Observant Women Need to Have a Place in the Performing Arts
Ninoska Ravid is Executive Producer and Chief Executive Officer of the Women in Theatre (WIT) organization. Recently, I caught up with Ninoska backstage at WIT’s latest sell-out show in Modiin, Fiddler on the Roof.
Ninoska, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I come from a long line of Spanish Jews who immigrated to Latin America many centuries ago. There’s a joke in our family that we came over on the boat with Columbus, but really I feel it’s a modern miracle that I’m Jewish, and that my family is Jewish and that we live in Israel today.
I was born in Honduras, and my family emigrated to the US when I was six. I grew up in New York City, and I met my husband in the US. When we met, he was a typical, secular Israeli – very spiritual, but not practicing anything, Jewishly. Over the years, we’ve really grown together.
How did you come back to observant Judaism?
I started my religious journey when I was 12 years old. They were taking a class on Roman and Greek mythology in school, and I started thinking to myself how ridiculous it was that people actually believed in all those stories. How could they think those characters were ‘gods’? But then, I got challenged about what I really believed about God, and I had to go and start researching it to find out. I kept coming back to Judaism.
Did your family keep any Jewish customs, growing up?
The last person who was observant in my family was my great-grandmother. My grandmother and my mother weren’t at all observant, but they still kept tons of ‘Marrano’ customs. In our home, we strictly separated between meat and milk, and my mother insisted on us ‘cleaning’ the meat we bought before we could eat it.
That meant salting it and soaking it for 30 minutes, and then leaving it to drain by the sink. It was crazy that I was trying to kasher treif meat in the middle of New York City, when I literally could have gone round the corner and bought some properly kosher meat!
Did you know you were Jewish?
I knew we had Jewish ancestry, but my Mom was not so keen to acknowledge that we were Jewish. She grew up in a Catholic country where being a Jew was really hard, and we weren’t practicing anything Jewish at all. When we moved to the States, she saw the neighbors all had a xmas tree, so she got us a tree, too.
But apart from that, she wasn’t actively pursuing any other religion either.
Was your Mom involved in your journey back to Judaism?
Not really. It was really just my own journey, that began when I was 12. I had friends from every religion you can think of, growing up in New York, so I just started researching everything I could. By 14, I was sold on Judaism. Nothing else made sense to me. I didn’t start keeping things because I felt I had to, but more because I had a love-affair with Judaism.
I’d learn things and I’d think ‘of course! That’s beautiful! Or, that makes so much sense!’
But even so, it’s still been a long path and a struggle, and it’s often two steps forward and one step back.
When did you become ‘officially’ observant?
As a teen, I always ate ‘kosher style’. I didn’t mix meat and milk, I’d eat just chicken, then I’d eat the fish or vegetarian options. Then, I got to the stage where I just couldn’t do that anymore, and I decided I had to eat only kosher. If I’d known beforehand that was going to happen, I’d have had that last chicken sandwich from Wendy’s…
But it wasn’t abrupt, it was a process of slow changes.
When did your career in the performing arts begin?
I performed in my first show when I was six, shortly after we moved to America. I was quite a shy child, and performing and taking on other people’s characters helped me immensely. As a young child, I appeared in quite a few local commercials, and then throughout my Junior and Senior high-school, I acted in a lot of shows.
I joined a high school repertoire company, and that was really the best thing for me. They wouldn’t let you just perform or act, you had to experience every facet of the performance. You had to stage manage, direct, organize the costumes – everything! It gave me a very well-rounded education.
Many actors can approach acting in a selfish ‘I’m a performer’ way, where they don’t really appreciate all of the work that’s gone into the platform they’ve been given. After working backstage for a while, that changes.
Can you describe how you managed to marry your acting career with your return to Judaism?
Really, at that stage, I couldn’t. I was in university, and the shows I was appearing in were also playing Friday nights, and as the Saturday matinees. It got to the point where I felt I had to start finding someone to replace me for the Friday night shows, and then at that point I really saw that I had to make a choice.
