by Sara Trappler Spielman
NEW YORK – A movie shot in Hollywood with values based in laws of Jewish modesty is having its Toronto debut on Chol Hamoed Sukkot, Sunday, Sept. 25 and Monday, Sept. 26 at Bais Yaakov High School.
Orthodox director Robin Garbose’s A Light for Greytowers is a sweet, orphanage-genre feature musical film set in Victorian England with a Jewish twist. It screens exclusively to female-only audiences because there are Orthodox women and girls singing and dancing in the film that prohibit men from seeing it.
The film first premiered at Paramount Studio’s The Sherry Lansing Theater in Dec. 2007 in Los Angeles. The historic for-women-only event included a red carpet, kosher food carts and Hollywood industry folk among hundreds of women that attended from the LA Orthodox community.
Over the past few years, the movie has been playing for both Orthodox and secular audiences. Many of the Orthodox don’t usually attend movies, but eagerly arrived because of its endorsement by Bais Yaakov Los Angeles Administration and Rebbetzin Baila Stern of the Bais Yaakov Girls High School in Passaic, NJ. Secular audiences in Atlanta and Israel experienced a women’s-only movie event for the first time and found themselves surprisingly moved.
“We’re trying to reach every woman and girl in the world,” said Garbose. “A women’s-only experience is just beginning as a grassroots effort to make its way out there.”
The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival was the first mainstream festival to include Greytowers in its lineup in January 2009, marketing it only to women. Then last November the Ashkelon Jewish Eye World Festival boldly showed the film to an Israeli audience, also inviting only women.
After much controversy, the Jerusalem Cinematique screened Greytowers last Chanukah to sold-out crowds a year after it withdrew it from its film festival based on concerns that its audience would view women-only screenings as discrimination. The Tel Aviv Cinematique – “A bastion of secular Israeli culture,” according to Garbose – had holiday screenings the same week as Jerusalem.
Greytowers was shot at Chabad’s Rohr Jewish Student Center at the University of Southern California, an authentic Victorian home protected under the California Preservation Act.
According to Garbose – who has directed off-Broadway plays, performances at The Juilliard School and 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 film’s young actresses are alumni of Kol Neshama Performing Arts Conservatory, which Garbose created 10 years ago in Los Angeles to provide professional artistic training and performance opportunities for Jewish girls in a Torah-observant setting.
Based on the Jewish novel of the same title by Eva Vogiel and Ruth Steinberg, the story is set at the fictional Greytowers orphanage in 19th-century England and follows the journey of a young girl, Miriam Aronowitch.
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, who forbids the observance of Shabbat or kosher. It’s only by clutching on to her faith that Miriam is able to unite the girls and bring light to the surrounding darkness.
Garbose became observant 20 years ago after co-writing a Jewish-themed screenplay that was developed at the Sundance Institute. As a professional director for 26 years she feels empowered to bring both the religious and professional worlds together. Her husband, Levi Yitzhaq Garbose, is a songwriter and musician who wrote the song lyrics and music and co-produced the film with his wife.
Robin sees her film as cutting edge with its use of modesty in a world obsessed with exposure. She says the film presents “a more authentic image of the Jewish woman.
“There’s never been a young heroine like Miriam [on film] fighting for Shabbat and kosher. It’s a voice that hasn’t been heard before.”
She’s passionate about offering young, religious girls a movie that contains images of themselves that resonate with their perspectives of life. At the same time, she is creating a venue for girls with a “burning desire to perform” who previously had limited opportunities.
A Light for Greytowers will screen Sunday, Sept. 25 and Monday, Sept. 26 at Bais Yaakov High School, 410 Lawrence Ave. W.
Tickets, for women only, are $15.