Playwright and lyricist Barbara Bellman was translating poetry for her master’s degree in fine arts at American University when she stumbled across the story of Raquel Liberman, a 20th-century Polish Jewish immigrant who fled to Argentina to start a new life for her family and turned to prostitution after her husband’s death.
Bellman, a Philadelphia native, was translating the works of Ukrainian screenwriter César Tiempo, who published a handful of poems under a persona of a young woman who was a victim of human trafficking by the Zwi Migdal, a Polish white-slavery network.
By writing the poems, Tiempo wanted, in part, to expose the Zwi Migdal and to share the stories of the exploited women, Liberman included. Liberman went on to testify against the network in court and is partially responsible for the group dismantling.
Bellman was fascinated with her story. Similarly to Tiempo, she wanted to tell the story of the endurance of a Jewish woman who, against all odds, triumphed over her oppressors.
“It’s not so much that I found it, but it found me, and it hasn’t let go,” Bellman said.
Bellman’s upcoming musical “Bordello” is inspired by Liberman’s story, and the Doña Grazia Hadassah chapter will preview it on Oct. 3 at 11 a.m. at the Union League of Philadelphia.
The Hadassah fundraising event will feature six musicians, six singers and 10 songs from the musical, performed in front of a 300-person audience.
“This musical is such a powerful story that the hundreds of people that are going to be at the Union League, hopefully, will walk away not only entertained but proud of the history of the Jewish community,” said Elaine Grobman, a Doña Grazia Hadassah member and event co-organizer.
The “Bordello” preview event is not only an opportunity to raise funds for the Hadassah chapter but to recruit and invite new members.
“We’re also celebrating the fact that we are in-person once again,” said Bonnie Freundlich, the chapter’s founding president, who co-organized the event with Grobman and former chapter president Lisa Eizen.
“Bordello” has been a decade in the making, conceived in 2011 as Bellman’s master’s thesis project.
Alongside Argentine composer and arranger Emiliano Messiez, Bellman composed “Bordello” with its Argentinian setting in mind, combining tango choreography and music with the Ashkenazi klezmer roots of Liberman and her family, likewise blending Messiez’s knowledge of Latin American music with her own musical theater background.
“It has been a dream collaboration,” Bellman said. “It was meant to be.”
After earning her MFA in creative writing and completing the New York University graduate musical theatre writing program, Bellman traveled to Buenos Aires, where “Bordello” takes place, hiring a journalist to accompany her to Argentina’s national archives to learn more about Liberman and a translator to help read through the documents she found there. She also met with Tiempo’s son, who wrote Tiempo’s biography.
“Bordello” is not yet complete, though it is fully written and composed. After the Hadassah event, Bellman and Messiez will continue to workshop the musical, conducting table reads and tryouts before doing a first-class production of the show in London before its U.S. debut.
Bellman and Messiez — with the support of producer David Treatman — hope to one day develop the show for Broadway.
In the meantime, Bellman is happy to share “Bordello” with the Greater Philadelphia Jewish community, saying that the musical tackles a timely topic of human trafficking that is still ongoing. She hopes people will walk away with a deeper understanding of the difficult choices women have to make when placed in difficult circumstances.
Freundlich agrees and believes that sharing the story of Liberman with a larger audience is consistent with Hadassah’s tradition of embracing “brave Jewish women who stick their heads above the fray and try to make a difference.”
Grobman, who has known Bellman for more than 12 years, believes that it’s the perfect time to share Bellman’s musical and the story of Liberman with the Hadassah community, rekindling connections after more than 18 months apart.
“The message is: We will survive, whether it’s a pandemic, whether it’s persecution,” Grobman said. “We are strong; we are Jews; we are women, and we continue to make a difference.”
In addition to performances from “Bordello,” the event includes brunch and opportunities to participate in an auction.
Tickets are $100 for nonmembers and $85 for members and are available at bit.ly/3iUqcM6. The Union League requires all staff and attendees to be vaccinated. Guests are required to show proof of vaccination upon entry.
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