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Play
On Yom Kippur, ten characters in synagogue, grappling with identity, meaning, repentance, forgiveness...
A contemporary Israeli-Palestinian conflict plays out against the backdrop of mythic Biblical rivalries.
Poetry
A new book of poetry with an old soul, a stunning cartography of the heart.
Memoir in poetry and prose
“Stories and poetry so captivating, powerful, wise… An extraordinary achievement!"
–Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

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The Gates are Closing

“A drama of great religious insight and nuance, Feld introduces us to a minyan of Jews and explores their meshuggas, dreams and yearnings. By the play's end we realize we have been introduced to dimensions not only of our community but of ourselves. The play reading instigated probably the most thoughtfully lively High Holyday preparation we've ever had.”
–Rabbi Lawrence Kushner


“The play is highly evocative, astute and powerful as it weaves the familiar themes of Yom Kippur through the lives of rich and engaging characters in surprising and poignant ways. The play's end (heralded by the sound of a shofar) left our congregation breathless.”
–Rabbi Justin S. David



How to present the play
The play is most frequently presented as a reading by congregants. To mount a reading, first identify a congregant or staff member with some theatre experience who will direct; then cast the parts by putting out a call to the congregation or inviting particular congregants to participate. Two run-through rehearsals are adequate. A benefit of casting congregants is that they enjoy an opportunity for a more intense exploration of the themes of the play; it also then tends to attract a larger audience—friends and family of each of the ten cast members are eager to come and lend support.

In general, the play reading helps to foster deeper feelings of community. Consider getting the local paper to do a story on the reading before or after the fact as a way of attracting community-wide attention and as outreach for potential new members. (A sample press release is available as are suggestions for running a post-performance discussion.)


The play’s structure
The action takes place October 1985 in a synagogue on Yom Kippur. Monologues and dialogues by characters form the heart of the play; these are interspersed with "the congregation" of characters enacting special parts of the service—essentially midrashic renderings of the highlights of Yom Kippur themes. The play is written so that assimilated Jews or non-Jews will understand and fully relate to what's going on, but the more you know, the richer your experience of the play will be.


Character breakdown
-Murray, an engineer in the throes of midlife emptiness;
-Jonah, Murray's son, a med student questioning his difficult calling;
-Mindy, an almost-bat mitzvah caught between Orthodox grandparents and a mother who is a convert;
-Shimon, a well-to-do Israeli who has settled in America and wrestles with his guilt;
-Joan, a single social worker struggling to balance her professional and her personal life;
-Becky, a rabbi's wife caught in a crisis of faith;
-Emily, the daughter of Holocaust survivors;
-Miriam and Aaron, an orphaned brother and sister, questioning and avoiding the relationship;
-Jake, the rabbi, working hard.

Note: though the parts are written for five men, four women and a 12 year old girl, in the tradition of play readings there is great flexibility in casting. Most important is simply to have good readers—with intelligence and feeling they will be able to bring these characters to life.


from The Gates are Closing

JAKE

The concluding morning prayers begin with Hineni. Hineni – “Here I am.” The cantor supplicates: “Here I am God, imperfect. Here I am God, unworthy. I stand before you as representative of these people. Do not condemn them for my sins, but hear my prayers, and theirs – hear us, forgive us, and bless us with life and peace.”

MURRAY comes downstage. He looks “nice,” ordinary, early 50s, maybe balding, a bit overweight…


MURRAY

Life is funny. When I was Jonah’s age, and they first asked me to be cantor here for the holidays, it was easy. I had the voice, I knew the prayers… I was just a kid, but they needed a cantor – in those days they had no money to hire one – so I did it.

pause, thoughtful

I would sing – and tremble… my kishkes, my guts – everything was in it. I never thought of it as “work.” I thought, oh work, work is something grownup, boring. And no one helped me. Everyone said, “Murray, being a cantor… is not… a profession… It’s… old men do it… or you volunteer – for Yom Kippur. A cantor is not a profession. An engineer – that’s a profession. From that you’ll make a living. But a hazan – no.”

pause

Now I see – a profession wasn’t what I needed. Now I see… When I was in high school, I had this incredible voice, so the old hazan trained me – to do parts of the service. I’d never had moments like that. I just wanted to live in those moments, to stretch them out. Such a different place – not basketball, not television, not pawing some girl in the movies. I was in a different world, and I wanted to stay there. It was what I was meant to do. But I didn’t know that. I thought – to be an engineer – a professional – I have success in my hands…

It’s not so bad… But every Yom Kippur, this gets harder to do. Peel off the layers of shmutz. I feel sick – I think – this year I won’t be able to do it. I’ll open my mouth and –

I stand next to that shining boy the old hazan trained – I feel so dirty. I tell myself, “Murray, this is crazy! You don’t lead a sinful life. You lead an ordinary life. Ordinary.

pause

But how do I cut through the dead skin, this thick calloused skin, to see if there’s something – light, quivering – deep inside, something – luminescent. Every year, I take my hand, I reach into my gut, I want to pull out something pure, an offering to God. To say – Murray Liebman is still alive, he’s still alive down here, he’s looking for You!

But I reach inside and I’m scared – is there anybody there? “Hello in there, is anybody home? Is anybody home?” They blow the shofar, and I think – is anybody home in there? The real me is getting smaller as I get older. The real me is getting little with a high-pitched voice and how can a hazan have a little high-pitched voice?

And there’s this other person, who keeps getting bigger – he’s taken over – he’s in the driver’s seat. He’s the one who goes to the meetings, and flies first class – the engineer, the big consultant – he’s the one who gives the secretaries all the work to do, he’s the one, who know, goes out to lunch with the guys – yeah, with the guys – goes out to lunch with the guys…

But the Murray, who’s all the way inside, Murray the one-a-year-part-time-hazan – he has no one to talk to. There’s no one to check up on him – like I used to do with my mother – I’d call in the morning, or go on the weekend – check up – was she still there? Did she die in her sleep? There’s no one to check up on him… Once a year, I go looking – is that Murray… still there?

MURRAY sings the beginning of the Hineni prayer… prayer fades…

© Merle Feld 1986 All rights reserved.