Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish debuted in 2005 and has been a perennial bar mitzvah gift ever since. The book, which features interviews by Abigail Pogrebin with about five dozen celebrities about their Jewish identities, is now an off-Broadway musical. Pogrebin is no stranger to the musical stage; she chronicled her experience as an original cast member of the infamous Stephen Sondheim flop Merrily We Roll Along in her 2011 Kindle Single Showstopper. This morning I chatted with her about the experience of writing Stars of David, both book and musical, and how her evolving Jewish identity has shaped the project.
In the introduction to the book, she discusses that part of the impetus for the project was that Jewish identity had crept up on her. She was married to a Jewish man, had two children approaching the ages when they might want to know something about what being Jewish meant, and she realized that she didn’t have an answer to that question. “I wasn’t necessarily honest with myself about why I started the book in the sense that I didn’t know how at sea I was, in terms of my own Jewish identity, when I approached famous people,” Pogrebin said. “I think sometimes stories are generated by some subconscious impulse to understand something for yourself. And I don’t want to over-analyze my motivations in starting the book, but I would say that having these frank conversations with some of our highest achievers made me look much more candidly at myself, and I realized I hadn’t answered a lot of the questions I was asking, personally.”
So a small group of Palestinians, Israelis, and Germans –all in their 30s–are having drinks in Malmö, Sweden with a bunch of Jews, Muslims, Christians and other people of all ages who don’t identify with any religion.
That is not a joke. It happened a few days ago. I was there.
The group was the ensemble cast of Third Generation: “work in progress,” a brilliant performance piece conceived by Israeli playwright and director Yael Ronen (who was also there) and developed as a joint project of Berlin’s Schaubuhne and the Habimah National Theatre of Israel.
At the start of the show, Niels Bormann appears alone in front of the curtain; dressed in grey sweatpants, a red t-shirt emblazoned with 3G in large black letters, and a kefiya. He introduces the play with one apology after another: He is sorry that the costumes are not more sophisticated, but the show was developed in the Middle East, not Europe. He is sorry for making that politically incorrect statement. He is especially sorry for the role that Germany played in the murder of so many diverse groups of people. He polls the audience;
“Are there any Jews here?” Many hands go up. He apologizes. More »
Tracee Chimo, Michael Zegen and Molly Ranson in Bad Jews. Photo by Joan Marcus.
As the organized Jewish community debates the changing nature of Jewish identity in America uncovered by the recent Pew study, theatergoers in New York are engaging in a similar debate spurred on by Bad Jews, a new play by Josh Harmon being presented off-Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre Company, following a developmental production last fall at the Roundabout Underground Black Box.
On its surface, Bad Jews is a dark comedy about cousins reuniting at their grandfather’s shiva, butting heads about who should inherit a chai necklace their beloved Poppy had managed to hold on to through his time in a concentration camp. But Bad Jews is really a play of ideas, offering one hundred minutes of debate about what Jewish identity means for the grandchildren of survivors and contemporary twenty-something American Jews. Representing the “religion matters most” camp is Daphna (Tracee Chimo), a strident senior at Vassar who hopes to marry the Israeli soldier she slept with on Birthright, make aliyah, and attend rabbinical school. Taking the opposing view is Liam (Michael Zegen), her elder cousin who has little to no interest in Judaism or Jewishness, but feels a deep familial connection to what the chai necklace represents. Liam’s younger brother Jonah (Philip Ettinger) just wants to be left out of the argument. The ensuing battle, which is further intensified by the presence of Liam’s perky, privileged, non-Jewish girlfriend Melody (Molly Ranson), will either fascinate or exhaust you, depending on how many times you’ve had this conversation yourself.
Have you ever had the experience of introducing your high school friends to your new friends from college? That’s the best way to describe how I felt watching Soul Doctor, the new Broadway musical based on the life and music of Shlomo Carlebach. Throughout the show, staged in 3/4 thrust at the intimate Circle in the Square, I couldn’t keep myself from looking across the theater at the faces of my Catholic friends and wanting to explain, or apologize, or forget they were there so I could give myself over to the music and ecstatically clap along with the rest of the mostly-religious, Jewish audience (based on the number of kippot and wigs in evidence).
Because here’s the thing: if you’re reading Jewschool, you, like me, probably love Carlebach’s music. You might not even realize how much of it you love — I kept finding myself surprised at melodies employed in the show. How could one man have possibly written so many of the melodies that have underscored every Jewish experience of my life, from the synagogue to the campfire? And even when saddled with second-rate English lyrics and a hopelessly inert story, when sung by a terrific cast of Broadway babies (led by Eric Anderson as Carlebach himself and newcomer Amber Iman making a splash as Nina Simone) backed by a fantastic band under the baton of Seth Farber, the music wins out, and I found myself unconsciously tapping my feet even as I rolled my eyes. More »
It makes so much sense it’s shocking it hasn’t happened previously, but New Yiddish Rep, a New York-based theatre company, is putting on Waiting For Godot in a new Yiddish translation (with English and Russian supertitles).
