Tuesday, March 10, 2009

It's not about religion, it's about violence.

"Such evil deeds could religion prompt." Lucretius - Roman Epicurean poet and philosopher.

This past Sunday I had the opportunity to attend a staged reading of a play at a local community theatre (part of the local JCC - Jewish Community Center) that I have acted with in the past. They are not a typical community theatre in that they have professional production standards and is a wonderful place in which to act. They also have a play reading series throughout their regular season that is essentially a forum to test out certain plays that they may wish to develop as full productions at some point. Essentially, the actors are on stage with script-in-hand, minimal props or costumes, (or none at all) and minimal rehearsal time.

The play I witnessed was "The Women's Minyan" by Israeli playwright Naomi Ragen. I say witnessed, because one could not simply "watch" this piece performed without it stirring up such strong emotions. The audience becomes voyeur to the closed society of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem, though in all honesty, this could have taken place in any ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, anywhere in the world. We peer into a closed society that brooks very little affinity for those who are not frum. We also see the cloak of religion being used to justify the brutal oppression of women in a society that, is supposed to hold women in high esteem.

Ultra-Orthodox Judaism is no different than any other patriarchal society. Men want to keep control over women, so they devise interpretations of religious texts in order to justify their positions. This play covers these points quite nicely, as it tells the story of Chana, a mother of 12 children caught in a 20-plus year abusive marriage. It is not just physical abuse that she endures, but emotional, psychological, and financial abuse as well.

Chana finally musters up the courage to leave her husband, and with the help of a close friend, is able to flee from her home. The price for this freedom is that she would need to leave her children behind, who range in age from teenagers to toddlers. She makes it her objective to not only secure a get - a religious divorce - but to also see her children again. This is not so easy in her world, as her husband, as well as other family members have effectively turned the children against Chana. The community as a whole has shunned her, abusing her with epithets that suggest she is not only a whore, but a pervert. It seems as though the community has come to the conclusion that she is a lesbian, as she sought refuge in the home of a female friend, and has been lving there ever since leaving her husband and family behind.

A minyan is religious term in Judaism that refers to a gathering of 10 men. This is the minimum that is needed in order to conduct such things as a public prayer service, most notably on Shabbos (Sabbath). There are also other functions that require the presence of a minyan, but they are too numerous to list.

The title of the play refers to the gathering of 10 women at Chana's home on the day she returns with an official order from the rabbinical court; she has been given permission to see her children. Her family however, is deeply divided. What follows is not only the exposure of the abuse that she suffered under her husband's thumb, but a stripping away of the veneer of family life in this very insular society.

I found myself seething by the end of the play, not only for what happened to Chana, but for the hypocrisy inherent in those that proclaim their piousness so loudly, only to use it as a disguise for their own ends. I witnessed this firsthand through the experience of working in Brooklyn all those years, right near the Hasidic community. I would often watch the throngs of men going to shul on Friday nights, or the occasional Saturday morning, dressed in their most somber religious garb. Pious men they were indeed - unless of course their own pleasure needed to be satisfied. This is why one would see these same pious, learned Talmudic scholars underneath the Willamsburg Bridge on a weeknight, haggling with the hookers as though they were purchasing jewelry on 52nd St. Never buy retail when you can get it wholesale.

There was a talk back session after the play, (which had several actor friends as part of the cast) and there were several women in the audience that bravely told their own stories of abuse and escape. It was also noted, and rightly so, that while Chana's situation is not necessarily endemic to the ultra-Orthodox community, it is certainly not infrequent either. What is endemic is the position of "blaming the victim," something that extends not only out to other fundamentalist religious sects, but even into our own secular society as well, though we have certainly seen a change in that in recent years.

This play however, was not about religion, but about violence perpetrated in the name of religion. Religion served in many ways as a back drop for a larger issue. It also served as a smokescreen for the denial on the part of those that simply had problems facing the reality of a horrific situation. If denial is after all, a God-given survival tool, most of the women in this play use it in spades.

People ask me why I turned away from my faith. This was part of the reason; not the abusive part of it, as it was not something I witnessed in my own home, but rather the hypocritical nature of what I witnessed in many situations. So often, we see those who proclaim their righteousness with such fervor, only to be poor examples of it themselves. I would rather live my life as an atheist, and do what good I can, than wear my religion on my sleeve while I cut off the other sleeve in the process.


Anonymous said...

Fab post MrN - have no problem with religion - we as a species seem to need it - just with organised religion. Is it coincidence that none of the worlds matriarchal societies have felt the need to impose their doctrines on others ;-?

Peter said...

Your post induced a lot of emotions Mr Nighttime.

