Taliah Performing Arts Center (Taliah PAC), the first all-female performing arts center in New York, recently opened in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. The founder, Tamar Reich, is an Orthodox Jew. Many Orthodox Jews observe kol isha, the belief that men should not listen to women’s singing voices. I sat down with the vivacious and passionate Reich to hear more about this unique place and what it can offer women.
Tell me about your background and how it led you to found Taliah.
I grew up as a dancer in Israel, and came to the U.S. after serving in the Israeli army. For years I was just scraping by, trying to act as well as dance. I got a wonderful opportunity to star in a play called Hopscotch, which is a very sexual play, a lot of intimate physical contact onstage.
However, by that time, I had gotten engaged to my husband, and chose to be a more observant Jew, which included restricting my physical contact with men to only one person: my husband. I had to choose between my faith and my passion for performing, and I ended up leaving that play. Now it’s three years later, and I’ve been dreaming of a space like Taliah for a long time, that would allow women, Orthodox Jews or not, to gather, learn, and perform together.
Why do you think a women-only performance space important?
Acting in particular is not a forgiving business if you have principles. You are labeled “the difficult one” if you have any limitations. Nowadays that means nudity and sexuality, oftentimes in ways that are demeaning or exploitative to women. I hope we can provide an alternative to that environment.
As a mother, I believe women need an outlet. We need our own separate space to be creative and do something for ourselves. I have kids, I want to be a good parent, but that means I can’t be with them always. I need my corner, just for me, so I can have the patience that they deserve.
I also want Taliah to show my daughter that there are no limitations for her, even as a woman, even being raised as an Orthodox Jew.
How do women behave differently in a single-sex studio?
After two babies, even as a trained performer, I would be more self-conscious going to the Broadway Dance Center – many women feel much more vulnerable with a mixed-gender group, whereas with women they have so many fewer inhibitions. Women who have never taken a dance class are becoming belly dancers, and are so proud of that fact. They are so excited to get in touch with their bodies for the first time.
Do you consider Taliah a feminist institution?
Absolutely, but it’s a soft form of feminism. Sometimes feminism leads women to only project strength and independence, and that becomes a kind of weakness, because we don’t allow for a femininity that is balanced with openness, warmth, and vulnerability. At Taliah we are feminists because we support women’s creative spirit and abilities, and we support one another to have the strength to make ourselves vulnerable.
We also want to have showcases of female writers, artists, and performers, to help women get experience and leverage for their careers. It can be so hard to get a chance to direct or perform and build your resume, so if Taliah can give talented women a stage to get a start in the business, that would be ideal.
As a performer, your body is your instrument. How did becoming “shomer negiyah” [limiting one’s contact with the opposite sex to one’s spouse] affect you as an actress?
If anything, I am way more comfortable with myself, more malleable, more open. These are all important qualities for an actress! And my self-presentation is my own choice – if I’m sexy, I’m sexy for myself.
But it’s true that when you’re performing with your body, it can be very hard to separate yourself from the intimacy happening on stage. That’s why I had to quit that first play I mentioned, because I realized that even if consciously nothing was going to happen, the parts of myself I was bringing to that intimate, sexual role felt dangerous to share. It wasn’t worth risking my connection with my soulmate to share that part of myself.
There’s an ongoing debate about whether “modesty” in dress, particularly, can be reclaimed by women rather than having restrictions imposed by their religion or culture. What kind of role does a place like Taliah have in that conversation?
First of all, there’s no dress code at Taliah, so no one is required to be modest. I personally believe there’s something empowering about not having to show yourself completely, but I also don’t like having anything imposed on me. Owning your appearance and not conforming to social expectations are truly empowering.
You mentioned serving in the Israeli Army, which is known to be very gender-integrated. How did that experience affect your understanding of gender and physical power?
I was a Krav Maga instructor, and it’s interesting, as a dancer I was already trained to pay attention to my body and react instinctually. That’s what Krav Maga is all about, using your instincts for safety. I would train male soldiers in Krav Maga, because my body was already primed for that kind of mind-body discipline.
What’s your vision for Taliah in the future?
I want nothing less than a state of the art facility for our women. I want multiple levels of dance instruction, from pre-ballet to a highly trained contemporary dance troupe. Most of all, our population should draw from every kind of woman, from local neighborhood residents to actresses who are now raising families to Orthodox Jewish women.