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Laughter in a Time of War

May 9, 2009 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler

The women of Gush Etzion launch a Purim counter-offensive.

It had been a harrowing week.

On Wednesday, a suicide bomber on a crowded Haifa bus killed fifteen Jews, most of them teenagers on their way home from school.

On Friday night, two Arab terrorists infiltrated the security fence around Kiryat Arba. First they sprayed bullets on a family walking on the street, injuring five. Then they forcibly entered an apartment where Rabbi Eli Horowitz and his wife Dena were enjoying a quiet Shabbat dinner. They murdered the middle-aged couple.

On Saturday night, Anatoly Brikov, aged 20, died of his wounds from the Haifa bombing.

On Sunday night, I went to a show.

It was no ordinary show. My daughter and I and most of the audience had to travel there in a bulletproof bus. The production was being staged in Gush Etzion, an archipelago of 23 communities south of Jerusalem. Although Efrat, the largest of the communities with a population of 7,000, is a mere twenty-minute drive from Jerusalem, the road, winding between Arab villages, was so treacherous that the Israeli government built a bypass road, cutting tunnels through two hills.

They needn't have bothered. From the very beginning of the Oslo War, the "tunnels road" became a popular target for Arab snipers. Eight Jews driving from the bedroom communities of Gush Etzion to Jerusalem were murdered in their cars. Residents of Gush Etzion adapted by installing shatter-proof glass on their car windows (bullet-proof glass and armoring the car doors were prohibitively expensive and too heavy for most private cars) and staying home at night. Gush Etzion became an area under siege.


It wasn't the first time. Gush Etzion, perhaps more than any other place in Israel, embodies the tragedy and resilience of the Jewish people.

Gush Etzion embodies the tragedy and resilience of the Jewish people.

Between 1928 and 1943, three contingents of Jewish pioneers tried to settle the barren, rocky, waterless hills between Jerusalem and Hebron. Plagued by recurrent outbreaks of Arab violence, they all failed.

In 1934, a Jew named Shmuel Holtzman bought the bloc of land which would become known as Gush Etzion. (Holtz in Yiddish and etz in Hebrew both mean "wood.") In 1943, the religious kibbutz of Kfar Etzion was established. With much sacrifice and hard work, it thrived. By the autumn of 1947, the bloc comprised four villages with a total population of 450 Jews, including 142 women and 69 children.

The United Nations vote, in November, 1947, to partition the Land of Israel into a Jewish and an Arab state was furiously rejected by the Arabs, who launched a fierce war to drive out the Jews. On December 10, 1947, Arab militias attacked a convoy bringing food and water to Gush Etzion, and killed ten Jews. After that, Gush Etzion was effectively under siege. Only convoys escorted by British forces managed to safely reach the bloc of settlements.

On January 5, 1948, the mothers and children of Gush Etzion were evacuated to the safety of Jerusalem. The men, and women with vital skills such as nurses and radio operators, stayed behind to protect their settlements and to defend the southern approach to the holy city. They were too few, with too few guns and too little ammunition.

On May 12, two days before the State of Israel was declared, Gush Etzion was attacked by the full strength of the Jordanian army, known as the Arab Legion. The defenders fought - and died - until they ran out of ammunition.

The surviving fighters surrendered to the Arab Legion. Leaving behind their precious, now empty, guns, they came out waving white flags, and assembled in an empty lot next to the school building. A photographer wearing a kaffiyeh came and photographed them. Then the Arab forces massacred all the survivors, except three who managed to escape thanks to the aid of humane Arab individuals.

In the two-day battle, 240 Jews fell, including 21 women.

"Children, you may return home."

The Six-Day War in 1967 liberated the area of Gush Etzion. Immediately after the war, the orphaned children of Gush Etzion, now grown, approached the government of Israel and asked to be allowed to start again on the land that their fathers had died for. Although the Labor government was averse to any Jewish settlements in the newly liberated territories, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol could not resist the entreaties of the children of Gush Etzion. He gave them his consent with the words, "Children, you may return home."

