Graduate School of Jewish Studies Alumnus is Co-Founder of Performing Arts Association for Orthodox Jewish Women
Aspiring actress-singer Miriam Leah Droz, who was raised as a Conservative Jew, stopped performing for 10 years after she decided to become strictly Orthodox and adhere to Jewish religious law that prohibits women from singing or performing live in front of men due to modesty issues.
It was a difficult sacrifice for Ms. Droz, who earned her master’s degree in Jewish studies from Touro College in 2007 as part of her quest to learn more about Judaism and the differences between the many different streams of Orthodoxy ranging from modern Orthodox to Chassidic to Charedi, or ultra-Orthodox. It was during her graduate studies at Touro that Ms. Droz was inspired to create ATARA, or the Arts and Torah Association for Religious Artists (www.artsandtorah.org), with several other ba’ale teshuva (newly religious) artists, after discovering there were many streams of Orthodoxy that permitted female artists to perform for all-women audiences.
Since its creation in 2006 as an international association with organizers and members in North America, England and Israel, ATARA has supported the work of observant artists with networking opportunities, resources, job opportunities, a newsletter, the production of a CD highlighting the original music of 13 different female singer-songwriters who perform for women only, and most important, an annual weekend for women featuring classes, panel discussions, visual art exhibits, films, networking opportunities and numerous theatrical, singing and dancing performances.
After beginning her education toward a Bachelor of Fine Arts Arts in musical theater, Ms. Droz stopped performing when she became religious on a trip to Israel during college. “I felt pressure to stop pursuing the arts as a career and that I needed to find another career path. But about 10 years later, during the time I was at Touro, I became involved in a performance in the Orthodox community and realized opportunities were possible within a religious framework,” said Ms. Droz, who also currently works in educational administration. “I invited others to collaborate on what would become ATARA, a network of artists that strives to serve and encourage arts development in the Orthodox community and communicates the message that both Torah observance and the pursuit of the arts are worthwhile.”
ATARA’s fourth annual conference for women was held this past Veteran’s Day weekend, Nov. 12th-15th, at several venues on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Highlights of the conference included a concert in a professional hall near Lincoln Center, over 30 performances of original music, choreography and theater, classes in the performing arts, scriptwriting and songwriting, a panel discussion on “Issues in Creating Material Facing Film, Theater and Performing Artists in the Orthodox Community,” and a Shabbat program featuring speakers and interactive theater events. Over 250 women attended the various events.
Featured performers at the conference included former New York City Ballet dancer Dena Abergel; opera vocalist Bracha Adrezin of California who performed throughout Europe prior to becoming observant; classical violinist Stephanie Kurtzman; pianist and Brooklyn Jewish Dance Institute founder Rivka Nahari; singer-songwriter Shaindel Antelis of Elizabeth, NJ, and composer and ATARA co-founder Esther Leah Marchette. Ms. Marchette studied music composition at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and worked as a cantor in a Reform synagogue before becoming religious, at which point she laid her musical skills to rest for more than 20 years. At the concert, Ms. Droz performed a selection from a musical written by ATARA co-founder Toby Greenwald, who writes and directs plays based on biblical stories and won the Yaakov Egrest Memorial Award for Jewish Culture from the Israeli Ministry of Education.
“As an observer, I witnessed the most amazing, talented, gifted and passionate frum (religious) women share, collaborate and mentor other frum female artists in dance, theater, song and music,” said Debra Laskow of Agoura Hills, Calif. “Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined frum women could be so professional and dynamic in the arts. The weekend left me speechless.”
ATARA’s past conferences have included performances and classes by Rachel Factor, a dancer and convert to Judaism who turned her story into a one-woman show; Miriam Sandler, a former backup singer with Gloria Estefan; Judy Winegard, a former Broadway actress, and Robin Garbose, a former Hollywood and television producer.
As a result of the past four annual conferences as well as the activities of ATARA throughout the year, a group of religious women in Toronto formed a dance company and produced a benefit concert locally, and were asked to travel to Cleveland to perform in a concert there last year. Several films have been produced, classes in the performing arts have been initiated, a series of performance nights have taken place, and several people have even found paid work in the arts, often through ads or postings in the ATARA newsletter, which is distributed electronically to over 1,000 people.
The newsletter, which is issued approximately once a month, publicizes members’ events and performances, auditions and news. “The newsletter shows people what is going on, what they can attend or get involved in and serves as inspiration for their own work. If artists finds out about a performance taking place elsewhere, they might gain the confidence to create a show based on their own work in their own community.”
In addition, the recently produced music CD featuring original music from 13 female songwriters helps further ATARA’s mission,” said Ms. Droz, who just recently took to the stage in a women’s production of “Barons & Bankers: the Story of the Rothchilds” at the Millenium Theatre in Brooklyn. “The CD enables us to include artists from multiple countries, as well as spread their work to listeners in multiple countries. It is a different way to reach the same goal, which is promoting artists’ careers and talent and communicating the message that the original work of observant artists is important.”
Now that ATARA has encouraged Orthodox women to feel comfortable creating artistic outlets for themselves, the next step is building a larger audience and creating greater interest in the arts within the Orthodox community, said Ms. Droz, who changed her first name from Lani in 2006.
“We have had tremendous success in achieving our original goal, which was to provide encouragement to artists who felt limited by religious law—to let them know they aren’t alone, and more so, that their talent is valuable,” Ms. Droz said “Now that there are less obstacles to the expression and development of talent, we hope there will be greater appreciation of the arts in the Orthodox community and an increased willingness to pay for what these artists have to offer.
