NEW YORK — For half a decade, Joshua Hershfield collected accounts of Jewish women who served as couriers in the war against the Nazis, which he crafted into his award-winning rock musical, “RISE.”
A staged reading of “RISE” will take place at Tel Aviv’s LP Studio on November 30, in part to “test the waters” for an Israeli production of the musical, Hershfield told The Times of Israel.
Against the backdrop of the October 7 massacres perpetrated by Hamas, which saw 1,200 dead and some 240 taken hostage to Gaza, the show’s themes of individual resilience and combating genocidal hatred are “incredibly timely,” said Hershfield.
Referring to “re-securing the Jewish state” as the Israel-Hamas war’s first front, Hershfield said the war’s “second front is being fought in the Diaspora and is the assault on Jewish identity,” he said.
“The couriers themselves are people that could have left and gotten themselves out of the fray, and they chose to go back in again and again and again, they knew where their loyalties lay,” said Hershfield, who completed an MA degree in Holocaust studies at the University of Haifa.
The Jewish women who were clandestine carriers of messages and supplies played a central — but often overlooked — role in preparing and implementing dozens of ghetto revolts.
Producing “RISE” alongside Hershfield are Elad Peretz and Udi Gottshalk, writer and director of the musical “HaChabadnikim,” which recently ended a 150-night run and has been called a Jewish version of “The Book of Mormon.”
According to Hershfield, he and Gottshalk had been in communication for almost a year regarding bringing “RISE” to Israel. The war launched on Israel by Hamas last month made the musical’s message more urgent than ever, said Hershfield.
“This is a story about Jews who faced annihilation and who stood up and fought back,” said Hershfield. “We all have to come together to face this threat.”
‘A one-way ticket’
Watching the Hamas massacres from abroad was “like taking a step into the past,” said Hershfield.
“That day was like watching a pogrom against Jews, something that we’re used to thinking about as part of history 100 years ago, not what’s happening now,” he said.
Hershfield first conceived of “RISE” after the Charlottesville riots in 2017, he said. Wanting to respond to rampant antisemitism and other forms of racism, he stepped away from touring with punk bands to craft a rock musical about the Holocaust.
Hershfield, who has a background in acting, wanted a score that was “big and choral and powerful.”
Since last year, “RISE” has been performed at Rochester Center Stage and in Syracuse, both in New York. Before flying to Israel, Hershfield was in talks with an off-Broadway theater to host “RISE,” pending his meeting fundraising targets.
“Works like ‘RISE’ needs to be prioritized now,” Hershfield said.
“We need to figure out ways to confront and address this seething hatred that has become completely open and public,” said Hershfield, who made several research trips to Poland.
Since arriving in Israel last month, Hershfield has been volunteering with Brothers for Life at the Tel Aviv Expo, where tons of supplies for displaced Israelis are gathered, sorted, and distributed every day. He’s also volunteered on farms near the Gaza border where workers fled after October 7.
“I am in Israel on a one-way ticket and we’ll see what happens,” said Hirshfield. “We are a people that takes care of each other, Jews and Israelis. We all have this impulse to be with our people in our time of need,” he said.
Although Hirshfield is registered as a volunteer EMT, he has not been called to volunteer, he said.
“When push comes to shove, you ask yourself how you want to respond to this. Knowing what the couriers did demands that we rise to a higher level,” said Hershfield, who compared the women in his play to thousands of Israelis who returned from abroad for reserve duty last month.
“That was part of their personalities, that they could not turn their back on their people when they needed help,” said Hershfield of his rock musical’s unsung hero couriers.
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