Theatre and Halakah – A Perfect Match

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BIAS, the Bar Ilan Acting Society, is anything but biased, with a diverse membership – you don’t even have to be a Bar Ilan student to participate – and an open approach to creating theatre within the structure of Halakhah (Jewish religious law). Their next play, The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder (which inspired the Broadway musical Hello Dolly), directed by Chava Forman, and produced by Tobie Harris, will premiere Sunday, January 17th, with additional performances on the 18th and 20th. Midnight East spoke to cast member Kyra Young, a second year English Literature major at Bar Ilan University, to learn more about BIAS.

Young will be playing the role of Minnie Fay, shy hat shop assistant, and says, “I get to squeak and scream on stage, and I’m very excited about it!” She radiates enthusiasm for the cast and production, describing the experience of working on the show, “It’s eleven o’clock on a Tuesday night, and you can find me on stage rehearsing lines with the most talented and motley crew of actors I have ever been a part of. “BIAS”, as The Bar Ilan Acting Society is affectionately called, has been putting on English plays for the public throughout the past seven years. BIAS is a student run group, collecting budget money from the ticket sales.”

BIAS was started by a group of students from Bar Ilan University with a love of theatre. Young explains that “as religious students they wanted bias to follow Halakha regarding all that pertains to male-female relationships, such as shomer negiya and kol eisha.” Following shomer negiya (in Hebrew: observing touch) means that men and women cannot touch one another onstage, while kol eisha (in Hebrew: the voice of a woman) means that women cannot sing onstage. How does one produce co-ed theatre within these limitations? BIAS members have found a way.

As women cannot sing onstage, the company has decided that there will be no singing in BIAS plays. So far, Young says, “We have not produced musicals, so that’s been easy. In the current play there was one female character who hums – so that was taken out. In the current production, The Matchmaker, the script includes dancing, handshakes and men and women putting an arm around each other. Chava Forman, the director found a way around that by having guys dancing with each other. It adds to the comedy.”

“In one play we had six girls onstage who were playing a group of middle-aged women who meet regularly to play Trivial Pursuit and talk about their relationships with their husbands. So there was sexual innuendo…sexual jokes, winks, flirtation. There is some sort of boundary, it’s in the hands of the individual director. We’re not going to censor everything.”

 The diverse cast reflects the spirit of openness and love of theatre conveyed by Young. When asked whether BIAS represents a particular stream of Jewish observance or affiliation, Young replied, “No, not all all. Bias just exists. It calls itself a society there are people from all walks of life. 2 guys in the group are completely irreligious. Everyone else is religious to varying degrees. There are ground rules onstage, offstage – you do what you do and it’s fine.”

A few of the cast members are English Literature majors, but the production also includes two law students, 2 social science students, and a computer engineer. The play has attracted a varied group, including one Tel Aviv University student and one Technion graduate. It is a large production, with 14 cast members. Says Young, “With such a large cast this semester, dozens upon dozens of hours have been put into rehearsing, getting into character, blocking, and simply fooling around enjoying ourselves.”  

Young immigrated to Israel alone after completing high school in the US, and studied at Orot College for one year. She spent the following year “getting in touch with nature, Wordsworth style,” as she describes it, farming in Beit Yatir as part of her National Service (a voluntary alternative to military service, placing individuals in schools, hospitals and other roles where they can serve the community). When applying to Bar Ilan she thought carefully before choosing to major in English Literature (in Israel one applies to a specific department, choosing a major before beginning college), and ultimately decided that “moving to Israel doesn’t mean I have to deny myself something I like learning.”

 “We are all very excited to put on The Matchmaker next week,” says Young, “hoping that our audience will have just as much fun watching us perform as we’ve had preparing and practicing!”

 The Matchmaker will be performed in English. One can buy tickets in advance for 25 shekel by calling Doni Cozer at 050-973-3563 for our performances on Sunday January 17th, Monday the 18th, and Wednesday the 20th at 8pm. Ticket purchase at the door is 35 shekel. For more information on The Matchmaker and BIAS: http://www.barilanacting.com/

Image credit: BIAS from a previous production of The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde