Expressing Holiness

What does it take to bring together The Juilliard School and Bais Chana, a high school for Orthodox girls?Answer: a summer conservatory for teenagers, where the art is Juilliard-level professional, and the Judaism is black-hat frum (Orthodox).

Bais Miriam, named for the timbrel-playing Miriam of Red Sea fame, gives the 18 girls who are part of this summer’s program – the first of its kind – a mode for an expression not usually channeled in Orthodox circles.

“What we are trying to do is bring expression to kedusha (holiness) and kedusha to expression,” says Bais Miriam co-founder Perel Leah Veitzer, an award-winning playwright.

Broadway and television director Robin Saex-Garbose and Veitzer met at Juilliard – before either became observant – when Saex-Garbose was a director and Veitzer a student. They had to convince Juilliard that the program would meet the most demanding artistic requirements and had to convince the Orthodox community that it would adhere to the highest levels of tzniut (personal modesty).

The program, given space at the Westside Jewish Community Center, received support from the Bais Chana Women’s Yeshiva; the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity; the Fox Foundation, through a Juilliard alumni grant; and from the Jewish Community Foundation. The Bais Miriam day starts with prayer and Torah study, then moves into movement, voice and acting classes, and then rehearsal.

“We wanted to inspire girls about what an amazing, beautiful thing it is to be a Jewish woman,” says Saex-Garbose, who now directs for “America’s Most Wanted.” “What has been so wonderful is to see these neshamas [souls] open up through the creative process.”

As a culminating project, the girls are putting on five one-act pieces next week, entitled “Wonder of Wonders – A Night of Miracles Plays, with Dance and Song.”

The performance will include scored and choreographed psalms and dance and drama numbers about, among others, the stories surrounding the grave of a martyred Moroccan woman and women in a concentration camp who found a way to light candles.

“What motivated us was wanting to tell our stories and explore the issues that are relevant to our life experience,” says Saex-Garbose. She says the outcome, the performance, is sure to draw both laughter and tears.

“That to me as a director is the most beautiful moment to strive for in theater – when you can make an audience laugh and cry at the same time.”

“Wonder of Wonders” is open to women and girls only at the Crossroads School Theater, 1714 21st St., Santa Monica. August 28, 29, 30 and 31. Tickets are $15; $12 each for group sales. Curtain is at 7 p.m. For reservations and information, call (818) 769-9102.

The Bonds that Unite Us

Enter a cathedral, and what do you feel? Thesoaring vaulted ceiling, the giant columns, the colossal statues ofsaints and martyrs, the luminous stained-glass images of scripturalheroes — the architecture articulates a spirituality of contrast. Weare small, insignificant, ephemeral creatures, no better than insectson the floor. We are impure, corrupt, stained with sin. Who are we toapproach God? God is magnificent, distant and fearsome in judgment.In the cathedral, it is only the figure of Christ that mediatesbetween my miserable condition as human being and God’s majesty.Holiness, argued the scholar Rudolf Otto, lies in the contrastbetween our “utter creatureliness” and God’s frightening “tremendum.”Holiness is the shiver of vulnerability in the face of theinfinite.

In Hebrew, the word for holiness is kedusha. Thisis the key term in this week’s Torah reading: “Kedoshim tihyu — Youwill be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).Trace that word in our experience, and we arrive at a very different– and very Jewish — idea of holiness.

A family, a havurah, a community of friends,gathers at a Shabbat or holiday table to celebrate life together, toshare our stories, our laughter, our tears, the triumphs and failuresof our lives. We raise a cup of wine and recite a prayer ofsanctification. But it isn’t the wine that is sacred. The prayeraffirms the holiness of the circle around the table — the bonds thathold us together as family and friends. That prayer is called”Kiddush.”

Two separate, independent individuals — fromdifferent families, different cultures, even different planets, hefrom Mars, she from Venus — find wholeness in one another. Theypledge to share life together. A ring is placed on a finger, a ringwhole and unbroken so that their lives, their dreams, their pain andtheir joys will be wholly intertwined. The tightly drawn circle ofthe self is unlocked to include another, whose happiness becomes “myhappiness,” and whose suffering becomes “my suffering.” And “we”recite: “Haray at mi-kudeshet lee” — “With this ring, we aremi-kudeshet, bonded in sanctity.” This miraculous process is calledin Jewish tradition, Kiddushin.

When a loved one dies, we refuse to let thecatastrophe of death be the last word. We will not sever our bonds ofloyalty and love. We will not lose our memories of shared wisdom,warmth, strength, vision. We rise in synagogue — in the midst of ourpeople — to recite a prayer that affirms the triumph of life overdeath, of hope over despair. The prayer is called “Kaddish.”

Rudolf Otto, like the builders of the greatcathedrals, found holiness in the God’s awesome distance. We Jewsfind it in God’s warm closeness. We find it in the bonds that uniteus. We find it in shared laughter and shared tears.

I used to listen faithfully to “Religion on theLine,” the radio talk show featuring a rabbi, priest and minister.Each week, whatever the scheduled issue, the panel would inevitablyreceive the same question from a caller: “Must one belong toorganized religion to have a relationship with God?” It is a sincerequestion. But I wonder where it comes from. What a lonelyindividualism that sees community as a trap and belonging asconfinement. What a cold and solitary spirituality that has nolanguage to share the insights of faith. What kind of human lifefears belonging?

This is more than theology; it is personal. I layin a hospital bed this past January, facing the most frighteningmoments of my life. And then I felt the warm hands of friends whocame to offer support. They prepared meals for my family, cared forour children, donated their blood on my behalf, and offered theirprayers for strength, healing and hope. In the warmth of their love,I have felt the Presence of God.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.