by Matthew Wagner
“This is not for me at all,” Robin Saex, 30, announced loudly when she walked into the rabbi’s classroom in Los Angeles.
A long table was placed in the middle of the room. Men sat at the front and women, who all wore skirts and long sleeves, sat in the back.
The gender segregation appalled Saex, an accomplished theater director who had just started directing a hit TV sitcom. She did not understand why women had to be pushed to the back of the room as if they were second-class citizens. She had come at the suggestion of a woman she had met through a Hollywood psychic. Now she was beginning to regret it.
But then the rabbi started talking. He read Rabbi Nahman of Breslav’s story “The Sophisticate and the Simpleton,” which tells about the fate of two young men who were forced to fend for themselves after their rich fathers lost their fortunes.
“It was a concept that absolutely floored me,” she recalls. “Through Rabbi Nahman’s stories, I understood that it was possible to work on different levels to bring together the spiritual, the artistic and the Jewish at the same time.
“I realized that I could use film to get across deep messages to people, to reach them on a hidden level. Like Rabbi Nahman’s stories, film can also pull you in. Even children can enjoy them. But at the same time there can be a deeper language that speaks to the soul.
“I asked the rabbi if I was right. He said, ‘Of course.’ And I said to myself, ‘That’s it, that’s my mission in life.'”
That was 18 years ago. Today Saex, who still lives in Los Angeles, strategically positioned near Hollywood, leads a strictly Orthodox lifestyle. She is married to Levi Yitzhak Garbose, a musician, songwriter and veteran ba’al tshuva, and has two children.
She will be in Israel over Hanukka to promote her film A Light for Greytowers which will be playing at both the Tel Aviv and the Jerusalem cinematheques.
And she insists that it be shown for a women-only audience.
From the perspective of Halacha, Garbose’s film presents a problem for men. Women sing on screen. The rabbis taught that the female voice is considered so sensual and stimulating that it might arouse in men passions that are spiritually unhealthy. Therefore, men must not be in the audience when A Light for Greytowers is screened.
How does Garbose reconcile the transformation she underwent from a secular director of TV sitcoms who was angered by a gender-segregated classroom to a wig-wearing mother driven by religious faith who makes movies for women-only audiences?
Garbose grew up in a Conservative Jewish home in Holyoke, Massachusetts surrounded by what she called “Yankee culture.” Her parents belonged to the local synagogue and were active in philanthropy.
“My parents were very Zionist and involved with the community. But religion was never about God, it was about Jewish culture, tradition and Israel.”
Garbose’s search for spirituality in the 1980s led her to experiment with New Age. She learned from Ram Dass, tried Past Life Therapy. But she felt that something was missing. She wanted to connect her strong need for spirituality with her Jewishness. But somehow the two spheres seemed unbridgeable.
“A lot of new things were happening and my career was really taking off,” says Garbose. “But I also came to another place where I had seen that when the producers and critics were negative about what I did, I was depressed.
“I asked myself, ‘Who are these others that they should control my ups and downs?’ I knew there had to be a place beyond all this where happiness was not dependent on anything external. Whatever that place was had to be God.”
During this period in her life Garbose is quoted in People magazine commenting on the relationship of former Brown classmates John Kennedy Jr. and Christina Haag – “They bring out the best in each other.” In 1985 Garbose directed Winners, a play by Brian Friel which ran at Manhattan’s Irish Arts Center, in which Kennedy and Haag played the young lovers. In real life the two, who were friends from high school, began a romantic relationship during rehearsals. Garbose says she recognized the chemistry between the two. “It was my first shiduch,” she laughs.
But she was already beginning a spiritual journey that would eventually lead her to Orthodox Judaism.
“I remember meeting John [Kennedy] at a kosher restaurant after coming from a visit at Chabad headquarters in Crown Heights. It was the one time I saw the Lubavitcher Rebbe,” recalls Garbose. “I was changing.”
HER SPIRITUAL search eventually led her to embrace an Orthodox lifestyle with a strong hassidic influence. She became close to the Chabad community in Los Angeles.
