Theater Chat: Yael Rasooly

Philadelphia Jewish Voice

Wed Sep 21, 2011 at 09:27:25 AM EDT

By Hannah Lee

I met Yael Rasooly through her creative work, when she performed “Paper Cut” at the Philly Fringe Festival.  In my interview with her, I learned that she’d been given the “Award for Excellence for a Solo Show,” by the New York Fringe Festival, so she was invited for five additional encore performances, before heading to France.  It was reviewed in the New York Times: “one of those artfully quirky solo performances that make the New York International Fringe Festival worth checking out.”  The Philly Fringe Festival advertised it: “A lonely secretary escapes into a world of daydreams where she is a glamorous 1940’s movie star.  Black-and-white cinema is transformed to the universe of paper cut-outs and object theater, creating a tension that is absurb, painful, and humorous.

Courtesy of Yael Rasooly

Staged in a spare, un-air-conditioned space at the multi-purpose Media Bureau Networks in the Northern Liberties neighborhood, “Paper Cut” was delightfully different from mainstream theater, from its creator and solo performer sharpening pencils while waiting for audience members to its mixture of theatrical techniques of puppetry, pop-up books, and film noire mood lighting.   In case you catch the show elsewhere, it is suitable for a general family audience, albeit with a fatal scene with a tea bag.

The show started as a 25-minute piece for the Jerusalem International Puppetry Festival.  She’d met her co-writer, Lior Lerman, while both were students at the School of Visual Arts in Jerusalem.  Rasooly’s strengths were in directing and puppetry while Lerman’s talent was as video artist and graphic designer, and also, “amazing writer.”  After graduation in 2007, Rasooly was working in Europe where she longed to create a big production that would pay homage to film noire and the acclaimed director of suspense and psychological thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock.  She admired the esthetic, the dramatic story lines but she also wanted to focus on the shift from the “sweet and fun” to the dark.  However, there was no funding for big productions and she had no rehearsal studio or workshop.

While researching her dream, she started collecting images and books about the 1930’s movie stars.  Rasooly was trained in classical singing — liturgical music and opera — and later discovered jazz of the early period.  She is “very connected to this time period.”  She then proceeded to make a model of the stage as part of her portfolio.  Around this time, she attended a workshop where the participants were required to stage a show with only one-hour’s preparation.  She had never worked with paper before, but it was a way to work with “dialogue in the language of cinema in a low-tech way.”  She asked herself, “How to do a long shot (a film-making term about placement of a figure or object within its surroundings)?  What are the many abuses for paper?”  The premiere of the full-length version was in Fall of 2010 at the International Adult Puppetry Festival of Pecs, Hungary, but Rasooly is constantly changing it.  “The more I play with it, the more I understand the show” and unexpected things still come out.  The song cycle in which Rasooly showed her vocal gifts was added after several tours when she felt the show “needed a moment of emotional heft, a kick” that would offer a “glimpse into this woman’s [psyche] about the loss she’s coming to terms with.”  Rasooly asked herself, “What happens when fantasy meets with reality?”

“Paper Cut” was created in English and is performed that way, even in Israel.  Rasooly sought out her English-speaking actor friends to record the voices of the other characters not seen on stage.  Her next tour will be in France for the premiere of her show in French (not a native tongue) and she credits her skill in mimicry to her classical music training.

She feared music limiting her, as she is basically a storyteller and she wanted to create her own story.  An early inspiration was Julie Taymor, the American director of theater, opera, and film.  Taymor had gone to Paris to study with L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq and there became exposed to mime.   Her muse managed to balance “an individual voice but tap into the mainstream.”   Now, when Rasooly is approached by neophytes, as she was at the New York Fringe Festival, she advises them to save their money and go study in Europe, where there is a tradition of puppetry, a multitude of festivals, and funding more plentiful than elsewhere.  Rasooly herself discovered the breadth of puppetry when, at age 19, she spent 10 days at the Festival Mondial des Théâtres de Marionnettes in Charleville-Mézières, France and met the grand masters there.

Outside of Europe, people have a limited view of puppetry.  However, during her stay in Philadelphia, she got to lecture at the University of the Arts and Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA, courtesy of the energetic promotion of Deborah Baer Mozes, the cultural attaché of the Israeli Consulate, which co-sponsored Rasooly’s local performances along with Theatre Ariel and Media Bureau Networks.  Her audience was “so attentive and so smart.”  When Rasooly asked the students what did they know about puppetry, they were able to cite Avenue Q, Lion King, and War Horse – all Broadway audience pleasers — but one person was also able to name the incredible puppetry scene (in the classic marionette style) from the 1999 film, Being John Malkovich.  Learning about puppetry for the first time is like “discovering modern dance” after knowing only ballet.

