by David Suissa
It was your classic indie film set. Small crew. Cool Italian cameraman with a Fedora hat and the studied nonchalance of someone who’s been there before. A grunge looking lighting guy who probably has alternative rock on his iPod. A few grips and assistants running around setting up equipment and doing little chores. A beautiful natural setting deep inside Topanga Canyon Park.
Off in different corners, you could see actors rehearsing their lines. The extras were practicing their steps with a production assistant. And running the whole show was the writer-director Robin Garbose, a highly energetic woman who has directed plays off-Broadway and at the Julliard School of Drama.
Robin, however, did not look the part. She did carry a director’s bullhorn, but on this hot day, she wore a very long skirt and her hair was fully covered. In fact, in between her many calls for “rolling” and “action” there were also calls for “don’t forget to bensch” and “let’s daven mincha.”
Yes, mincha, the afternoon prayer. You see, the director wasn’t the only one who didn’t look the part. Neither did the stars or actors. Their wardrobe wasn’t Abercrombie, it was Borough Park. Their names weren’t Lindsey, Paris or Britney, they were more like Rachel, Sarah, Gitty and Bracha — and they didn’t have their own trailers.
Oh, and did I mention there were no boys?
How could there be? They were filming the third episode of “Camp Bnos Yisrael,” billed as “a new DVD series for women and girls only.” And the actors were all from an ultra-observant all-girls summer program called Kol Neshama Performing Arts Conservatory.
Performing arts? All girls? Ultra-observant? Are you still with me?
Then check out the narrative arc of the pilot episode shot a couple of summers ago: “Fifteen-year-old Bracha Belsky has something to say about everything, and it is usually critical or complaining. Her friends, bunkmates, counselors and even the preparations for the camp production are all affected by her negativity. Thankfully, however, HaShem literally gives her a hit on the head and takes her on an extraordinary journey of teshuvah through a musical dream. When she awakens, she realizes the pain she has caused, and quickly begins a wonderful process of amends!”
Last summer, they shot the follow-up episode, with this plot outline: “Girls who signed up for ‘nature’ as their camp option are in for a big surprise when their first summer hike out in nature forces them to confront issues of an inner nature. The Camp Bnos girls’ often-hilarious hiking adventures lead to embarrassing moments and uncover feelings of jealousy which must be resolved.”
Get the picture? These are films with a holy message — or as I heard someone say on the set, films made in “Holywood.”
I found out about this holy adventure when I was researching day camps for my 6-year-old daughter Eva. I had known Robin from my days in Venice Beach in the late 1980s. She had already embraced the Torah path, which didn’t stop her from continuing her directing career (she directed documentaries, and, to pay the bills, numerous episodes of “America’s Most Wanted”).
When Robin started a family and moved to the hood in the late 1990s, she began meeting lots of other religious families, especially around the Shabbat table.
That’s when she discovered there were many Orthodox girls who loved their Torah and their Judaism, but were yearning to do things not easily accessible to religious girls.
Like sing, dance and act.
When I chatted with her on the set — while she took a breather between scenes and with my little Eva showing off her new Broadway skills — she recalled how she would meet these talented religious girls everywhere she went. Since Orthodox men are traditionally not allowed to hear women sing, she would wait until the men would leave the Shabbat table before she’d steal a moment to catch a girl sing.
These unorthodox auditions made an impression on Robin, and one day, a light bulb went off: Why not create a frum performing outlet for frum girls and for female audiences — and do it in a way that would reinforce Torah values?
So six years ago, she did just that.
This is one of the delightful offshoots of the baal teshuvah movement — Jews who embrace Torah observance later in life, and, in many cases, enrich their new world with their old passions. Who else but a former off-Broadway director would think of creating an ultra-observant, all-girls performing arts camp (a “Jewish Julliard,” as Robin calls it)? And then write mini-films inspired by the teachings of the great Jewish sage, the Chofetz Chaim?
This is all well and good, but I must say I noticed something unusual when I was on the set in Topanga Canyon. They were shooting the third episode in the series, this one focusing on resolving conflict among teenage girls without resorting to gossip and hurtful language.
So far, so good. But when the girls started performing, it felt a little too familiar. Their mannerisms, their tone, it was like I’d seen some of it before, like on — God forbid — television! So during the lunch break, I put on my sly investigative reporter hat and asked — in a light-hearted way — whether any of the girls had ever watched TV shows like “Hannah Montana” and “That’s So Raven.”
Several of the girls, blushing and giggling, admitted that they had, “once or twice.” But I knew that the chance that any of these girls had a television at home, especially with cable, was close to zero. So I kept digging: “Where might you have seen these shows, once or twice?”
That’s when one of the stars, before heading back to the set, turned around and told me her little Hollywood secret:
“Oh, at my grandma’s.”