From June 16th-July 7th, you can see Tales From Odessa at the Segal Theatre in Montreal, Quebec. Musical artist Socalled (Josh Dolgin) penned the music and lyrics for the production, based on the short story collection Odessa Tales by Isaak Babel. Tales From Odessa follows the life and rise of mob boss Benya “The King” Krik, who rules over the Jewish neighborhood in Moldavanka. Socalled maintains a blog about his work on the musical, and you can view the trailer for the production below.
TALES FROM ODESSA
A Socalled Musical
Music & Lyrics by Josh Dolgin AKA Socalled
Book by Derek Goldman
Based on the stories of Isaak Babel
Translated by Miriam Hoffman Directed by Audrey Finkelstein
A Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre Production
In Yiddish with English and French supertitles. Tickets start at $24.00. You can learn more about the artist Socalled at his website.
Jackie Hoffman, beloved in theatrical circles for her take-no-prisoners approach to musical comedy (sample lyric: “fuck you for asking me to do a show for free! / fuck you and your benefit for charity”), is at once an ideal and a challenging performer for such a series. Undeniably funny and with a deep understanding of Judaism (she’s the black sheep of an Orthodox family), she knows she can draw a typical Jewish audience in with songs criticizing Jewish Buddhists (“Inner peace and joy are overrated / come back to the fold of the most-hated”) and pushy mothers on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. But when her paean to Shavuot includes lines like “Ten Commandments God gave to us so that we won’t sin again / Ten Commandments I break every day by eating pork and Christian men,” you know this isn’t your typical JCC fare.
While the publicity around this series carefully avoided the word “feminism,” I couldn’t help but watch Hoffman’s show and wonder if there was a feminist message to be divined from the woman who counts among her achievements “convincing the Hispanic security guards and bus boys of this city to use condoms” and openly resents the successes of co-stars she deems less deserving.
Jackie Hoffman doesn’t care if you find a feminist message — or any message — in her performances. And that in itself may be the embodiment of a feminist victory.
Elul is a busy month for Storahtelling founder Amichai Lau Lavie. He’s returning from Israel, is knee deep in studies, and on Sunday he began his 3rd annual 40 day blog leading up to the High Holidays, Prepent! It should be a good read.
This comes on the heels of an announcement from the decade-old Torah ritual theatre company that it is restructuring and that Lavie alsos assume the Interim Executive Director role following Executive Director Isaac Shalev’s departure after just 18 months.
“This transition comes at a time of important growth and transition for Storahtelling. Isaac, the Board and the Executive committee have all agreed that the best interests of the organization are to scale back, spend time rethinking our capacities, programs, operation and scope of mission and vision rather than continuing in the same model.”
Programs will continue and High Holidays services will happen, but how the organization will survive long term? Like other darlings of the emergent Jewish sector, the organization has faced difficulties during the economic downturn.
Briefly: Playwright and cultural icon Tony Kushner was kicked off the list of honorees and John Jay College because Jeffrey Weisenfeld is Captain McWitchHunt. Fascinating. Here’s hoping someone throws water on JW so that he melts into a steaming puddle of vindictive intolerance. (h/t MondoWeiss )
c/o Heat & Light Co., Inc.
cc: President Jeremy Travis
The faculty and students of John Jay College of Criminal Justice
899 Tenth Avenue New York, NY, 10019
May 4, 2011
To Chairperson Benno Schmidt and the Board of Trustees:
At the May 2 public meeting of the CUNY Board of Trustees, which was broadcast on CUNY television and radio, Trustee Jeffrey S. Weisenfeld delivered a grotesque caricature of my political beliefs regarding the state of Israel, concocted out of three carefully cropped, contextless quotes taken from interviews I’ve given, the mention of my name on the blog of someone with whom I have no connection whatsoever, and the fact that I serve on the advisory board of a political organization with which Mr. Weisenfeld strongly disagrees. As far as I’m able to conclude from the podcast of this meeting, Mr. Weisenfeld spoke for about four minutes, the first half of which was a devoted to a recounting of the politics of former President of Ireland and UN Human Rights High Commissioner Mary Robinson that was as false as his description of mine.
Ms. Robinson, however, was not on public trial; I was, apparently, and at the conclusion of Mr. Weisenfeld’s vicious attack on me, eight members voted to approve all the honorary degree candidates, including me, and four voted to oppose the slate if my name remained on it. Lacking the requisite nine votes to approve the entire slate, the Board, in what sounds on the podcast like a scramble to dispense with the whole business, tabled my nomination, approved the other candidates, and adjourned. Not a word was spoken in my defense. More »
For those of you living in the far flung diasporic reaches of New York City, mark your calenders for next Wednesday, July 14. Saria Idana, a wonderful performance artist, dancer and singer is bringing her one-woman show Homeless in Homeland to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.