Rasooly had also studied theater design in London and she fretted that so many talented artists are never given “the chance to input their own language.”  She despaired that “it would take a miracle to get her own voice.” Puppetry involves working under difficult conditions but the puppeteer is free and independent and Rasooly can travel with her own creations.  Touring the world, she gets to meet many artists and attend many performances.  She herself is most interested in the modern approach in which the puppeteer interacts with the audience and is not confined to the background, dressed in black.

Rasooly claimed she was very fortunate to perform in Philadelphia — “the most beautiful experience” — and she loved the venue, Benjamin Barnett’s multi-storied and multi-functional studio space.  For “Paper Cut,” they transformed the cavernous first floor into an intimate space, more suitable for Rasooly’s solo show.  (Although, she’s also slated to perform before an audience of 200-300 in India next February.)  Writing for herself means “never having to sit by a phone and wait to be casted.”  Performing solo is just fine with Rasooly, who delights in not having to “round up 15 actors for King Lear,”  and she can carry all of her props in one suitcase.

Courtesy of Yael Rasooly

How has being Israeli helped form her artistic self?  Her family had temporarily relocated to Toronto for 3-1/2 years where it was a great shock because she knew no English and the snow was higher than her own self.  But, she was privileged to attend for one year, the Claude Watson School for the Arts, where half the day was spent on academic subjects and the remaining time was free for the creative arts.  When Rasooly’s family returned to Israel, it was another traumatic experience, for she was ten and fluent in English, but unable to read in Hebrew.  For many years, she was the polite Canadian, who did not fit in. This dual reality has remained with her, denying her of a sense of home.  Rasooly has finally come to terms with living in Israel and to even appreciate it, especially once she discovered the School of Visual Theater where she spent four wonderful years.  Israel is where her family and friends are and there is a very vibrant fringe scene there and some amazing creativity.  However, she also realized early on that she cannot survive in Israel financially —  with two standing shows a month, she still only breaks even — so she goes willingly on tours.

Of the four siblings, Rasooly’s sister is also a professional artist; Maya Rasooly lives in Germany where she has a successful career as a violist.  Her elder brother is in business in China and her younger brother is now serving his Army stint.  Both of her parents are physicians who have a talent for art.  Her father, whose rabbinical ancestors lived in Iraq, plays the violin and her mother, also raised secular but of Orthodox descent, is a pianist and a painter.  They encouraged Rasooly to study medicine.  They were afraid of a life in the arts and when Rasooly finished school, she also didn’t know what the future would hold for her.  But, they’d believed in her by investing in her education.  Is her new success reassuring to her family?  A year ago, she started presenting herself with more confidence and that has helped.  After “being worried for a very long time,” she is now booked for a very long time.  She says it’s important not to be swayed by the desire to be successful, that it’s better “to have the pleasure of creation.”


Creating Community, Part 1: The New Digital Connection

This series will explore some of the ways that Jews have created a sense of kehillah (community), both traditional and modern.  Part 1 will focus on a contemporary approach; in future articles, I will explore the traditional method of hospitality; a focus on Chabad, a group of Jews with phenomenal outreach as well as integral cohesion; and how one religious institution, Lower Merion Synagogue, has managed to send so many of its youth to make aliyah (immigration to Israel), and even to serve in Tzahal (the Israeli Army).

In June 2007, I launched the LMShuls list-serve for the Orthodox community of Lower Merion.  It was immediately embraced and, as of this writing, there are 1,195 subscribers.   No, there are not that many shomer-mitzvot Jews even if we are more identifiable by our festive garb on Shabbat and Yom Tov (the Jewish holy days).

The popularity stems from the list-serve’s ability to forge a new sense of connectedness, so now we have subscribers — both Orthodox and otherwise — who live in Cherry Hill, Elkins Park (which recently launched its own list-serve) and Northeast Philly.  We even have non-Jewish subscribers who’d heard about this free service from their Jewish friends and neighbors as a great way to publicize their intent to sell their home.

Several years ago, there was an attempt to create a city-wide directory of Jews and Jewish services, but it was costly to publish and it was quickly out-dated.  A list-serve is uploaded quickly — as quick as the attention of my webmaster,  Eitan Dvir — and it can be read instantaneously or in a Daily Digest format (which I recommend unless you have a terrific thirst to find out the latest real-estate scoop).  So, what is a list-serve?  I think of it as an electronic bulletin board which is monitored.

What are our guidelines?

