Israeli playwright and screenwriter Hadar Galron has devoted much of her oeuvre to gender and sexuality in Orthodox and haredi Orthodox communities, “balancing out women’s status and asking many, many questions,” she said.
“I don’t always have the answers,” she admitted. “But sometimes I feel it’s just important to ask the questions.”
Galron was in Pittsburgh earlier this month as a guest lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh, discussing “Women of Valor? The Challenge of Sexuality to Orthodox Judaism in Contemporary Film and Theater.” Invited to speak at Pitt by her friend, Haya Feig, a lecturer for the Jewish studies program, Galron addressed about 50 students in the Frick Fine Arts Auditorium.
Galron, who was raised Orthodox first in London and then in Israel, examines what she sees as inequities among the sexes in the religious community she grew up in. She has performed stand-up routines satirizing Orthodox life and its strictures on women, and has written and performed in plays about the struggles she finds inherent in a patriarchal religious structure. She bases much of her work on her own personal stories, or those of her friends and acquaintances.
Through her work, she said in an interview, she has “broken many taboos.”
“The basic status of women in Jewish law is we are owned by the men, and all the things that are written for women are actually written for the men as kind of a ‘how to use’ kind of thing,” she explained. “Even today the chuppah is a ceremony in which we are being sold to our husbands, which is why there are so many problems with getting divorced, and with women who are agunot,” women whose husbands refuse to grant them Jewish divorces, preventing them from re-marrying.
That proprietary relationship is the launch pad for much of Galron’s work.
“My plays and my films are normally contemporary themes, based on true stories always,” she said. Her play “Mikveh,” which has been performed internationally, for example, is set in a mikvah and “is about womanhood and the way we look at our bodies and the way our husbands look at our bodies. … The women all come to the mikvah in order to purify themselves for their husbands.”
At the center of the drama is a battered wife who is married to a prestigious politician in the haredi community. Even though the mikvah attendants see her bruised body, no one is willing to admit the truth — even the victim.
“She herself, in this community, doesn’t have much choice,” said Galron. “If she says something, then she is going to be the outcast, to be split up from her children and never see them again.”
Another character in “Mikveh” is a woman who comes to the ritual bath for the first time the night before her wedding, and asks the attendant to report that she is “unclean” so that she will not have to sleep with her husband the next night. The bath attendant refuses, and tells her, “You’ll go through it like everyone else, and you’ll get through it and thank me in the end that you were not an unclean bride.”
The character of the new bride is an amalgam of several women Galron knows who “feel like they are being raped, and who actually faint on the first night,” after having had no physical contact with a man before their wedding.
“Think of your whole life you are being told you’ve got to be modest, and you’re not allowed to touch, and you’re not allowed to look, and in one day, you’ve got to go from one extreme to the next,” she said. “And the guy is also sometimes very embarrassed, but he knows he must do it tonight. In Hebrew, the word ‘husband’ means owner, and it is really a problematic word.”
Galron’s “The Secret,” which is both a play and a screenplay, is based on the true story of her haredi friend who postponed marriage to study in a girls’ yeshiva. While there, she gets matched with a female study partner with whom she falls in love.
As one might expect, Galron’s work has been controversial in some circles. When she first began her stand-up routines, “I was chucked out of some places I worked in, and banned,” she said. People in Jerusalem were urged to avoid her performances, “but it was good publicity.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.