worship or make decisions. A “women’s minyan” doesn’t exist; in the world of the haredim, women are to bear children, work to support their families (so that their husbands can spend their days studying the Torah), keep house and do as men tell them. But Chana convinces these women to let her tell her story, vowing that if they rule against her, she’ll give up her fight.
Threading subtle, mournful live music through the scenes, Upbin gets solid performances from her large cast, though Ragen doesn’t make each performer’s journey an easy one. Rogoff and Cortada commit fully to women who seem unfeelingly cruel, even reprehensible. Katz and especially Byer provide bits of comic relief, but at a certain point in the darkening story, laughter becomes inappropriate.
Dramatically, what’s most challenging about Women’s Minyan is that Chana’s second-act revelations are things the audience sees coming from the get-go. Adina has a secret too, and when she shares it, you think, “Well, of course.” That’s not to say that Chana’s marital experiences aren’t profoundly disturbing. They are. But as Women’s Minyan demonstrates, cruelty takes many forms. And sometimes it flows from the similarly oppressed.