by Sandy Banks
I attended a movie screening Sunday on the Paramount Pictures lot that was so packed, benches had to be hauled in to give everyone a seat in the Sherry Lansing Theater. I hadn’t seen that many girls and women in one place since my last Girl Scout Jamboree.
When the curtain dropped and the applause stopped, director Robin Garbose took the stage, looking both purposefully modest and casually chic. Her brown beret met Halakha requirements that a married woman cover her hair. Her peasant skirt was long enough to hide her legs. Her matching chunky boots . . . well, they looked like a fashion statement to me.
But she made her real statement on the screen with the showing of her musical, “A Light for Greytowers,” a feature film intended for female audiences only. No men are allowed to see it.
Halakha, or Jewish law, generally forbids men from listening to a woman sing. The female voice is considered so sensual and stimulating that it might arouse passions that are spiritually unhealthy.
But talent knows no religious boundaries. God “gives you these gifts, and he doesn’t do it as a cruel joke,” Garbose told the girls in the audience.
They stopped snapping cellphone pictures and sending text messages long enough to take that in.
“He doesn’t say, ‘I’m going to give you this beautiful voice but not let you sing,’ ” Garbose said. “He give us these gifts to express them, develop them and share them . . . to elevate the image of Jewish women.”
When Garbose — raised as a secular Jew — made a spiritual choice 17 years ago to live according to traditional Orthodox rules, she knew it would cost her in Hollywood.
She gave up her job as a director for the TV sitcom “Head of the Class” because keeping the Sabbath meant refraining from work from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday. “I found it hard to get a job that would allow me to get out early on Fridays,” she said.
So she channeled her artistic energy into Kol Neshama — which means voice of the soul — a performing arts academy in Los Angeles she created for Orthodox girls. From that, “A Light for Greytowers” emerged.
Based on a popular Jewish young-adult novel, the movie tells the Victorian-era saga of a Russian Jewish girl separated from her family and sent to an orphanage, where the cruel matron tries to keep her from celebrating her religious traditions.
The film is entertaining and uplifting; faith and piety triumph over intolerance and dishonesty. Its stars are Kol Neshama students — girls with names like Chaya, Rivka, Hadas, Yael — who told me they gained self-confidence and learned to better express themselves through the experience.
Garbose needed rabbinical approval and a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation to make the movie. The film was shot in 23 days, she said, but bringing it to the big screen took more than three years, “working 24-6.”
She plans to show it initially in synagogues, museums and libraries in California, New York and Israel, and thinks it will be well received by conservative Christian and Muslim mothers and daughters, who also value modesty.
“There are thousands and thousands of girls who’ll want to see this,” she said, “because it resonates with who they are and how they are brought up.”
And it will give their mothers a reprieve from having to explain teen pop stars’ drunk-driving arrests and pregnancies.
I went to the screening because I was intrigued, not so much by the story line, but by the notion of a community protecting and promoting its out-of-the-mainstream identity.
The Orthodox women and girls I spoke with don’t feel cheated by a life that values self-discipline and modesty, in a culture that feeds on personal freedom and outrageous celebrity.
“I find it extremely liberating,” said Claude Marquis, a Hancock Park physician and mother of five, whose daughter, Elisheva, plays an orphan in the movie. “If you only see it as a list of negatives — ‘I can’t do this. I can’t do that’ — you miss the point. You don’t see the richness and beauty.”
Once the lights dimmed Sunday and the film rolled, I was drawn easily into their lives, surprised I didn’t feel like an outsider.
I thought back more than 20 years ago to the first time I saw the movie version of “The Color Purple,” with its cast of strong black Southern women determined to live by their own rules.
That story was not one I lived — no more than these Orthodox girls from Fairfax and Hancock Park have lived the life of a persecuted young Russian Jew. But “The Color Purple” spoke in a voice I knew, from mothers and aunts and the stories they had shared.
I could tell these girls felt a shared sense of belonging as well. They laughed when I didn’t get the joke and passed tissues around when I wasn’t tearing up. This was their story to tell.
“The power of the woman’s voice is incredible,” Garbose said. “Only when the Messiah comes will the men get to hear the women sing.”
“I would like that to happen today,” she joked, “so I can get a good distribution deal.”