HAMBURG — At age 31, Yossi still had no idea how to dress himself. Brought up in the world of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood, he was accustomed to wearing a black suit, fedora and tzizit. So when he broke from his community and went shopping for his first T-shirt and jeans, it was a baffling experience — one that he comically reenacts in a new Israeli-German play, “Out of Mea Shearim.”
“The feeling of standing on stage, acting out the words I had written about my experience was profound,” says Yossi of the scene in which he drapes himself in multiple layers of inside-out, back-to-front clothing while recounting his naivety as a newcomer to the secular world.
“If I hadn’t said [those things] in public, I don’t think I would have truly understood the experience.”
Yossi is one of eight former ultra-Orthodox Jews who portray their journeys in the documentary-style play, which showed in Jerusalem and Hamburg in April as part of an initiative commemorating 50 years of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel.
“We met more than 100 people before forming the final group,” says Hamburg-based director Evgeni Mesteschkin of the grueling yearlong process. The play’s evolution involved unearthing and curating participant’s stories before training the group of non-actors to depict these deeply private moments on stage.
In their debut work together, Evgeni and his sister Yulia Mesteschkin, an Israel-based artist, were inspired by the story of a young ex-Orthodox man working in a bookstore just kilometers from his old home on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem.
‘He was so close to where he grew up, but in a different world’
“He was so close to where he grew up, but in a different world,” says Mesteschkin, who put out a call for contributors via Hillel, an Israeli organization which supports ex-Orthodox integrate into mainstream society.
Often alienated from their families and with little secular education in subjects like mathematics and science, the formerly ultra-Orthodox are faced with severe challenges when they leave their communities. Yet numbers are steadily increasing into the hundreds per year.
“The primary thing here is the internal struggle,” explains Hillel’s resource development director Avraham Neuman. “When they’re raised to believe — and to know that belief and adherence is the only way to be in the world — and then they stop believing. I think that’s really the quiet trauma here that tells the whole story.”
Mesteschkin has spent the past five years working exclusively with non-actors, including neo-Nazis and prisoners, but describes “Out of Mea Shearim” as one of his most challenging endeavors.
“These are people who function against all the rules… every time I thought I understood them or the process, I realized I was wrong,” he says.
In the final months before the performance, together with their directors, Portuguese composer João Paulo da Silva and Israeli choreographer Michael Getman, the group was rehearsing six times a week.
The pressure was too much for Sara, who hours before the first Hamburg show, disappeared.
‘Orthodox women walk around hunched, because they are ashamed’
“I didn’t want to come on stage,” says the 24 year old, re-counting her fear. “But in the end, the play helped me face my reality.”
Through song, movement and dialogue, “Out of Mea Shearim” explores the participants’ “divorce” from their families with a complex mix of humor and sadness.
“Orthodox women walk around hunched, because they are ashamed,” says 24-year-old Racheli, who before leaving the Naturei Karta sect 10 months ago led a double life as a secular and ultra-Orthodox Jew.
“I learnt to be disgusted by my body… acting helped me realize there’s no problem with standing straight,” she says.
During one scene, Racheli and Yossi (who are now a couple) awkwardly act out the common matchmaking ritual of a “shiduch,” a practice now far removed from their reality.
“I have a place in the world now,” says Racheli, “the play changed me a lot.”
The play was “like therapy,” agrees 32-year-old Bar Mayer, who left Mea Shearim at 17 before living in Germany for almost a decade. “Each one of us had something we were carrying,” she says. “We didn’t want to take a political stance; to say right or wrong — it just tells our stories.”
Currently studying photography at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, Mayer spends a lot of time exploring the issues facing these formerly ultra-Orthodox in her work. But she says the performance was more akin to “coming out of the closet to [her] secular friends.”
‘For a long time, even wearing dresses and skirts was impossible – I am a pants woman now!’
“I really wanted it to be gone,” she says of her youth. “For a long time, even wearing dresses and skirts was impossible – I am a pants woman now!”
Mayer’s sister was one of a handful of Orthodox who came to see the play in Jerusalem. A sign, says Mesteschkin, of “cracks in the wall.” While some (including those who didn’t attend) accused the work of being anti-Semitic, other secular audience members deemed it too light-handed.
Unperturbed by the criticism, Mesteschkin says he would love to eventually show the play within the closed walls of Mea Shearim itself.
“I think that we can find a way to find some people who are open minded enough, and through those people, find a way to bring this material to that community… it’s possible with small steps.”
He may be right. On opening night a friend of Mayer’s sat next to a man in “full garb” who during a scene about the nuances of Halachic law was, reportedly, crying with laughter.