Jewish Women You Should Know
by Chana Kroll
Asher Lev certainly wouldn’t believe it. Many of the characters in the fictional Brooklyn he inhabited would have condemned it. But the Orthodox community today is not only enriched by its writers, painters, and musicians- a talented group of female directors, screenwriters, and producers are developing a high-quality film industry by and for women only.
For years, Israel has been home to a diverse film industry- including production companies representing both religious Muslims and Jews. Yet one group which was not represented in these companies was religious women, who largely refrain from performing together with or in front of men. The relative shortage of female producers, directors, etc in the mainstream film industry therefore made it harder for religious women to find the training and expert assistance required to start their own film industry.
Robin is setting new standards for the industry. Today, with centers for the performing arts which cater to Jewish women springing up in Israel, NY, and LA, filmmaking has become an option. One woman who was among the first to embrace the idea of serious training in drama and film for Torah observant women and girls is Robin Garbose, whose classic training and decades of experience in Hollywood and in New York theater have set a high standard for this new industry to follow.
Robin Garbose was fortunate enough to discover her passion for theater at an early age – and fortunate enough to encounter teachers and other adults who took her interest seriously. She’d had her first experience with acting by age six. One year later, she asked her teachers if she could do a Chanukah play for the school. They agreed, and Robin was able to get a taste of both directing and marketing- she convinced her principal to let her take the play “on tour” to all of the classrooms in the school.
“I was blessed to have an experience, at such a young age, of visualizing something and then succeeding in making it happen,” said Robin, “and that really brought out in me this strong belief in making what is possible become actual.”
Today, Robin instills that same belief in the young women she teaches and mentors as the founder and artistic director of the Kol Neshama Performing Arts Conservatory for Orthodox girls, in Los Angeles. The creative arts program, which began nine years ago and has, to date, produced eight original plays, three musical DVDs, several music CDs, and a feature film, is pioneering new ground for both the Orthodox and performing arts communities.
Although Jewish Law is strictly adhered to every step of the way, the scope of the program as a Jewish approach to creativity goes much further than following the letter of the law. The students explore their spiritual side, their values, and their Jewish heritage while developing their talents in the arts.
“I’ve always seen art as a way of spiritual connection,” Robin explains, “and it is important for us to be able to work with that connection and be true to ourselves.”
I’ve always seen art as a way of spiritual connection For women who, like Robin, have embraced Orthodox Judaism, “being true to oneself” includes not singing or dancing in front of men- productions are staged for female audiences only. It also includes being able to touch upon topics of faith and Jewish continuity, as in the film A Light for Greytowers- a musical film which Robin directed and produced, and whose cast includes students from the conservatory. Based on a novel by Eva Vogel and Ruth Steinberg, A Light for Greytowers tells the story of a young Jewish girl in a Victorian era orphanage who must struggle to hold onto Judaism in the face of a cruel matron determined to stamp all memories of Jewish life from the minds of the orphans in her care.
The musical film has toured communities throughout the United States and made its Israeli debut at a special showing at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem on December 13, 2008, followed by additional shows at the Center and at Beis Avi Chai. The film’s first European screening took place during Chanukah in Manchester, England. On January 18, 2009 A Light For Greytowers will make its first film festival appearance as part of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival
Response to the film has been overwhelmingly positive. Its high quality has earned praise from some of the top people in the American film industry, and its message and wholesome feel have garnered praise from people of all religious backgrounds and levels of observance. Los Angeles Times columnist Sandy Banks wrote that the film grants “mothers a reprieve from having to explain teen pop stars’ drunk-driving arrests” to their daughters. She also praised the film as being both “entertaining and uplifting”.
“Sometimes people in the industry assume that if you take intimacy out of a film, then there is nothing left,” remarks Robin, “Yet this film and the reaction audiences are having to it prove that just isn’t true.”
Still, says Robin of the film’s success so far, “We’re really still ramping up; this is just a start.”
For Robin, the film is a kind of second beginning as a director. She majored in theater as an undergrad at Brown University, and at age twenty-three tested her newly earned degree in New York. After landing a job as assistant director for a film and not feeling particularly excited about the experience, she followed an early mentor into the field of television directing. She went on to direct for the hit series Head of the Class (after relocating to LA in 1988), and other well-known programs.
Still, a sense of fulfillment eluded her for years. Having grown up with a strong Jewish identity, she naturally turned to her heritage to find a resolution to what she knew was an unhealthy situation.
“When people were happy with my work, I was happy, “she remembers, “but when they were critical of it, I was depressed. It was too external. So one day, I sat down and I thought: I need to do a project just for me, something that will make me happy for its own sake. Now, if I could do anything, what film would I do?”
The answer she found in her heart was- do a Jewish film. The story that eventually developed was a look at the Holocaust through the eyes of a young girl whose grandfather is a survivor, and is dying. Robin contacted the Wiesenthal Center and interviewed several survivors before working on the storyline. The film, entitled The Spark, has yet to be produced but it helped set in motion a series of events and searches which have brought Robin to where she is now.
While her latest film may not be up for any Oscars, the satisfaction that Robin Garbose receives from A Light For Greytowers has far exceeded the satisfaction she felt from the many other projects she’s brought to light in twenty-five years of directing film, theater, and network television shows in New York and Los Angeles.
“A Light for Greytowers is not what I thought my first Jewish film would be, but I am moved by the reactions that women are having. When I go to a screening in a community and I see women who have dedicated their entire lives to making the world a better place through their mitzvahs and through helping other people- their enjoyment of the film makes me feel good. That’s more important to me than what a film critic would say, although,” she adds, “the reviews have been very positive and the film has captured a lot of attention. We’ve even been offered a Hollywood distribution deal. I’m not sure if the deal is right for us, but it has helped me appreciate the crossover potential of the film and the fact that it has generated positive publicity for Judaism and the Jewish community.”
Her admiration for the Jewish community has inspired Robin to produce more films. She is working now on securing film rights to another novel written from an Orthodox perspective, and other projects are in the works.
“I want to give a cinematic voice to a community which hasn’t had one until now. I want to be a bridge between the more insular Jewish communities and the outside world, giving people a chance to really see what Judaism is about. Until now, really there was only the movie Ushpizin and Chassidic-Reggae singer Matisyahu [acting as that bridge].”
“and,” Robin continues, “I’d like to continue providing Jewish women with the opportunity for serious artistic development.”
Building on the interest generated by A Light for Greytowers, Robin hopes to also soon see her earlier script, The Spark, finally produced as a film. The script itself caught the attention of the Sundance Institute- and earned Robin one of six places at the prestigious Sundance Writer’s Workshop.
For Robin, the founding of the Torah and Arts Conservatory and her new role creating distinctly Jewish films, confirm a feeling which has guided her all along.
“I know G?d didn’t give me my life as a cruel joke. He gave it to me for a reason. All my experiences in film and theater, that’s a part of me. So when I became observant, I knew there had to be a way I could use this knowledge. And I’ve found that way now- I’m using it to empower other Jewish women to use their talents and experiences.”