Besides Ms. Droz, who lives in Brooklyn, eight other women were involved in creating ATARA and serve as founding board members including Ms. Marchette of Boston, Ms. Greenwald of Efrat, Israel, dance teacher Yocheved Polonsky of Cleveland, and filmmaker-directors Robin Garbose of Los Angeles and Amy Guterson of Pittsburgh.
“ATARA gives me the opportunity to meet and collaborate with other artists who deeply feel their commitment to Torah and this informs my experience as an artist,” said Ms. Polonsky. “Collaborating with other dancers and choreographers in my most recent project ‘Blessings’ affirmed the power of our collective.” Ms. Droz said ATARA is vital for the community not only to give women artists an outlet to express themselves creatively but to inspire audiences with art infused with Torah ideals.
“If the arts communicate anti-Torah messages, then these messages are spread in powerful ways, whereas if Jewish values are communicated through the arts, the world hears messages of Torah and morality,” said Ms. Droz, who is currently writing an original script based on the lives of women in the Orthodox community.
“We are facing years if not centuries of religious Jews viewing the arts as part of secular culture. We need to create a body of quality art within the Torah framework and value system to say we too as Orthodox Jews can pursue and create and express ourselves artistically and not be afraid it will violate our values; in fact, we can employ these arts in the service of our value system. It is important that those with talent not be asked to give up skills development for the sake of Heaven, but rather that they use their talent for the sake of Heaven.”
According to Ms. Droz the arts are actually the most beautiful and powerful way to express any message, including Torah itself. “Because of their emotional impact, arts are the most powerful medium for communication—theater and film tell stories and music and dance move the emotions. It’s more powerful to have someone absorb a message through the arts than to just hear it or read it. With the development of more quality art, the community will benefit from a richer cultural life, more joy and more powerful educational opportunities.”
ATARA initially focused on creating performance outlets for women because it seemed to be the most pressing need but boys and men in the Orthodox community also need to be encouraged to pursue the arts, Ms. Droz said. “Boys in yeshiva are expected to excel in Gemara but if a boy’s skills are in acting or movement and he isn’t given the support he needs to develop his talent, his self-confidence can suffer and the joy and meaning he can bring to others will be limited as well. We have this colorful community of people and we’re forcing everybody to be black or white.”
ATARA hopes to focus more on helping Orthodox men in the arts with publicity, job searches and networking. “While men do not have to worry as much as women about performance outlets, they feel pressured to support their families, and a lack of paid work in the arts within the Orthodox community that allows men to observe Jewish law presents a serious challenge for them,” said Ms. Droz. “The message and mission to support arts development is gender indiscriminate. We are simply working with a religious population that has distinct and different needs for men and women.”
After her trip to Israel during college, Ms. Droz returned to the United States to complete her bachelor’s degree and then went on to earn a master’s degree in library sciences in 2002 before attending the Touro College Graduate School of Jewish Studies in 2003 to 2006 while working simultaneously as the librarian of Touro’s Women’s Division and the Graduate School of Jewish Studies.
The idea for ATARA emerged after Ms. Droz directed a musical called “A… My Name is Alice” at Congregation Ohab Zedek Synagogue on the Upper West Side in 2006 at the request of the rabbi and his wife, who wanted to start a theater club. “It was new to the community and they really liked it,” said Ms. Droz. “Some audience members asked if we could take the show on tour. Women had come to audition and rehearse from Queens, New Jersey and Brooklyn. They came in from so many other communities because there seemed to be no other outlets. I realized how many people were interested in performing, so I thought let’s continue to meet; lets continue to create something of meaning.”
Shortly afterward, Ms. Droz was asked to fill in for someone producing a benefit concert at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. “It was another experience that demonstrated the need for some type of organized effort and that people were really looking for something like this,” she said. “The concert at Stern brought more women together to discuss the idea of a community and from that event we created the board of ATARA.”
At the time, Ms. Droz was involved in the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) as alibrarian at Touro. She had served on a committee to organize AJL’s annual conference and used AJL as a model to create ATARA and its annual conference of women artists.
But it wasn’t just her work with AJL during her time at Touro that helped inspire Ms. Droz co-create ATARA. She credits Graduate School of Jewish Studies Dean Michael Shmidman, as well as her studies and experiences at Touro, for helping her realize there were streams of Orthodoxy that supported the development of women in the arts and for furthering her understanding that Chassidism advocated the religious value of song and dance.
“There is no rabbi or mentor who has been so simultaneously inspirational from afar as well as personally helpful as Rabbi Shmidman,” said Ms. Droz. “He gave me the opportunity to understand the values of Chassidism that inspired me to follow a path of music and dance within the Torah framework, to learn essential themes and rich stories of Jewish history that I hope to use in creating new material and in teaching Jewish history through drama, and most important, he accepted me as a searching Jew.
“Dr. Shmidman gave me back the confidence I had lost when I eliminated an important part of my identity in becoming Orthodox,” Ms. Droz added. “His presence as a learned Orthodox Jew gave me a model on which I could base my own identity in the observant community. I got to know him from 2003 to 2006, and it was in 2006 that I began my work toward creating ATARA. Knowing Rabbi Shmidman gave me the education and the strength I needed to pursue my own path.”
For more information about ATARA, visit www.artsandtorah.org