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See the light

In the ‘Book of Judith’ a young Jewish playwright takes on faith and disability through one of the greatest archetypes of all, Jesus

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

A scene from 'The Book of Judith.' (photo credit: Jeremy Mimnagh)
A scene from 'The Book of Judith.' (photo credit: Jeremy Mimnagh)

TORONTO — It begins as a church revival meeting. On stage, there is a pulpit, an icon hung overhead, and a gospel choir dressed in flowing robes. The audience is asked to participate in the service by reading and singing along with prayers and eating communion-type bread that is passed around. As would be expected, there is also a charismatic preacher presiding over the revival.

But things are not quite as they seem. As soon as the preacher announces his name is Matthew Goldberg, all certainty about what we are watching disappears. Just as we come to realize there is a Jew leading a Christian worship session, we also learn that “The Book of Judith,” an innovative theater piece ostensibly about accommodating and including the disabled, is ultimately about something else.

Ecstatic about his deep admiration for Judith Snow, a 62-year-old Canadian artist and scholar living with quadriplegia since infancy and an advocate for the disabled, Goldberg unilaterally appoints himself her apostle and charges himself with zealously spreading a gospel of inclusion centered on her. Goldberg, with the help of the Greek chorus-like choir comprised of local community members (many of them mentally or physically disabled), tells the story of how he improbably met Snow when she let it be known that she was looking for a lover. Although Goldberg — initially shocked and later intrigued — ultimately did not offer himself to Snow in that way, he did take the opportunity to contact and befriend her. The preacher recounts the ups and downs of his relationship with Snow, and he claims that it was by her grace that he saw the light of inclusion.

The audience follows along with Goldberg’s fervent testimony, referring to quotations from Snow presented as a kind of liturgy in a hymnal titled, “The Thirteen Chapters of the Book of Judith.” He makes a Jewish blessing before the bread is passed out and eaten. All the while, Goldberg gets more and more worked up. He whips himself into a frenzy, and he hopes to do the same for the crowd with his impassioned sermon punctuated by soulful singing and energetic dancing.

‘Why does Judith Snow have to advocate for her own existence? You aren’t doing enough to see Judith Snow!’

“Why does Judith have to live in the name of change?” he asks. “Why does Judith Snow have to advocate for her own existence? You aren’t doing enough to see Judith Snow!” he berates the audience. “Judith Snow is you, Judith Snow is all of us. We all deserved to be loved. That’s what Judith taught me. She loved me and asked me to love her.”

But things start to backfire for Goldberg when he admits to the audience that Snow, who is in actuality a real person, is unwilling to endorse his plans for spreading the word. Instead of impressing the choir and converting the audience, he ends up alienating them and humiliating himself. Goldberg publicly crashes and burns, exposing his utter failure not only figuratively, but also physically (full frontal nudity is involved).

As the broken would-be preacher stands shamefully naked, Snow drives herself out on stage in her electric wheelchair, parks it beneath the hanging icon of her, and tells him straight out why she will have none of what is going on. “I got tired of your objectifying me. You’ve turned me into some kind of messiah,” she rebukes him in her labored speech. It is with this short speech that it is made absolutely clear that “The Book of Judith” is as much about the dangers of ignorance and fanaticism as it is about the inclusion of disabled individuals in society.

Michael Rubenfeld, the 33-year-old Toronto-based actor who plays Goldberg and is the play’s co-creator with Sarah Garton Stanley, did actually meet and begin to work with Snow as his character does in the play. For the actor and playwright, the experience led to an artistic revelation, but he decided to turn it into a religious one for his dramatic alter ego. He says he never considered couching this autobiographical story in anything but religious terms.

‘The concept is that his life was changed by Judith Snow and now he’s here to change yours and he’s going to change it with her amazing story’

“The concept is that his life was changed by Judith Snow and now he’s here to change yours and he’s going to change it with her amazing story,” Rubenfeld explains to The Times of Israel about his character prior to a performance in Peterborough, Ontario earlier this year. “But really what he’s really doing is that he’s telling his amazing story about Judith. It really has nothing to do with her. It’s entirely how he perceives it.”

Rubenfeld, who is the grandson of Holocaust survivors and was raised as a Conservative Jew in Winnipeg, purposely used the name and structure of the Book of Judith from the Apocrypha and appropriated from his own religion certain symbols and practices for the play. Moreover, he maintains that as a Jewish artist, he felt free to turn Judith Snow into Jesus Christ. “Jesus is just a story to me, and I think I’m a bit afraid of it because I wasn’t raised with Christ, but I am also compelled by it, too. I have a tendency to fetishize the idea of having a Christ-like figure because it’s so unfamiliar to me,” he says.

Rubenfeld and Snow at the exhibition of her artwork at the Royal Ontario Museum. (photo credit: Renee Ghert-Zand)
Rubenfeld and Snow at the exhibition of her artwork at the Royal Ontario Museum. (photo credit: Renee Ghert-Zand)

“As a Jew playing with that image, there was almost a freedom that I had that a Christian couldn’t. So I could just make it up, I could just make it what I wanted it to be because there were no rules.”

However, Snow, usually comfortable being labeled a provocateur, tells The Times that she “sweats” up there on stage, and it’s not because of the lights. “It’s extremely risky… I was raised Anglican, and taking this into a Church… I have anxiety attacks. I feel like I’m going to be strung up,” she shares.

‘People have this great experience and then they religify it, turn it into an icon rather than a human experience’

But she agrees with Rubenfeld that there was no better way to tell the story. “Where people go to when they have a transformation typically is to a religious metaphor of some kind, whatever religion is for them. Maybe spiritual is a more appropriate word,” she explains. “Goldberg has an epiphany and that is what he is trying to say to people, and then he takes it off the rails, which is also very typical. People have this great experience and then they religify it, turn it into an icon rather than a human experience… It’s a very appropriate metaphor.”

The Book of Judith has been seen by thousands of people throughout the province of Ontario, and will soon also reach audiences in other parts of the country. In Kingston, it was staged in an actual church, rather than a theater, which made some people uncomfortable. “The pastor there found it deeply perverse. She wasn’t angry about it, but she was very provoked,” Rubenfeld recalls.

Even some of the Peterborough locals who participated on stage in the choir were uncomfortable, despite having rehearsed months for the show. Emily Caddigan, a 21-year-old woman with cerebral palsy, says it was “especially tense for the handicapped people in the choir.” Still, she is glad to have been a part of it.

“People need to know it, to know the story, even though the format is a bit shocking,” she says.

Rubenfeld remains unapologetic. He believes that the best place to tackle the difficult subject of the treatment of disabled people is in the theater. “I wanted it to be spectacular and I couldn’t think of anything more spectacular than setting it in a church,” he says. “The fact that it may upset some people was an even greater reason to go forward. The more you shake things up, the more people are off kilter, and they have no choice but to wrestle with themselves and the place they’re at.”

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