From our webpage, our policy is clearly stated:

  • Always appropriate: community events in Lower Merion; notices of institutional news and events; events of interest to members and non-members; shiva (week-long period of grief and mourning) notices; community blood drives.
  • Generally appropriate: houses/apartments for sale or rent  in Lower Merion and Philadelphia; cars for sale; Lower Merion business events; Lower Merion garage sales; lost and found; parlor meeting in private residences; information about sports leagues; housekeeper/maid inquiries; rides to a funeral/carpool requests; Lower Merion playgroup inquiries; job postings; backyard camps; babysitting.
  • Never appropriate: jokes; offensive or disparaging e-mails; lashon harah (gossip); posting for an event whose kashrut (kosher certification) is not acceptable to the Orthodox community; and views, opinions, and political news.

Since becoming the Webmaster, Eitan has not become the local celebrity, although he and I get approached by neophyte users, usually the older, less technically savvy members,  about sending and receiving posts.  No, I do not want to get your desperate appeals while I’m driving, so my daughter knows not to give out my cell phone number.  Eitan scans every proposed entry during mental breaks from his day job as founder of for web development and Search Engine Optimization (what Netflix uses to tell you what other movies you would enjoy!).  Even with the public guidelines, Eitan estimates that about 50% of the submitted entries are not acceptable and another 25% of the submissions need additional information.  As Coordinator, I have the less time-intensive but dubiously more enjoyable task of being Enforcer of our policy.  Since I have chosen the Daily Digest format, I receive the posts the next day, about 5 am, and, if need be, I chase the culprit down by e-mail (environmentally, with no high-speed car chases) and remind them, gently, not to abuse the sensibilities of our subscription base.

I first heard about a community list-serve from the Teaneck Jewish community, where a rotation of five web monitors serve a subscriber base of 50,000 (tally supplied by Eitan).  Eitan cut his teeth working with the Monsey list-serve where he’d lived previously.  I proposed it to the board of my shul, Lower Merion Synagogue, which approved it but has not underwritten our costs, absorbed charitably by Eitan himself.  The first month, we had only two posts, but the very next month, the tally of posts went up to 75, and since then we’ve gotten as many as 345 notices this past month of May (definitely a reason to choose Daily Digest).

What were Eitan’s most memorable posts?  He cited the one by a bachelor who offered over-ripe bananas.  Silly?  Note that the poster got 13 responses and someone retrieved the items before Shabbat.  Bakers know to freeze the ripe fruit until there’s a banana bread emergency.  Another of his favorites was the time someone’s fridge went on the fritz and wanted a temporary cooling unit and the family received four offers and got a loan two hours before Shabbat, when religious Jews cannot run to the store for more ice cream.  My favorite notice was the time an Israeli family came for a consult at CHOP (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia) and was told their child needed emergency care.  The LMShuls list-serve identified for the family an available apartment and furnished it with donated items.  Another one was by a woman who needed to send medicine to her son who was studying in yeshiva in Israel.  Several people who were flying to Israel that week agreed to be her courier, people whom she would not have known to be traveling or would agree to undertake this humanitarian mission.

What is the most frequent offense?  Spam (unsolicited electronic mass messages), including requests for tzedakah (charity).  The posts garnering the most feedback are the quirky ones, like the offer of black bananas.  An example of a quick response via this list-serve occurred recently when a woman posted a warning that “some of the ACME cookies (like chocolate chip) usually packaged as OU pareve are no longer marked as such.  There is a sign by the front display at the store– but you may want to check packages purchased.”  Jan Moskow, the Lead Mashgiach (kosher supervisor) at that store location wrote back publicly:

“Thank you for calling this to our and the community’s attention.  The bagged cookies in question were actually pulled off the display before your notice got posted.  ACME uses only one style bag for all its bakery cookies and even though there was no Kosher labeling on these bags, in addition to the non-kosher signage at the display, the Mashgichim saw the potential for confusion and had the cookies repackaged in an entirely different container.”

This is a brave new world, and you can use or abuse the new technology available to us.  Our Rabbi carries a Blackberry so that he is technically always on call, except for Shabbat and Yom Tov.  Our list-serve is available to our subscribers to reach out and connect.  This is one way we build community in Lower Merion.

Movie Chat: The Help

I went to an afternoon showing of The Help with my daughter (who was clueless) and my friend Susie (who has her own stories to tell).  The movie would be a disappointment to fans of the book, but it’s visually very lovely.  It telescoped many events, dropped some complicated incidents, and softened (for me) the emotional impact of the human tragedy.  It has some fantastic performances from lesser-known actors, both black and white, and a breakthrough serious role for Emma Stone as Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan.

My complaints?  Skeeter is too beautiful for her role as a young woman whose mother despairs of her ever getting married and her curls are managed by modern mousse.  The queen bee, Hilly Holbrook, as played by Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron Howard’s daughter) is too beautiful and svelte, compared to the description in the novel.  Constantine, Skeeter’s nursemaid is too old, but wonderfully acted by Cicely Tyson.  The “white trash” bride Celia Foote is not vulgar enough in the fancy ballroom scene.  And Elaine Stein, the Jewish New York editor, is too smooth-faced and attractive (I imagined her being more masculine and angular).