Three months later, the new generation was ready to carry on the vision of their parents. They visited their fathers' graves in Jerusalem, and directly from the cemetery, a line of cars set out for Gush Etzion. The same armored car which had evacuated the children in 1948 led the cavalcade home.


Our bulletproof bus traced the same route through the hills of Gush Etzion on our way to the performance of "Esther and the Secrets in the King's Court." The show itself had been born out of a similar phoenix-like spirit.

After two Efrat residents were murdered on the tunnels road in May, 2001, a stifling depression gripped the community. Even after the month-long mourning period for 20-year-old Esther Alvan and 53-year-old Sara Blaustein (who had made aliyah from New York less than a year before) had expired, the residents of Efrat found that they could not banish their tears and sense of hopelessness.

The terror was ongoing. An Arab construction worker who had been building a house in Efrat entered the local supermarket on a crowded Friday morning with an explosives belt under his coat. An alert shopper took out his gun and managed to shoot the terrorist before he could detonate his bomb. A short time later, another suicide bomber was caught making his way through the town.

Sharon Katz, an Efrat resident who had made aliyah from New York nine years before, decided that something had to be done to lift the morale of the local residents. She understood that redemption issues from prayer and repentance, but prayer and repentance cannot issue from depressed hearts. As the Talmud asserts: "The Divine Presence can dwell only in an atmosphere of joy." Sharon sent an email out to the Efrat list announcing, "We're putting on a show."

The result was "The Efrat/Gush Etzion Raise Your Spirits Summer Stock Company."

Their first production was "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." Since most of the Gush Etzion communities are religious, they adhere to the principle of "Kol Isha" (men not listening to women sing). Therefore, the entire cast and production crew, as well as the audiences, were women. The once-a-week show (because most of the cast were busy mothers and working women) played eleven performances, plus a presentation for the Women's Caucus of the Knesset.

During the period that "Joseph" played, Israel experienced a terror attack almost every day. The cast would literally race from funeral to stage. "We would cry our eyes out," Sharon recalls. "Everyone back stage would be crying and reciting psalms, then we'd have to go on stage and make the audience laugh."

The show's director, Toby Klein Greenwald, made aliyah from Cleveland 37 years ago. Toby's experience with theater as a response to terrorism dates back to 1975, when she worked with teenagers who survived the P.L.O. attack on a school in the northern town of Maalot in which 16 of their classmates were slaughtered. "It's frightening to think," reflects Toby, "that that was more than 25 years ago, and the necessity still exists to use drama to help people overcome the stress of living in terror."


A year later, the terror had not abated. The "Raise Your Spirits Company" decided to create their own original show. They chose as their theme the Book of Esther, because it is a true story of the Jewish people being in dire straits and being redeemed.

The Jews of the Persian Empire in 357 BCE were a comfortable and complacent minority. King Ahashverosh's edict of extermination of every Jewish man, woman, and child filled them with shock, fear, and despondency. "In each and every land, wherever the king's word and decree reached," records the Megillah, "there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping, and wailing."

While summoning the Jews to pray and repent, Mordechai sent secret messages to his niece Esther. Five years before Esther had won a sordid "beauty contest," and had become the Queen of Persia, not revealing to anyone her Jewish identity. Now Mordechai entreated her to go to the king and plead for the lives of her people.

Esther balked. To appear before the king unsolicited was courting death.

Mordechai's reply reveals an often overlooked key to redemption: "If you remain silent now, relief and salvation will come to the Jews from another place."

Mordechai believed absolutely that the Jewish people would not be eradicated. If Esther would not act to save them, God would use a different avenue. Belief in redemption is the prerequisite for redemption; despair breeds defeat.

