The Conversion’s The Thing
One-woman show explores Japanese-American actress’ unlikely journey to Orthodox Judaism.
If you followed popular culture in the 1980s, Tina Horii’s face is one you may recognize. She danced in music videos, accompanying such artists as Quincy Jones, Belinda Carlisle and Steve Winwood. She spent seven years on the chorus of a blockbuster Broadway play. Yet her new play, coming to New York this week, admits only women, because Horii is now Rachel Factor, an Orthodox Jew. The play, ‘J.A.P.,’? is a one-woman exploration in song and dance of Factor’s journey from her native Honolulu to Jerusalem, where she now lives with her husband and two infant sons. And an unlikely journey it was: Factor, 36, was born to Japanese-American parents, who were, by their own definition, non-practicing Protestants. She moved to Los Angeles when she was 18 to pursue a career as a dancer and an actress.
Luck smiled on her. ‘It was the rise of the Asian theater,’? she said, referring to a brief wave in the mid-1990s in which Asian-themed productions were in vogue. Factor landed a role in one such production, a short-lived musical based on James Clavell’s epic tale of ancient Japanese culture, ‘Shogun,’? eventually working her way to the Broadway cast of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s megahit, ‘Miss Saigon.’? Still, Factor said, she felt as if something were missing. Anxious to connect with her heritage, she traveled to Japan several times and was disappointed, she said, to feel “nothing, no connection at all” to her ancestral homeland. Taking comfort in her burgeoning career, she continued to work, doing commercials and print ads and Off-Off Broadway productions of Shakespearean plays.
Then, in 2000, she met Todd Factor, a filmmaker and producer, and fell in love. The relationship quickly flourished, and soon she was presented with a decision: convert to Judaism, or part ways. Rachel Factor had no doubt as to what she should do; she must, she decided, break up with her boyfriend. A thoughtful woman, however, she decided that her reasons for breaking up must be well argued. And so, she decided to look into Judaism, a religion she thought would have nothing to offer her. “I looked into it with skepticism,” she said, “but then I found out, wow, this is pretty cool. Everything about it struck me not only as beautiful but enlightened, intelligent, both ancient and progressive at the same time.”
Conversion, then, was no longer out of the question, especially as her own mother seemed to support the move. “She said to me that Asians and Jews have a lot in common,”? Factor recalled with an impish smile. “She said they both had good values, good education, and were good with money. It sounded all good to her.” Factor began taking classes at the Upper West Side synagogue B’nai Jeshurun, with the intention of undergoing a Conservative conversion. Todd, now her fianc?, attended with her, and together both grew closer to Judaism. “We took on observances and found that they benefited us,” said Factor. Although they did not yet keep Shabbat, they ate strictly kosher and tried to further explore the religion and its commandments. In 2000, the two were married, and in 2002, their first son, Ariel, was born.
The boy’s birth encouraged Todd and Rachel Factor to take an extra step. Searching for a mohel to perform the baby’s brit, Factor said she wanted an Orthodox mohel to conduct the ceremony. “Somehow Orthodox sounded more real,”? she said. “You know what it’s like, you go for the heaviest hitters you can find.” Eventually, the couple found a mohel who came highly recommended, and asked him to perform the ceremony; although Rachel was not, according to Orthodox standards, a Jew, the man conceded, but not before telling Rachel that both she and her baby should consider undergoing an Orthodox conversion.
Trying to assert whether or not Orthodox Judaism had anything to offer them, the couple accepted an invitation for a Shabbat dinner from a neighboring Orthodox family. The experience, Rachel Factor said, left her overwhelmed. “I saw amazing hospitality,” she said. “I saw people living people living out their ideals, living for their community.”? On an earthlier plane, she had real gefilte fish for the first time, something she enjoyed tremendously. “The next weekend,”? she said, “we kept Shabbat. And we haven’t stopped keeping it since.”
That was Sukkot; by Passover, Rachel and her son underwent an Orthodox conversion. “Just before the conversion,”? Factor recalled, her eyes veiled by a thin film of sentimentality, “I had to go to all my agents and give up my former life. I realized that my career in the theater couldn’t continue if I wanted to observe Shabbat and tzniut [modesty]. It so happened that all my agents were Jewish women, and they were all extremely supportive. I thought it would be a difficult day for me, a day of losing my identity, but instead I felt very liberated.”? Now an Orthodox family, the Factors continued to seek more Jewish education. Todd, for his part, found it in a Brooklyn yeshiva, whose rabbi instructed him to leave everything behind and go study in Jerusalem’s famed Aish Ha Torah yeshiva, if only for a few months.
Excited by the change of atmosphere, the family landed in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood, where their second son, Shalom, was born. Three months made way to six, and the family eventually fell in love with the city and decided to stay. All, it seemed, was perfect in Rachel Factor’s life; all, save for one thing: she was an artist, and missed having a creative outlet. Being an Orthodox woman, however, she had little recourse but creating one herself: she revived a one-woman play that she wrote while still in the States, a play which she had to abort due to the Orthodox ban on men hearing a woman’s voice. In Jerusalem, she performed the play in neighbors’ living rooms, inviting only women to attend. And they did: Factor was forced to move to bigger and bigger homes, until she eventually rented out a local theater; 200 women packed the room, and Factor sold out show after show.
The demand, she said, made her realize that there was a real untapped desire for art and culture among Orthodox women. “The women who came to see my show were excited to have kosher entertainment,”she said. “They were also inspired to see someone who chose their life.”? To pay her audience back, Factor embarked on an ambitious 60-date North American tour, which arrives to New York this week. All proceeds, she said, will go toward the establishment of a center in Jerusalem that will provide a creative outlet for Orthodox women to experience theatrical arts. Now, for the first time in her life, Rachel Factor feels complete. “The world today tells us that to be a vital woman you have to work,” she said. “But I was looking for a place where it’s OK to be with your children, a place that reinforces family first, and I found it.” Rachel Factor performs ‘J.A.P’ on Jan. 8 at Bnos Leah Prospect Park Yeshiva, 1604 Avenue R in Brooklyn; Jan. 9 at Yeshiva of Spring Valley, 230 Maple Ave.; and Jan. 10 at Young Israel of the Upper West Side, 210 W. 91st St. For times and ticket prices, call (888) 256-1764, or log onto www.rachelfactor.com. Only women will be admitted.