If you live in Israel and want to see a pretty awesome chareidi women-only musical production, you go to the annual Tzir Chemed benefit play in Jerusalem. This year they sold out about 6,000 seats for six showings, and they are hitting Belgium and London with their road show. Because they’re that good. (Full disclosure: my sister-in-law is a director.)
When I was in seminary, my sister-in-law had a small part in their production of “Olivia with a Twist,” so, even though I had never willingly been to a frum play in my life, I went with a bunch of classmates.
I was impressed by many things about the production: their use of the limitations of the stage, the authenticity of their costumes, and, my favorite, the way they spun Fagin as the Carmen Sandiego of London, including some sly references to the old DOS computer game. (Nostalgia!)
Part of the last bit was a dance in which Fagin (in trenchcoat and fedora) leads a shadowy gang of criminals through London. It was a breathtaking, truly professional dance, complete with the requisite Carmen Sandiego silhouette cameo moments.
On the bus home, we reviewed our favorite moments. We kept coming back to the dance, which had impressed us so much. It was not your typical bais Yaakov play dance. It was just a different level of dance. It was beyond anything you’d expect from a frum choreographer.
A few days later, via the gossip grapevine, we heard that the play had come under fire from the chareidi tastemakers – because of that dance. Immediately, debate raged in our group about what made it objectionable.
“It was just too good,” argued one friend. “Frum productions aren’t that good.”
“It was the music,” someone else suggested. “Maybe it was too dark and heavy.”
We argued for a week. Then, somehow, we wound up in the office of a nearby seminary with some girls I didn’t know watching a bootleg DVD of the dance. We’d watch it once, rewind, and watch again, arguing the entire time about what was wrong with it.
“There!” someone shouted, freezing the screen. “Right there! See how she moves her shoulder like that? It’s not tznius.”
We rewound and watched the shoulder-wiggle half a dozen times, trying to see that half-second move condemning the entire play.
“It’s the police siren at the end. Sirens are like, a rap music thing.”
“It’s the glorification of crime. That’s not a frum ideal.”
And finally, after about thirty minutes of rewinding: “Why are we watching this over and over again if it’s banned? It’s obviously not appropriate. We just have too much timtum halev to realize why.”
Anyway: The choreographer quit the production team in disgust, and the company was saved from being put in cherem.
Fast forward to when I’m in college, and a great secular pop musician dies. The nation mourned. My classmates argue over what his greatest works were.
“I’ve actually never heard any,” I confessed.
“WHAT?” the horror in the room was palpable. Immediately, laptops went on, YouTube was accessed, and I was sat down in front of the music video for Thriller.
And then I understood.
I understood why the dance had been so polished, and I understood why an American choreographer had slipped it into the production, and I understood why none of us aidel maidels recognized it.
What I didn’t understand was: how were those super-frum Israeli tastemakers so familiar with the works of Michael Jackson?