This Theater Performance Groups Aims To Raise Awareness, Reduce Stigma Of Infertility
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This Theater Performance Groups Aims To Raise Awareness, Reduce Stigma Of Infertility

Performance piece intended to ‘amplify’ communal questions around fertility struggles and support.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers trends among youth and millennials, progress and pushback in the Orthodox world, women's issues, the Jewish LGBTQ community and Reform and Conservative Jewish life. She also heads the Investigative Journalism Fund, a special project of the Jewish Week to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting, and 36 Under 36, an annual special issue profiling 36 exceptional young leaders. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

A rehearsal of “TRYmester: Jewish Fertility Journeys Out Loud,” part of The In[heir]itance Project, a theater company that draws inspiration from Jewish themes. Photos courtesy of Uprooted
A rehearsal of “TRYmester: Jewish Fertility Journeys Out Loud,” part of The In[heir]itance Project, a theater company that draws inspiration from Jewish themes. Photos courtesy of Uprooted

A choreographed dance is set to the rhythmic tones of a ticking clock.

For those experiencing infertility, the sound is all too familiar.

“TRYmester: Jewish Fertility Journeys Out Loud” is a theater performance that uses song, dance and monologue to highlight the fertility challenges of people in the New York Jewish community. Developed by Uprooted, a nonprofit created to support those struggling with infertility, and The In[heir]itance Project, a theater company that draws inspiration from Jewish themes, the performance is set to premiere next month at JCCs in Manhattan, Westchester and Long Island.

“When it comes to confronting truths about fertility challenges, so much goes unspoken,” said Naomi Less, vice president and co-founder of Uprooted. A Jewish musician and one of the founding ritual leaders of Lab/Shul, an experimental pop-up synagogue that integrates theater into the service, she brings a rich professional background to the project — in addition to her own tumultuous, seven-year fertility journey.

“The impatience, the hope, the grief, the anger — the emotional rollercoaster that accompanies fertility struggles rocked me to the core,” said Less, whose daughter was born last October on Shabbat Bereshit, the Shabbat of creation, she noted.

Capturing a piece of the experience through performance “has the potential to crack something open in your heart that you didn’t even know was there.”

“When it comes to confronting truths about fertility challenges, so much goes unspoken.”

The performance, divided into three acts to represent the three trimesters of a full-term pregnancy, is supported by UJA-Federation of New York as part of the organization’s new focus on creating awareness and battling stigma surrounding fertility challenges. In 2016, UJA-Federation partnered with Uprooted to “figure out our unique role in this space,” said Shana Bloom, the staff representative leading the Fertility Journeys’ Committee.

“TRYmester” is one of the organization’s first forays into performance art as a means of raising awareness, said Bloom. (Witness Theater, staged performances of the stories of Holocaust survivors, is the most comparable recent initiative, she said.)

“Performance art provides a different modality for people existing on the margins of our communities,” said Bloom.

In[heir]itance co-founder and script writer John Adam Ross spoke of the performance’s unique creation process. His theater company specializes in “devised theater,” a method of performance-creation in which the script is collaborative and dynamic.

“We don’t start with a script — we start with questions,” said Ross, who interviewed several Jewish families in the New York area struggling with fertility. “What external pressures do you face?” “Do you have a story about racing time?” and “When do you feel most alone?” were some of the questions that kicked off the conversation.

“My job is to put the stories into a blender and come out on the other end with a beautiful piece of art,” said Ross. The purpose, he said, is not to answer the questions, but to “amplify” the questions.

“We want to inspire the community to answer the questions,” he said.

“Performance art provides a different modality for people existing on the margins of our communities.”

For members of more progressive Jewish circles, the experience of fertility challenges can be especially isolating, said Less, who was raised in a strongly Conservative home.

“The Orthodox community seems to take care of its own,” she said, referencing various organizations within the Orthodox community that provide financial support to those struggling with fertility.

Meanwhile, those outside of that segment of the community have until recently “been largely ignored,” she said.

“The focus [of the organized Jewish community] is on getting families to participate in Jewish life — once they have kids,” she said. “Then it’s all about the day schools and the preschools and the JCC camps.” Those struggling to create a family, quieted by stigma — and often saddled with major expenses for treatment — largely remain on the sidelines of engagement efforts.

Seeing young children called up to the bima in the synagogue on the High Holy Days “is like sticking a knife in your heart for someone who is infertile,” Less said.

In addition, less traditional Jews tend to marry later and attempt to start a family at a later stage of life.

“I didn’t start trying to have a baby until I was 36,” said Less. That said, the essential biblical call to “be fruitful and multiply” was not lost on her. “Family-building is an essential part of Jewish tradition and Jewish community, no matter where you fall on the denominational spectrum.”

Indeed, the “TRYmester” performance is meant to reach beyond those experiencing infertility.

“The performance is meant to inform those who otherwise might remain oblivious to challenges faced by a couple undergoing fertility treatments.”

“It’s like the ‘Sesame Street’ song, ‘These are the people in your neighborhood,’” said Ross. “The performance is meant to inform those who otherwise might remain oblivious to challenges faced by a couple undergoing fertility treatments.”

And, while fertility is the focus, the performance’s themes are universal, he said, noting that themes like grief, reckoning, parenthood, the tension between isolation and belonging, expectations and disappointment “speak to the human experience we all share.”

According to Bloom, the performance is intended to be a “first step” in a campaign towards greater communal awareness and sensitivity surrounding infertility.

“This performance doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” she said. “It’s a springboard to support services for those struggling, to raise awareness and to reduce stigma.”

“TRYmester” will be performed on Saturday, March 3, at 8 p.m. at the Barry and Florence Friedberg Jewish Community Center, 15 Neil Court, in Oceanside, L.I.; On Sunday, March 4, at 7 p.m. at the Harold and Elaine Shames JCC on the Hudson, 371 S. Broadway, Tarrytown, N.Y., and on Wednesday, March 7, at 7:30 p.m. at JCC Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Ave. at 76th St., N.Y.. To get tickets, $18, please visit ujafedny.org/trymester. For more information, contact Shana Bloom at (212) 836-1736 or blooms@ujafedny.org.

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