by Sara Trappler Spielman
The stars of A Light for Greytowers who walked across the bright red carpet leading to the Sherry Lansing Theater in Los Angeles earlier this winter were all women clad in modest clothing. Some had never even been to a movie before, let alone a big-screen premiere.
And while director Robin Garbose considers this a Hollywood project, the film’s distribution challenges entertainment business norms.
Orthodox tradition does not permit women to sing or dance in front of men, so Greytowers will be distributed to female-only audiences and to women’s groups on college campuses. (Three male actors appear in the movie but never in the same frame with the women and girls.)
Based on the young-adult novel by Eva Vogiel and Ruth Steinberg, Greytowers is set at a fictional orphanage in Victorian England. Abby Shapiro, a member of the Kol Neshama Performing Arts Conservatory, plays the young heroine, Miriam Aronowitch, who, with her mother, Anya, arrives in England seeking refuge from the pogroms of czarist Russia.
After Anya falls critically ill, Miriam is placed in the orphanage at the mercy of its cruel matron who forbids the observance of Shabbat or kashrut. It’s only by clinging to her faith that Miriam is able to unite the other girls and bring “light” to the surrounding darkness.
The musical was shot four years ago at the Rohr Jewish Student Center, a Victorian home that serves as the Chabad House at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. The location offered ideal architecture — and a kosher kitchen and synagogue for its religious actors.
Greytowers is the first full-length theatrical release from the Kol Neshama Performing Arts Conservatory, which Garbose created eight years ago to provide professional artistic training and performance opportunities for Orthodox girls. The company has also produced eight original plays, three musical DVDs, and two CDs — all created solely for women audiences.
Grabbing one of the theater’s 280 seats at the Dec. 29 opening proved to be a challenge. Many of those in attendance came because of the approval of the film 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. The premiere drew mostly members of the Los Angeles Orthodox community but also attracted women in the film industry “who have a positive association with Judaism,” said Garbose.
As a professional director for 24 years, Garbose — who has been observant for 17 years, since cowriting a Jewish-themed screenplay that was developed at the Sundance Institute — said she feels empowered to bring both the religious and professional worlds together. She believes the film presents “a more authentic image of the Jewish woman,” and her goal is to elevate the image of the Jewish woman in media.
“There’s never been a young heroine [on film] like Miriam, fighting for Shabbat and kosher,” Garbose said. “It’s a voice that hasn’t been heard before.”
Greytowers features a few professional adult Orthodox actresses trying to find success in Hollywood despite the obvious limitations. Garbose sees the film as cutting edge with its use of modesty in a world obsessed with exposure. “Most of Hollywood would say there’s nothing left if you take sexuality out,” she said. “This is antithetical to that trend.”
As a period piece, Greytowers lends itself naturally to that sense of modesty and “provides an opportunity for a universal quality,” said Garbose, who also plans to screen the film in Christian and Muslim communities whose members 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,” she said. “It becomes a vehicle for tolerance and understanding.”
Bracha Leeds, codirector of the Chabad Jewish Center at the University of California at Berkeley, was hired as choreographer for the film and ended up as part of the cast. Before becoming Orthodox as a college student, she was trained as a professional singer, dancer, and actress. “I never thought there would be a place for this in my life when I became religious,” Leeds said, happily realizing her performance talents “didn’t have to go to waste.”
Eliana Weiss attended the premiere with her 11-year-old daughter, Chana, who attended Kol Neshama for the past three summers. “I really think this is something the Orthodox world needs,” said Weiss, who is married to screenwriter David Weiss, cowriter of Shrek 2 and A Rugrats’ Chanukah. “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.”
Sidebar: Orthodox Actress Returns to New Jersey Roots
HADAS GROSS, who plays Clothilde, an orphan, in Greytowers, is returning to her New Jersey roots after her Feb. 18 wedding in Los Angeles.
Hadas Gross, far left, plays Clothilde, one of the orphans in Greytowers. Photo courtesy Hadas Gross
She and her husband, Nachum Forgy, who grew up in Pittsburgh, will live in Lakewood, where they met.
When Gross, 19, attended a wedding in the heavily populated Orthodox neighborhood, her friends teased her that she would meet a fine Jewish boy to marry. And she did.
Since her parents were Jersey born and raised — her mother’s from Newark, her father from Princeton — the move is a natural for Gross and she hopes to pursue her love of film as a wedding videographer in Lakewood.
Working on Greytowers kindled Gross’ interest in cinematography and she shot behind-the-scenes footage of the filming of the movie.
Gross is one of the original students of Kol Neshama, which she has attended since she turned 12. During her third summer there, she gave director Robin Garbose a copy of the novelized version of the play Greytowers because she thought it was “a classic and moving story” and offered many female roles with musical and dance opportunities. Garbose saw its potential and first directed it as a play in the summer of 2002, when Gross portrayed Clothilde, the same role she would assume in the film version two years later.
Gross comes from a musical family; two of her sisters appear in the movie and another was in the play. She said performing in the film “added a whole new dimension of creative expression. It taught me the language of film, not just theater. How many Orthodox girls know the difference between a dolly-grip and a gaffer?”