“Some people think there is a contradiction between religion and art,” says Garbose. “To be true to art you need to be true to conflict. And being conflicted can jeopardize your religious path. So many religious people close themselves off from the outside world to protect their spiritual world.
“But Hassidism sees things differently and this was liberating for me. There is no question in the Torah that cannot be answered. It is a wellspring of guidance and answers and inspiration. Knowing this I can reconcile seemingly contradictory influences from my past with a religious lifestyle.
“This is Hassidism’s message, this was the message of the rebbe. [Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson – the last leader of Chabad]. He told his shluchim [emissaries] to go out into the spiritual wastelands confident in who they were and to be a light.”
As a a Jew new to Orthodoxy, Garbose believes she is in a special position to talk about the religious concept of female modesty. “I came from another world and I can tell my kids with complete confidence that they have the best life in the world. And they know it too.”
GARBOSE’S FIRST attempt at using her artistic skills to convey a Jewishly spiritual message was a success. She sees this as a sign from God.
The year was 1991. She had just directed her first episode of the TV sitcom Head of the Class. During one of her soul-searching moments she asked herself a fundamental question: “If I could make a movie about the most important thing to me in the world, what would it be?”
Her answer, which came to her all at once in an “almost hallucinogenic” way, became the seed for the screenplay The Spark. The story is about a teenage girl, the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor from the Warsaw Ghetto, who is in search of faith. She gets involved with drugs and rock music as part of a process of uncovering the heritage of her grandfather.
“I started to interview Holocaust survivors as background for the film,” recalls Garbose, who admitted that her interviews helped her in her own personal spiritual search. “I wanted to hear what they had to say about death and faith. They told me miracle stories and they had religious stories to tell me and I began to fall in love with everything Jewish. I would go to the bakery on Fairfax [a Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles] and watch these older people buying halla. It touched me to see the old-country aspect in them. It was the Jewish soul waking up to this love of Jews and them living their lives as Jews.”
This was the same time Garbose attended the rabbi’s gender-segregated class on Rabbi Nahman of Breslav. Everything clicked. She discovered she could use her artistic skills to express her Jewish spirituality.
A series of developments came together which seemed to push Garbose farther along on her spiritual quest. Head of the Class was over and she did not want to pursue directing sitcoms. “The money was insane. But I had problems with some of the educational messages of the sitcom. I didn’t want to put that content out in the world. Besides, I probably would have been forced to work on Shabbat, since most of the shows filmed on Friday nights.”
About the same time kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Kadourie was visiting Los Angeles. Garbose went to meet him. She asked the elderly mystic to bless her screenplay with success. Kadourie was curious. After inquiring at length regarding her story idea and intentions, he blessed her.
Shortly after her meeting with Kadourie, Garbose received word that her screenplay was accepted at the prestigious Sundance Institute Writers Lab, a ski retreat in Utah created by Robert Redford to encourage independent filmmakers with unique ideas.
Garbose rubbed elbows with influential figures in the movie and TV industry. At the same time she tried as best as she could to keep tradition. On Friday night, she lit Shabbat candles. At the time her Shabbat observance was not understood. “While everyone was running to parties and screenings, I sat alone observing Shabbos. It was terribly lonely.” But today Orthodox stars like vocalist Matisyahu attend Sundance, and Chabad rabbi Mendel Schwartz offers kosher food and a minyan.
GARBOSE HAD at that point in her life already built for herself an impressive curriculum vitae. She had attended a WASPy prep school and received a degree in theater at Brown University. She had directed plays at the Ensemble Studio Theater, Jewish Repertory Theater, Manhattan Punch Line, Juilliard Theater Center and the Odyssey Theater.
At Sundance, she also made an acquaintance that would lead her to her next big break.
“I met one of the producers of America’s Most Wanted while skiing. I was exactly what they were looking for.”
Unlike making sitcoms, Garbose felt that her work for America’s Most Wanted was a mitzva. For eight years, until 2001, she directed numerous segments, helping to track down wanted criminals. The staff also accommodated her religious needs, including kosher food on set and no work on Shabbat.
