by Sara Trappler Spielman
Los Angeles — The tops of moonlit palm trees hovered above hundreds of Orthodox girls and women who drove through the enormous gates of Paramount Studio’s lot to The Sherry Lansing Theater on a recent Saturday night here.
This was no typical premiere. The stars from Robin Garbose’s “A Light for Greytowers” who sauntered across the red carpet leading to the theater were all women clad in modest clothing. Although they seemed at ease greeting camera crew, photographers and media, some had never been to a movie before, certainly not a premiere.
Garbose considers this a Hollywood film — the production crew consisted of industry professionals, and Warner Brothers provided in-kind support with props, sets and costumes, including the original nightgowns from “The Little Princess.” However, the film’s distribution challenges the entertainment business.
“Greytowers” will be distributed to female-only audiences and to women’s groups on college campuses. (It screens in Passaic, N.J., and the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, next week.) Garbose is restricting men from viewing it due to Orthodox tradition that does not permit women to sing or dance in front of men. The movie was directed under rabbinic supervision, especially scenes with the only three male actors in the film who deliberately don’t appear in the same frames as women.
Based on the young-adult novel by Eva Vogiel and Ruth Steinberg, the story is set at the fictional Greytowers orphanage in 19th-century England. It follows the journey of Miriam Aronowitch, played by Abby Shapiro, who is now 14. Miriam and her mother, Anya, seek refuge in England from czarist Russia and its Cossack pogroms. But after her mother falls critically ill, Miriam lands at the orphanage at the mercy of its cruel matron, Miss Agatha Grimshaw (Judy Winegard), who forbids the observance of Shabbat or kashrut. It’s only by clutching on to her faith that Miriam is able to unite the girls and bring light to the surrounding darkness.
The film, a musical, was shot four years ago at the Rohr Jewish Student Center, a state-landmarked Victorian-era home that serves as the Chabad House at the University of Southern California.
According to Garbose — a director of Off-Broadway plays and performances at The Juilliard School as well as television shows, such as “Head of the Class” and “America’s Most Wanted” — the location was perfect architecturally and offered a kosher kitchen and synagogue for its religious actors.
Nearly all the young actresses are alumni of Kol Neshama Performing Arts Conservatory, which Garbose created eight years ago in Los Angeles to provide professional artistic training and performance opportunities for Orthodox girls with a “burning desire to perform.”
After four years of post-production work, this is the first full-length theatrical release for Kol Neshama, which also produced eight original plays, a series of three musical DVDs and two CDs — all intended for women audiences only.
At the Dec. 29 premiere, lines gathered at kosher carts offering hot peanuts, popcorn and pretzels. The premiere mostly drew members of the Los Angeles Orthodox community, but included some Hollywood industry women “who have a positive association with Judaism,” Garbose said.
Marcia Rennie, special events producer at Paramount, told The Jewish Week, “The movie touched my soul.” She said her grandmother used to call her “gutte neshama,” but until she learned about “Greytowers” and Kol Neshama, she never knew “neshama” meant “soul.” Now she’s a frequent guest at Garbose’s Shabbat meals.
As women entered the theater, all 280 seats were quickly filled. An expansive screen played the HD-formatted movie at a theater that has “the best sound in Hollywood,” according to Garbose. The audience attended substantially because of the film’s approval by Rabbi Yoel Bursztyn of the Bais Yaakov girls’ high school in Los Angeles and Rebbetzin Baila Stern of the Bais Yaakov girls’ high school in Passaic, N.J.
Outside the theater, songwriter and musician Levi Yitzhaq Garbose manned the tables and greeted guests. Although he wrote the song lyrics and music and co-produced the film with his wife, he was unable to enter the theater; instead, he waited in what he described as “the perfect night” for a show.
Garbose was drawn to Judaism 36 years ago by Isaac Bashevis Singer’s mystical stories. Searching for a world like Singer described, he arrived in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, as “a wannabe filmmaker” and later moved to L.A., where he met his wife eight years ago. He grew up in Massachusetts, where his father owned three movie theaters.
Robin Garbose has been observant for 17 years since co-writing a Jewish-themed screenplay that was developed at the Sundance Institute. As a professional director for 24 years she says she feels empowered to combine the religious and professional worlds.
Garbose told The Jewish Week a story illustrating her closeness to these two disparate worlds. As a newly observant woman, she saw the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, in 1992 at Lubavitch headquaters at 770 Eastern Parkway, and then went to meet John Kennedy Jr. for dinner at Levana in Manhattan. Friends since their days as drama students at Brown University, Garbose directed a play called “Winners” in 1985 at the Irish Arts Center that received critical acclaim thanks to Kennedy, who starred in his first professional acting role.
“Greytowers” features a few professional adult Orthodox actresses trying to find success in Hollywood despite limitations of Shabbat observance and modesty. Winegard gave up her role as Linda Eder’s first understudy in “Jekyll and Hyde” when she became observant 15 years ago and although she sings for women-only audiences, this is her first performing role since becoming Orthodox.
Barbara Heller plays Mrs. Wilberforce, an infertile and lonely woman who hopes to adopt one of the girls from the orphanage. The actress graduated New York University and became observant seven years ago. Acting, dancing and singing most of her life, Heller moved to Los Angeles from Florida three years ago in search of accommodating roles.
“This movie is the best part I ever had,” Heller said, referring to the chance to use her “talents while following the Torah’s commandments.”
Garbose sees her film as cutting-edge due to its use of modesty in a world obsessed with exposure.
“Most of Hollywood would say there’s nothing left if you take sexuality out,” Garbose said. “This is antithetical to that trend.”
Garbose believes the film presents “a more authentic image of the Jewish woman,” and her goal is to elevate Jewish women’s image in media. “There’s never been a young heroine like Miriam fighting for Shabbat and kosher. It’s a voice that hasn’t been heard before.”
As a period piece, the film naturally lends itself to modesty and “provides an opportunity for a universal quality,” Garbose said. She plans to screen the film in Christian and Muslim communities that appreciate religious values and the film’s strong message of faith.
“There’s something powerful about women’s projects bringing communities together that are so polarized, yet share primary values,” Garbose said. “It becomes a vehicle for tolerance and understanding.”
She’s also passionate about offering young, Orthodox girls a film that contains images of themselves that resonate with their perspectives of life.
Bracha Leeds, co-director of the Chabad Jewish Center at the University of California at Berkeley, was hired as choreographer for the film and ended up filling an opening in the cast.
“I never thought there would be a place for this in my life when I became religious,” said Leeds, who embraced Orthodox Judaism while a student at Berkeley. Before that, she was a professional singer, dancer and actress spending several days a week at Paramount rehearsing for live stage shows.
After seeing one of Garbose’s plays Leeds realized her performance talents “didn’t have to go to waste.” She plans to help bring the film to Berkeley.
Eliana Weiss, wife of screenwriter David Weiss, who helped write “Shrek 2” and the “Rugrats Chanukah Special,” attended the premiere with her 11-year-old daughter, Chana, who attended Kol Neshama the past three summers. Although it was a low-budget film that relied on grants and loans, Weiss said she was very pleased with its outcome.
“I really think this is something the Orthodox world needs,” Weiss said. “We have such potential to show our world off in a positive way, and Robin is giving so many women opportunities they wouldn’t have.”