Furthermore, Constantine’s daughter, Lulabelle, is too dark, in a confusing switch from the novel, in which she was considered “too high yellow,” (meaning, looking white) to stay in the South, so Constantine sent her up North in Chicago to be raised in an orphanage.  She grew up empowered by the Black Panther movement, returns to visit her mother, and brazenly walks into a meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution at the Phelan plantation as if she’s a member or guest.  Her mother is abruptly fired after 29 years of employment and having raised Skeeter.

The messiness of politics and political campaigns was dropped.

But, most crucial was the decision to end the movie before the novel does.

Spoiler alert: The viewer does not know that Skeeter’s mother does die of cancer, so she’s released to move to New York to take the job at Harper & Row offered by Elaine Stein.  And she arranges for Aibileen Clark to take over her column on housekeeping tips, a racial breakthrough in publishing.  The novel is more hopeful, but the film leaves the viewer in suspense about their future.

The Locavore Movement and the Religious Jew

My favorite non-fiction book in 2007 was Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, written with her biologist husband, Steven Hopp, and their two children about their experiment in growing all of their food on their own land in rural southwest Virginia.  It also powered the growth of the locavore movement.  I found the memoir fascinating in its intelligence, its honesty (mistakes were made!) and the family’s sense of humor. My favorite anecdote was when Kingsolver quipped to her friends that when you’re ranked as “number 74 (on a Doomsday author’s book about the dangers of 100 people who were destroying America), you try harder,” as she endeavored to eviscerate a turkey.

In Wednesday’s New York Times (its Dining section being the highlight of the week for me), readers learned what the family has been doing since their milestone year.  They wanted to expand the lessons learned to their blue-collar, Appalachian community.  First, they contemplated creating a year-round farmers’ market but the growing season is short.  So, Hopp decided that a restaurant would be more viable, one in which the produce, meat and cheese would be sourced locally.  As reported by Jane Black, “Coffee and tea would be allowed because they are dried, but they should be organic, fair trade or both.”

How has the Harvest Table, as Hopp’s restaurant is named, fared since it was launched in October 2007?   It’s been difficult, and they have yet to make a profit.  This isn’t a “progressive, urban enclave” such as exists in Brooklyn or Berkeley, so most of their neighbors have not even bothered to step in, thinking the meal would be too expensive.  As for attempts to reaching beyond the choir (of like-minded folks), you first have to get them in the door.  And the labels, “farm fresh,” “organic” and “local” do not muster the excitement they do in urban communities where entrepreneurs (food impresarios, I call them) charge up to $200 for a dinner served in the fields (as I heard reported on NPR last week).  So, they keep the prices low (comparable to Applebee’s though the reporter noted that the portions are larger in the chain restaurants) and the profile humble, the opposite of the marketer’s urge to scale up in sophistication.  Black gives an example: “What might be called “fennel pasta with pecans” in Brooklyn and served with a detailed description of the vegetable provenance, is “pasta primavera” here.

But Hopp’s quote that hit me personally was this: “We are always trying to figure out how to educate people more, but with the recognition that most people don’t want a lecture.”  I’ve just returned from a visit with my daughter in Chicago, where I stayed in the lovely home of a young couple found through the Airbnb lodging-rentals website.  My host was a New Zealander (with an American wife) and he’d never  met a religious Jew before.  He was curious about some tenets of the Jewish faith.  So, do we give the short, flippant answer or do we attempt the more thoughtful and accurate explanation but risk losing our audience?  My daughter has been through the cauldron of fire before when we transferred her from a religious high school to our local acclaimed public high school (the beloved alma mater of basketball star Koby Bryant) and it was during the social studies freshman unit on the Middle East and she was called upon to explain all of Jewish past, present, and future.  Trying to educate and defend Israeli politics is a challenge far beyond most 14-year-olds.  But, she did engage her peers and she’s matured into a thinking, articulate adult.

So, we found ourselves having a more engaged conversation about faith and ritual with our host than is encountered at the usual Shabbat table.  What struck me anew is that every Jew must conduct herself as a diplomat, a model representative of her people (forgive my use of the distaff (feminine) possessive pronoun).   The people you encounter may not have ever met another earnest, committed Jew before.  You may have this one opportunity to give them not only a positive impression of Yiddishkeit (Jewishness), but you may also have the privilege and challenge to un-do and clarify erroneous impressions conveyed by others, who were less careful, less knowledgeable, less sophisticated.  Would you pass your test?  This may have been our test for The Three Weeks of introspection as we Jews head towards Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, which falls on August 8th this year.