Garbose traveled a lot and ended up spending Shabbatot at Chabad houses all over the country as well as with the Orthodox community of Silver Spring which was near America’s Most Wanted headquarters. During this period she strengthened her religious observance.
There were occasional conflicts, for instance when Garbose had to shoot an episode about a lesbian couple who were bank robbers.
“The two met in a strip club, a scene that was necessary to tell the story,” recalls Garbose. “So I had to scout out strip clubs and direct a striptease scene. I remember some of the actresses who auditioned for the role actually started to disrobe during their reading. I was like, ‘It’s okay, stay dressed, I just need to see your acting.’ I could see they were grateful to have a sensitive female director on the other side of the table. I almost got fired because I didn’t direct the scene in a provocative way. Instead I used the beginning part of what is referred to as a classical striptease where a woman is dressed in baggy men’s clothing. The scene I filmed was not revealing in the least, yet it was realistically suggestive. A modest solution to an interesting challenge.
“But they didn’t fire me because the rest of the segment was so good. One scene in particular saved the day. The two lesbian bank robbers were stopped at a red light. A man pulls up next to them and tries to pick them up. And one of the two lesbians pulls off her wig, revealing a mohawk, sticks out her pierced tongue and the guy goes, ‘Yuk!’ It was a special moment. Very funny.”
Garbose even got permission from a rabbi to do a brutal rape scene because it could help track down the rapist who, it turns out, was captured and imprisoned thanks to the show.
When she met her husband and became a mother who was nursing, directing America’s Most Wanted came to an end.
But Garbose did not stop working. After meeting two talented religious teenage girls – a singer and an actor – she decided that something had to be done to allow them and others like them to realize their potential in a kosher atmosphere. She established Kol Neshama Performing Arts Conservatory, which provides a seven-week summer program to train Orthodox young women in the performing arts.
Graduates of Kol Neshama appeared in A Light for Greytowers. And Garbose’s ultimate goal is to produce a cadre of new, observant talent that will “turn Hollywood into Holy-wood.”
“Artistic expression is an incredible educational tool. When a girl plays the part of a Jewish heroine, she has an intimate connection with that figure, it becomes a part of her. The creative experience enters directly into the soul of the actress and into the audience.
“When my movie appeared [in October] at the Ashkelon Jewish Eye Film Festival, there was a very secular crowd. It was a wonderful surprise to see how much the film touched them. When the film ended, there was not a dry eye in the house. Women stayed to speak to me. A lecture won’t reach so deep. But art does.”
THE FILM takes place in the 19th century and tells the story of a Russian Jewish family that is broken up after the father is forcibly enlisted in the czarist army. The mother and daughter make their way to England. They are separated and the daughter ends up in an orphanage run by an evil headmistress. The young girl manages to bravely maintain her Jewish faith and in the process has a positive impact on the entire orphanage.
The message of the film is to show how a strong religious faith can overcome the worst of adversities. Or as Garbose puts it, “When you go beyond yourself to do the mitzva, God answers you in the most amazing ways.”
But by choosing the visual media and utilizing song and dance performed by women, Garbose must ensure that only women attend A Light. (Garbose has other Jewish films in development that are for general audiences, but they’re not musicals.) “The truth is that the onus is on the man,” says Garbose. “I am obligated by Halacha to market the film for women only. And we begin every screening with a cute animation which shows a bunch of women yapping away when, suddenly, a man strays in and everyone goes silent.
“But if a man really wants to go to a screening, I can’t stop him. Still, it would be uncomfortable. One man joked that the only way he could see the film comfortably would be to dress in drag or don a burka. And that’s true.”
Not all venues are willing to accommodate the gender demands made by Halacha. Last year the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival, which accepted Garbose’s film in acknowledgment of its of artistic value, refused, nevertheless, to provide women-only screenings.
Ilan De Vries, director-general of the Jerusalem Cinematheque, was concerned that it would constitute discrimination on the basis of gender.
This year, however, there has been a turnaround. Not only has Alon Garbuz of the Tel Aviv Cinematheque agreed to screen the film for women only throughout Hanukka, but De Vries has had a change of mind. This year the Jerusalem Cinematheque will also offer women-only venues with the following statement: “The creators of the film – women who do not sing or dance in the presence of men in observance of kol isha – kindly request that only women and girls attend.”
