In the spotlight: Rabbis one-woman show talks about Annie Leibovitz photo shoot

Rabbi Dorothy Richman never imagined she’d be immortalized between Martha Stewart and Katharine Graham.

But that’s where she is, and where she’ll remain, in the pages of Annie Leibovitz’s acclaimed “Women,” a book of portraits published in 1999.

The photo shoot and its fallout is the focus of Richman’s 30-minute, one-woman show, “Confessions of a Tefillin Supermodel,” which she’ll perform Sunday, July 27 as part of the San Francisco Theater Festival at Yerba Buena Gardens.

Richman does not play multiple characters, mostly reflecting on her own experience at the shoot. The show has both comedic and dramatic elements. A big part of it, Richman said, is demonstrating what happened after the photo was published, and how people reacted to the portrait.

“There were a lot of conflicting opinions about what people saw in the photo,” she said. “Some people said, ‘You look so feminine,’ while others said, ‘You look so butch.’ I had people tell me I looked weak and powerless, and other people tell me I looked so strong.”

Richman has worked at Berkeley Hillel since 2004, but Leibovitz photographed Richman in 1998 while she was still a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. Six other women were selected to be photographed; they were told to bring their tefillin and tallit to the seminary courtyard, where Leibovitz and her team had set up studio lighting.

For most of the shoot, Leibovitz photographed the female students and staff as a group. Toward the end of the three-hour shoot she took individual portraits.

Richman’s was the only image to make the book.

“She kept telling me not to smile,” Richman recalled. “But I really wanted to smile, and I kept trying to smile. And she kept telling me not to smile.”

The resulting photograph, on a page in “Women” between the domestic diva Stewart and the late Washington Post publisher Graham, is compelling.

Richman stands in front of a concrete column. She wears wire-rimmed glasses, a black T-shirt and a wool tallit embroidered with blue yarn. Tefillin boxes lie on her forehead; leather tefillin straps are wrapped around her left forearm. She holds a Torah. Her brown eyes look straight into the camera.

Two Jews, three opinions. Friends, relatives and strangers both praised and criticized Richman. They asked why she wrapped the tefillin straps the way she did, if they were worn correctly or not. Some wondered why she, as a woman, was wearing tefillin in the first place. Very few people commented on what Richman said is probably a bigger problem — that she’s holding a Torah without its cover (frowned upon because it makes the parchment more vulnerable).

“I understood something new about midrash from this experience,” she said, “because I could see how all of these people looked at the same image and created entirely different readings.”

Richman has performed “Confessions of a Tefillin Supermodel” twice before, most recently in June at the opening of the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

“She’s an unexpected pearl of a performer,” said Jessica Richman (no relation), a U.C. Berkeley graduate who has helped the rabbi lead High Holy Days services.

Jessica described Dorothy’s performance as captivating and insightful.

The one-woman show taught her that “any event in your life can have an impact, no matter how big of an event it is,” Jessica said.

Dorothy is pleased that “Confessions” gives her a vehicle with which to explore tefillin, ritual objects she’s worn in Honduras, El Salvador, Peru and Ghana while working for American Jewish World Service.

“Tefillin are mysterious, powerful objects,” she said. “Everywhere I’ve been I’ve taken them with me. It’s been an amazing way to dialogue with people about what prayer is.”

“Confessions of a Tefillin Supermodel” will be performed at 12:25 p.m. Sunday, July 27 on the SoMa Room stage on the second floor of the Metreon, 101 Fourth St., S.F. Free. Information:

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.