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Mind Openers: Extreme Faith


By Randi Schmelzer

Published Jul 1, 2010 8:00 AM


Annika Marks stars as Bethany, the troubled protagonist of Wendy Graf's provocative new play, Behind the Gates. Photo by Ed Krieger.

Time stands still within the walls of Mea Shearim, where Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox haredi Jews live by the same centuries-old rules, rituals and customs as their European ancestors. Not exactly a go-to destination for rebellious American teenagers.

Or is it? In Behind the Gates, Los Angeles-based playwright Wendy Graf '72 urges viewers to take a closer look.

At once a mystery, cultural snapshot and coming-of-age story, Behind the Gates introduces us to Bethany, an angry 17-year-old whose drug use and reckless sexcapades mask her longing for acceptance. When Bethany's parents send her off for a summer in Israel, a chance encounter with a charismatic rabbi draws Bethany deep into a fervently Orthodox lifestyle. As her panicked parents search the streets of Jerusalem for their seemingly vanished daughter, they find themselves lost in a time warp of religious extremism, where believers — including once-resentful Bethany — are instructed what to wear, what to eat, what to do and when to do it.

Whether it's a haredi Jewish community, a Jesus Camp, the Taliban or another über-evangelical group, "religious fundamentalism provides a sense of community and identity, along with a relief of absolutes," Graf explains. "Young people are primed for that. They don't have to make any decisions."

Presented by Hatikvah Productions and directed by David Gautreaux, the intent of Behind the Gates is to encourage dialogue, she explains. "I'd like [the audience] to go across the street after the performance, have a drink and argue about it."

About one thing, however, Graf is absolutely certain: "I always write about family and faith and identity, and I always come back to that," she says. "At its heart, this is a story about a family and coming of age."

Behind the Gates. May 15–July 3. Marilyn Monroe Theatre at the Lee Strasberg Creative Center, West Hollywood. Tickets: $25. For reservations and information, call (323) 960-5772 or visit