by Celia Soudry
It’s a sight you wouldn’t expect on the Paramount Studios lot. Women gathered with their daughters on a recent Saturday night outside of the Sherry Lansing Theater to see a film. And there were no men in sight.
“This is a momentous occasion,” director Robin Garbose said. “For some of these women, this is their first time going to the movies.”
The event was the premiere of the musical, “A Light for Greytowers,” a big-screen adaptation of the young-adult book by Eva Vogiel and Ruth Steinberg.
The packed theater featured a predominantly Orthodox audience, but secular and Jewish women with varying degrees of faith could also be counted among the crowd.
“Greytowers” is the first full-length theatrical release for Kol Neshama Performing Arts Conservatory, an organization founded by Garbose in 2000 to give religious girls an outlet for their creativity, while adhering to the highest levels of tzniut (personal modesty). The group has produced nine original musical plays and three episodes of a musical DVD series, “Camp Bnos Yisrael.”
According to Jewish laws, Orthodox women cannot perform in front of adult males. All Kol Neshama performances are by women for women. And “Greytowers” is no different. The movie is intended to be seen exclusively by girls and women and will be distributed to female-only audiences and to women’s groups on college campuses.
The musical follows Miriam Aronowitch (Abby Shapiro), who escapes from Cossack pogroms in Russia to Victorian England with her mother, Anya (Rivka Siegel). Miriam soon finds herself in Greytowers orphanage, after her mother is stricken with pneumonia, and head mistress Agatha Grimshaw (Judy Winegard) forbids her from observing her Jewish customs. But the young girl finds a way to keep her faith in the face of trying circumstances.
As part of the Kol Neshama project, about 10 girls diligently honed British accents to play orphans in the film.
“They worked tirelessly,” said Garbose, a Julliard-educated director with years of professional experience directing off-Broadway theater in New York and television in Los Angeles.
Unlike other Hollywood productions, “Greytowers” depicts the sanctity of religion, faith and unrelenting devotion to God, alongside universal themes of motherhood, feminism and faith.
Garbose hopes that the film is one any woman and young girl can fall in love with. And the director would like to see other women around the world, including those in Muslim communities, connect with “Greytowers.”
“We are constantly inundated with images that are inappropriate,” Garbose said, explaining how the pendulum has swung so far in terms of overexposure.
Inspired by the modest ways of Orthodox culture, as well as hearing the beautiful voices of her female peers, Garbose wanted to create a film that would fight typical Jewish female stereotypes so often portrayed in sitcoms and film.
“I want to elevate the image of Jewish women in the media,” she said.
Garbose took on a more observant life 17 years ago, but she’s no stranger to the Hollywood scene.
While working on one popular sitcom, she witnessed the producers developing a part for a lead character’s Jewish sister. Garbose watched in disgust as the producers laughed while deciding that the Jewish sister would be single, loud, desperate, overweight and wearing huge, dangling Magen David earrings. Although devastated by the display, she is glad it helped plant the seeds for “Greytowers.”
The movie was motivated, in part, by the book, but Garbose also found unlikely inspiration in the comedy, “Twins.” The portrayal of two characters in “Greytowers,” sisters in charge of the orphanage, was a nod to the off-kilter antics of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny Devito.
During production, in accordance with rabbinical requirements, Garbose was uncompromising when it came to observing Jewish ritual. During the 23-day shoot, the cast would take breaks to bensch and daven mincha, performing the afternoon prayer. Although the filming process only spanned about a month, post-production took almost three years.
One of the film’s few male actors, Elliot Kotek, 35, brought a unique perspective to the shoot. He said the set was atypical from others he has been on because it was comprised mainly of women and young girls. Kotek said he was very careful when it came to his interactions with the girls, but he added that they were just like any other young girls, asking a ton of questions about his love life.
While not observant himself, the Australian actor respects Garbose for making the film without compromising her Jewish values.
For the week Kotek was on set, Garbose kept him and two other male actors in the film separate from women performing. During one scene, Kotek looks up while the actress playing his wife in the film, Siegel, looks in a different direction in order to keep within rabbinical standards, Garbose said.
Unlike the cast, most of the production and post-production crews were non-Jewish males. Halacha allows men to be hired to work on a project, Garbose said. It is especially common in positions where there are few if any women who do those jobs, she added.
“I intentionally hired a female cinematographer and production designer, as well as hair and make-up, wardrobe, script supervisor, musical director and choreographer. But there just aren’t many, if any, female grips and electricians.”
Garbose, whose birthday happened to fall during the shoot, followed another tradition when she shared words of Torah on the set.
“Since we were a mixed crowd, I decided to teach the Sheva Mitzvos B’nai Noach, or Seven Laws of Noah…. Everyone gathered and listened intensively,” she said. “I remember after, our boom operator smiling to the sound mixer, ‘Wow, I’ve never been on a film set like this before!'”
As for “Greytowers” itself, Kotek said it can be appreciated on a variety of levels. “You can feel emotion from the music and the performances,” he said, referring to the score written and composed by the director’s husband, Levi Yitzhaq Garbose, and Richard Freedman.
After the lights came up following the film’s premiere, the crowd rose, clapping and whistling wildly. A thrilled Garbose thanked friends, family and strangers for attending.
Joan Durham, who has been on a spiritual journey for the last 20 years, said the film reminded her of her own youth spent in a Protestant school.
“I was deeply touched,” she said.
Batsheva Frankel said she enjoyed every moment of the film.
“I know this will be an inspiring film for generations,” she said.