Naomi Ragen is an acclaimed novelist, who wrote and produced this play set in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family and community. Women’s Minyan is about Chana, a married mother of twelve, who leaves her home and family. Two years after she leaves, the play opens as Chana comes back to see her children.
But the situation is fraught with drama. Chana’s older daughters, her mother, sister, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law all believe she left of her own accord. In fact, the entire community has gossiped about her, officially shunned her, and called her horrible names. But, like practically all family stories, there’s more complexity below the surface.
Through her characters and staging, Ragen explains some aspects of this community. For example, a minyan is a group of ten men comprising a congregation, authority, or decision-making body. Titling the play Women’s Minyan is “meant to be ironic and defiant,” because a minyan is never made up of men. However, in this play Ragen creates one to listen to Chana’s truth.
I think Ragen sums up my conclusions best:
“… religion is used to grind down a person’s sense of self-worth, leaving them open to manipulation and recruitment into the faceless ranks of unquestioning followers, who don’t dare question their charismatic leaders.“ (ebook, loc. 56)
The women in this story are all victims of this closed and restrictive religion. But not all of them see it that way, and fight for their beliefs. Others are more open to Chana’s story.
Ragen delves in the community structure, its effects, and also the way it affects the women’s relationships. Instead of preaching, she uses the story to explain what young and old women experience in this patriarchal society.
I’m fascinated by religious communities, especially those that close themselves off from most modern beliefs. While ultra-Orthodox Judaism isn’t a cult, the mind control here seems no less powerful. My heart breaks for Chana, but also for the rest of the cast.
If you’re looking for a short but intense play about women, by a woman, this is a thought-provoking pick.