Much like the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem, Antwerp (Belgium) has a significant Hasidic Jewish community. Some of them control (and ever smaller) part of the Belgian diamond trade.

While there are no visible violence issues inside this community, the invisible segregation walls are extremely high, creating a (rich) ghetto other locals have no contact with.

On weekend days I sometimes pass the Hasidics in the local Antwerp central park: women with wigs, visibly following their dominant men with traditional haircuts and hats.

Though influential, it's a religion/community that has chosen to live in its own gated communities.

Again, although I never witnessed any social issues here (well, how could I), I often wondered why a religious group would decide to virtually cut all social ties with the local community at large.

Jay said...

That was so well written!

The play must have been harrowing. I can't imagine being in that situation, coming as I do from an enlightened society and from a family with no particular religious affiliation. But I know such things do go on, more than most would like to admit.

This is the second blog I've read on the subject of abuse/discrimination in the name of religion today. And yes, it's why I do not attend a traditional church.

Holly said...

really thoughtful and provocative review. thanks for posting it.

The play sounds fascinating, and I would love to see it. don't know that there's much chance of it being staged in SLC--but you never know.

The account you gave of the play reminded me of "A Doll's House" by Ibsen, first performed in 1879. It's heartening that more and more writers are willing to explore the way the same universal story plays out in particular cultures with unique details, but it's distressing that in 140 years, the story really hasn't changed that much--the ending isn't that much happier for a woman who does what Nora and Chana do.

by the way, have you ever seen a Renee Zellweger movie called "A Price Above Rubies"? It's also about an orthodox woman who leaves the fold.

Michele said...

Wow, sounds like that was an excellent (yet tragic) play. I very much agree with your last paragraph - I too was turned away from religion after seeing so many hypocrites who hide their behavior behind a religious cloak; so many people blinded by their faith and don't think about how to treat other human beings. They justify their poor behaviors by attending their religious services every week or being involved in their religious community. Someone might be very cruel to another person, but still maintain that they are a "good person" because they go to church every Sunday. Sounds like a type of insurance to me: go to church every Sunday and have the free-will to do whatever you want and still be considered a "good person" in the eyes of God. Does that mean that if I eat all my vegetables, I can have a whole tub of ice cream and still consider that a healthy diet??? Interesting...

Mr. Nighttime said...

J-Thanks, and what you said about matriarchal societies tended to be true - with the possible exception of some Egyptian rulers. ;-)

Peter - That's the one constant about the Hasidic communities. You can see them in Antwerp, Paris, or Brooklyn, and they would appear to be the same all over. Sadly, the same problems probably transfer as well.

Jay - It really struck a chord in me, having been exposed to this community for so long.

Holly - I haven't read Doll's House in a very, very long time, though I was in a production of "An Enemy Of The People" last year. I have not seen Price Above Rubies," but I am familiar with the title. I'll have to put it in my Netflix queue now.

Michele - Hypocrisy is an interesting thing, isn't it?

RiverPoet said...

Some really cool people pointed me to your website, and particularly to this post. This week I posted a blog entry about how my church feels about gays - and I've just come out on my blog. Tired of being in the closet.

If you enjoyed this play, you might want to check out a movie that was arguably Renee Zellweger's best work, "A Price Above Rubies". In that movie, she played the wife of a Hasidic Jew in a borough that upheld the "law" above everything else. The story has a lot of similarities to your description of the play.

I will miss my church, but as long as they're pushing Rick Warren, I can't go back.

Peace - D

Mr. Nighttime said...

RP - Thanks for stopping by! I have heard of A Price Above Rubies, but have not seen it. Since you're the second person to mention it, I guess I will have no choice but to put in into my Netflix queue... ;-)

Congrats to you on coming out. My wife's best friend came out to her almost 30 years ago, when it was even tougher to do so than it is now.

Mr. Nighttime said...

Oh, and as for Rick Warren, the only thing of his I am familiar with is "The Purpose Driven Life," which I have only skimmed through.

You may enjoy this book,


Tim Brown, the co-author, is my wife's best friend.

Guyana-Gyal said...

Abuse comes in all disguises - prison warders, bosses, teachers, politicians, lawyers, religious men. Yet we 'expect' religious people to be better. Well, I used to but now I know that people can be bad, ugly, mean because of that dysfunctional creature inside them.

This play reminds me of an Indian film I've heard about. But no religious folks were involved, just a pack of bullies, her husband and his family.

A great book to read is The Road Less Travelled. Psychology. Explains a whole lot.

Holly said...

I thought of this blog entry when I came across a brief story here


mentioning that two Israeli female cabinet members had been airbrushed out of a photo and replaced with two men who aren't cabinet members, because photos of women are considered violations of female modesty. I thought that was a hell of a note.