‘This has to be a play!’

How one young playwright brought Jewish classroom learning to the stage

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From left: 'The Attendant' team: Playwright Ilana Abusch, playwright; Sofi Boczkowski, stage manager; and Alexa Goldstein, director.

"I'm saying that you can't truly judge a tradition, or a community, unless you are a part of it," says Devorah, a lead character in The Attendant , a new play by Northwestern University senior, Ilana Zahava Abusch. In this scene, Binah, a young, female rabbinical student is interviewing Devorah, a seasoned mikvah attendant, for a podcast.

In the winter of 2021, Northwestern students were still living most of their lives on Zoom. Classes had lost the social element that had always been such a fundamental piece of the college experience. Friendships were hard to cultivate; professors felt distant. In response, Northwestern Hillel invested in cohort learning experiences, giving students opportunities to connect, share, and explore topics that matter to them. 

Expanding on its successful Jewish Learning Fellowship program, Northwestern Hillel offered a seminar called Sex, Love, and Relationships. This 8-week conversation-based seminar was co-facilitated by Campus Rabbi Jessica Lott, Engagement Associate Emily Resnik, and Abusch, then a 3rd-year theater major. The three of us tailored Hillel International's curriculum to the concerns of Northwestern students living in a pandemic.

One session focused on navigating distance in relationships, using the Jewish practice of nidah to talk about balancing physical and emotional intimacy. In traditional Judaism, the laws of nidah stipulate that when a woman is menstruating, she cannot touch her husband until her period is over and she has visited the mikvah (ritual bath). Lott described to her co-facilitators a program that trains mikvah attendants to identify signs of domestic violence--an effort motivated by the fact that those observant women who regularly use the mikvah also typically dress in modest clothing that could potentially keep evidence of physical abuse otherwise hidden. This conversation sparked something in Abusch. Between the theatricality of the mikvah itself and her desire to celebrate the Jewish community and use art as a mode of activism, she thought "This has to be a play!"

A few months later, Abusch submitted a summary and scene to Northwestern's Jewish Theatre Ensemble for their 2022 Night of New Work--an annual staged reading of two new student-written plays. It was selected, and Abusch began turning a conversation into a play. She wanted to both center the story around Jewish perspectives, and also make it relatable to a majority non-Jewish, or Jewish but not observant, audience. As she wrote, she used materials from the Jewish Learning Fellowship curriculum as a starting point.

By the fall, Abusch had completed a first draft and brought it to students from the Jewish and theatre communities and Northwestern Hillel staff for a read-through. It was thrilling for her to hear people read her words aloud, and for Lott to see these Jewish ethical questions brought to life by a student. 

Beneath the play's important focus on domestic violence lies another question about the tension between tradition and modernity in Judaism. Binah's character is rooted in modernity; Devorah's is rooted in tradition. This conflict sparks a spiritual reckoning within them both. By immersing in each other's worlds and perspectives--as one immerses in the mikvah --they are both transformed.

In March, an eager audience of students attended the play's staged reading during Night Of New Work. The content sparked conversation among both Jewish and non-Jewish students who connected with the play's central ethical questions. Many Jewish students also saw something familiar in its Jewish humor and found hope in the possibility of connection across differences within the Jewish community. 

Abusch felt proud to bring positive Jewish representation to campus and grateful to Lott and the rest of the Hillel staff for their support. "It is not often that you get to see the impact of the little conversations you have with students," Lott told the Hillel board. "We do our work and hope that some of what we teach sinks in, so to see this question come to life in such a meaningful way has been so rewarding for me as an educator."

Ilana Zahava Abusch is a fourth-year theater major at Northwestern University and Rabbi Jessica Lott is the Campus Rabbi of Northwestern University.

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