There were very limited options available to act without breaking Shabbat, and I could see it really wasn’t going to work. I thought my performing days were over, and it wasn’t so hard initially, as I was discovering my Judaism, and meeting my husband, and getting busy with my family and other priorities.
But I still missed performing, and later on I wished I could have the opportunity to be doing it again. That’s when I got involved with Women in Theatre (WIT).
Tell us a little about WIT?
WIT was started in 2008 by Pnina Fredman-Schechter, who has been directing professionally for more than 20 years, and Tamar Krantman-Weiss, my business partner. Pnina and Tamar were introduced by a mutual friend and they say, the rest was history. I came on board a couple of years later.
At that time it was a much smaller company, and it was working with other non-profits to put on performances, and really wasn’t a standalone organization. It didn’t have a website, there was no real business structure, but it wasn’t lacking in talent, directorial ability or creativity. There were a lot of ideas, but they weren’t really being acted on. I was able to utilize my business skills and theater experience as Managing Director and Executive Producer.
Today, it’s an amuta (charitable organization for tax purposes), and it has a strong vision for what it’s trying to achieve. It’s very important for women in the dati (religious) community to be able to perform, but within the bounds of halacha.
The drive to perform is sometimes so powerful. I know some of our actors felt they had no choice in the past except to appear in front of mixed audiences. But WIT gives women a high-quality showcase for their talents.
We also have an educational aspect, too.
Can you give an example of WIT’s ‘educational’ aspect?
Yes, so our latest production is ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, which has a strong theme of ‘tradition’. The educational component we included for our cast members was to go and research their own traditions and histories, and we’ve actually collected that information together into an online book that you can download from our website.
The actors had to look to see where they came from, and that really fed into how they approached their roles. One young cast member found out that she’s related to a long line of Rabbis. This project brought a whole new perspective to the performance.
How many actors perform with WIT?
It varies from production to production, as it depends on the number of roles available. For Fiddler, we have 55 actors, and around another 10 people backstage, and the ages range from 10 right up to 70-something.
What are WIT’s plans for the future?
We want to continue to grow, and to hopefully find a permanent home of our own. When we’re rehearsing for our productions, we’re fortunate to be working with the Modiin City Council and they give us a small space to use. But we’d like to have a space we can use all year round, so we can offer more performing art classes including improv courses for adults, and also more workshops for performers.
If we can get our own space, then we can hire more people and start to offer more courses. When people perform, it’s enriching their lives, it’s not just about having them appear on stage.
Doing an improv course can boost your confidence at work, if you have to give a presentation, if you have to make a speech – in so many different ways.
We also want to offer more opportunities to the Jewish women out there who want to perform. Instead of doing just one production a year, we’d like to do more. We had so many people turn out for auditions for ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ I had to close registration. We want to continue to empower observant Jewish women, and to tell them that there is a place for them, in the performing arts.
Do you ever stage original productions?
We’ve done that a few times. Two years’ ago, we staged “Raquela: The Birth of Israel” but original productions can take us two years to produce and stage, so we went for a couple of classics the last two years.
That said, we’re always on the look-out for something that will appeal to a general audience. It has to be suitable for our audience, but it doesn’t have to have a Jewish theme. We want people to feel like they’re going out to see a Broadway show.
Our performances strive to have the same level of professionalism that you’d see at a Broadway play – and our audiences are really responding to that. I had one lady come over and tell me she’d only come to support a cast member, but she was blown away by how good the production actually was.
Are you interested in hearing from some of the Jewish playwrights out there?
Absolutely! We would love to have people come and share their ideas with us.
- There are still a few tickets left for WIT’s ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, playing in Modiin Wednesday January 31, and Thursday February 1st. Please click here, FIDDLER TICKETS, for more details.
If you’d like to discuss scriptwriting, acting or sponsorship opportunities with WIT, please contact Ninoska Ravid on: Info@WomenInTheater.com