“Alon Garbuz and Ilan don’t necessarily agree with kol isha, to put it mildly, but made the courageous decision to include us, to me they are both heroes (as is Gady Castel, director of Ashkelon Jewish Eye because he was the first),” says Garbose. “I am not trying to tell women that they should only attend segregated entertainment or men that they should not go to movies anymore.”
The Tel Aviv and Jerusalem cinematheques’ decisions mark a major breakthrough for Garbose’s special screening demands.
But perhaps more worrisome to the future of her mission as a religious artist is possible criticism in the haredi world.
Leisure time is not an accepted concept in haredi culture. Men are expected to devote all their free time to learning Torah. To see a movie or read a novel, even if the content is kosher, is not an option for men. Leisure time is normally spent in a number of condoned ways. In hassidic movements men go to visit the rebbe. Families take trips and outings together during breaks from yeshiva.
And even these few leisure activities carry with them the express intention of strengthening one’s religious adherence and spirituality. Hassidim who travel to their rebbe do so to learn from the rebbe’s talks and emulate his actions. Family trips are an opportunity to strengthen family ties and wind down before preparing once again to devote oneself to Torah study. But there is not a developed entertainment industry in the haredi community because it is seen as a waste of time.
Women, who are not obligated to learn Torah, have more leeway with their time, as long as the form of entertainment is kosher. In fact, restricting the screening of her film to a women-only audience is essential to the success of the film. Any attempts to attract a male audience to an entertaining film would probably be met with sharp criticism from haredi rabbinic leadership. And even when the film specifically targets a female audience there can still be challenges, as Garbose learned.
When the film debuted in Borough Park during the Pessah vacation a major crisis was barely avoided. After the first screening for a crowd of about 700 women, Garbose answered questions.
“I spoke about the beauty of creative expression and I mentioned Hollywood studios like Warner Brothers and Disney,” recalls Garbose, who has vowed to never again hold a Q and A for a haredi audience.
“One woman stood up and asked why there were men in the film. I explained that the few men were simply there to serve the plot, and it was done under rabbinic supervision. She did not like the idea that there were any men at all on screen.”
Garbose says that artistically it does not work to have a woman dress up as a man in a film. “It is simply not convincing and it hurts the credibility of the characters. Furthermore, I had followed strict guidelines as to how the men would be cast and filmed. I tried to explain to the woman that the film had received the approbation of leading rabbis. But she was unconvinced.”
The woman who queried Garbose complained to the highest levels of the Bobov Hassidic movement, the strongest in the Borough Park area. Garbose received word that her film was causing some concern. She realized that if a ban was issued, crime scene tape would be wrapped around the entrance to the yeshiva where the film was being shown and “modesty police” would announce on bullhorns that her movie was prohibited.
Garbose’s distributor contacted Bobov’s leadership and pleaded that her livelihood was at stake and that she would be forced to sue for lost ticket revenues. She arranged for rabbis from Los Angeles who gave their approbation to the film to contact Bobov in Borough Park to convince them of the film’s purity. It is rumored that the wife of Bobov’s leader was a key participant in the discussions.
“I was in a major crisis,” recalls Garbose. “It seemed to me that everything I had worked for was in danger of being destroyed. If Bobov banned my film, it would be a death kiss for other haredi venues. I said to myself, ‘I have to see the rebbe.'”
As the threat of a rabbinic boycott loomed in Borough Park, Garbose drove out to Montefiore Cemetery in Queens where Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last head of Chabad Hassidism, was buried. During the ride, she learned that due to the film’s modesty, positive message and the financial risk involved, it would not be prohibited; rather a mild disclaimer was put out.
“When I drove back to Borough Park for the screening, the hall was a mob scene. If anything, the notices sent out by Bobov had created a tremendous buzz and the place was packed with over a thousand women and girls.
“And when the movie was over and all those holy women with their radiant faces exited the theater and showered me with blessings, I was overcome with emotions.”