This is why the central Jewish prayer, the Shemona Esrai, is preceded by the blessing, "Blessed are You, Hashem, Who redeemed Israel." The Talmud asserts that prayer for the future redemption must follow a reminder that God has redeemed us in the past.

Belief in redemption is the prerequisite for redemption; despair breeds defeat.

That is the essence of the "Esther" show: a vivid reminder that God has redeemed us in the past in order to galvanize our faith that He will redeem us this time as well.

The women of Gush Etzion conceived, wrote, and choreographed "Esther"; they also composed, arranged, and play the 34 musical numbers which constitute the show. The cast of over 100 ranges in age from 6 to 60. Everyone who wanted to participate was given a job: from the onstage pianist to the women who sewed the capricious costumes, from the little girls who do cartwheels to the comics who act out the hilarious "beauty contest."

The two shows have raised over $60,000. All profits from "Esther" are donated to the non-profit, tax-deductible Gush Etzion Foundation, which distributes the money to the families of terror victims and to local community projects to counteract the effects of the ongoing terrorism.


On Sunday night, the show starts late. The funeral procession of Rabbi Eli and Dena Horowitz that afternoon wended its way through Gush Etzion en route to Jerusalem, tying up traffic. We wait for the latecomers.

The show is introduced by the director, Toby Klein Greenwald, whose daughter is a close friend of the daughter of Dena Horowitz. Lest any of the audience are wondering how to justify a musical comedy on a day when four terror victims are buried, Toby asserts: "At the very beginning, we decided that we would not cancel rehearsals nor performances because of terrorist attacks or funerals. We are not politicians. We are not soldiers. This is our way of fighting back."

"We are not politicians. We are not soldiers. This is our way of fighting back."

I am dubious. I understand theater as catharsis, and theater as diversion, but theater as fighting back?

The musical unfolds: the gaily-clad citizens of Shushan, the bombastic King Ahashverosh, the sassy Queen Vashti, the Eunuchs in Tunics, the sage Mordechai, the ethereal Esther, the villain Haman in black leather portrayed like a West Side Story gang leader.

The dramatic climax is Esther's moment of truth, when she summons the courage to risk her life for her people. Rachel Abelow, who plays Esther, made aliyah from New York at the height of last year's worse wave of terror. She sings plaintively:

Give me the courage, O Lord, I pray,
Give me the strength, show me the way,
Though my heart trembles, I'll overcome my fear.
For I know you are always near.

Then the denouement proceeds topsy-turvy. Haman is exposed and hanged. Mordechai is elevated in his place. Messengers are dispatched with new edicts. The Jews of Shushan celebrate.

The production's most emphatic statement comes with the final scene. The full cast pours onto the stage singing:

They'll come down from the mountains,
They'll come from the skies,
They'll come up from the valleys,
With music and with sighs,
They'll walk across the desert,
With laughter and with prayer.
Their sisters and their brothers
Will be waiting there.

The scenery has shifted from the palace of Shushan to the hills of Gush Etzion, those fought-for, died-for, returned-to hills of Gush Etzion. And when the ensemble repeats the lilting refrain, they change the final line to:

Our sisters and our brothers

Will be waiting here.

Suddenly the performers are playing themselves: women who have faced off with terrorism and death and their own fears, and who have remained steadfast for the sake of their ideals. Every one of them has lost a friend or a neighbor or the child of her friend or the friend of her child. Yet, instead of giving in to despair and depression, every one of them is standing on the stage, hands uplifted, belting out the finale culled from the Prophets and fulfilled in recent history. These women are not performers playing heroes. These women are heroes themselves.

The whole audience is clapping and crying. Because it's a true story. Just as God redeemed us in the past, He will redeem us in the not so distant future. In fact, it's happening before our eyes.

"Esther" was written by Toby Klein Greenwald, Sharon Katz, and Arlene Chertoff. Composer: Rivka Epstein-Hattin. Musical Director: Sara Halevi. For more information about "Esther" and to order the CD, visit their website:

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