Homeless in Homeland documents the journey of a Jewish American Woman to understand her identity along side her desire for justice in the face of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Last night I went to Storahtelling‘s Bloody Esther Purim event. If you’re not familiar with Storahtelling, founded in 1999 by Executive Director Amichai Lau-Lavie, they’re a ritual theatre company. Their shtick is bringing “translations” of ancient Jewish texts to life by renewing the words through modern interpretation. Today, Storahtelling works around the world with people of all ages, training educators and producing shows that add modern meaning to ancient texts. Additionally, Storahtelling began 5770 by establishing residency at the 14th Street Y, where they have monthly performances for kids of all ages, including StorahStage – educational programming for 2-5 year olds.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect at their Purim shpiel, but my limited expectations were surpassed. As Hadassah, a drag queen, emceed the shpiel and narrated the megillas Esther-based story, the characters, in all their glory, and with new attitudes, came to life on stage. The
audience at City Winery had a great time and soaked up every minute of the performance.
Highlights, according to the people sitting around me:
The angel of dead Vashti, dancing around stage in lingerie and angel’s wings made at least a few peoples’ dreams come true.
Chester the court jester cuddling up to Hadassah… and his loin cloth’s meandering over the course of the night.
The enchanting Galeet Dardashti, a Middle Eastern musician, who read the megillah with such an incredibly powerful and beautiful voice.
Esther deciding that she didn’t just want to save the Jews, she wanted to personally kill Haman (and Mordechai, and the king).
Jewschool’s SBB‘s opening the show, bringing the Amalek massacre to life by screaming and running through the venue with a red-splattered white sheet, where she nearly knocked over a waitress with about 20 glasses of wine.
If you’re in the New York City area, I highly recommend checking out their other upcoming events.
I just saw Circumcise Me, the autobiographical one-man comedy show from Yisrael Campbell of Jerusalem (formerly Christopher Campbell of suburban Philadelphia). Born to a “manic-depressive Italian woman and a pathologically silent Irishman,” by the time he hit his twenties (I think), he was already a recovering alcoholic and drug addict living in L.A.
There, he converted to Judaism with a Reform Rabbi, Rabbi Jim, and got circumcised. Eventually, he wanted more, so he joined a Conservative shul and got circumcised again. Eventually, he moved to Jerusalem where he got a third circumcision.
If this isn’t a recipe for the most original hour and fifteen minutes of dick jokes I’ve ever seen, I don’t know what is. More »
For those of you in the city alleged never to sleep, Purim comes early this year with the New York City Opera‘s production of Esther, an opera by Hugo Weisgall that had its world premiere at NYCO in 1993.
May I interest you in a promotional video?
The opera wraps up its run this week, so if this tickles your fancy, don’t wait to get your Persian on. Just do the divas a favor and leave your graggers at home.
Hey all, so for those who saw my post the other day about the new play Granada, I just found out that Jewschool readers can get 3 dollars off their tickets by entering the promo code JEWSCH when they buy tickets. It’s running for three weekends starting with this one, Thursdays-Saturdays @ 8pm, Saturdays @ 3pm, Sundays @ 7pm at the Access Theater Gallery, 380 Broadway at White Street, 4th Floor. Check it out and tell ‘em Jewschool sent ya!
Polybe + Seats, the New York-based experimental theater, premieres Granada, the new play by Avi Glickstein, on November 5th at TriBeCa’s Access Theater Gallery in New York City.
Granada begins in 1992 as the King of Spain prepares to symbolically welcome Jews back to Spain after 500 years of banishment. A young Egyptian Jewish woman has been invited to stand in for all of those exiled—but following the ceremony, she reveals to Spain’s prince that she believes herself to be the resurrection of Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), philosopher, royal physician, and Jewish cultural icon. Quite suddenly, the prince’s world is not what it was before her revelation: he is pursued by a bear, seduced by a princess hatched from a grapefruit, and nearly betrayed by his trusty aide-de-camp. Is this the beginning of the Messianic age?
Bringing together characters and storytelling from Sephardic Jewish folklore and history and weaving from Spain to Israel to Morocco and back again, Granada explores issues of identity, both religious and national, and the uncanny link among followers of a tradition separated by continents but united by a state of exile.
This seems intriguing. I’ve heard good things about this company and who doesn’t love theater with bears somehow involved? Running the next three weekends, Thursdays-Saturdays @ 8pm, Saturdays @ 3pm, Sundays @ 7pm at the Access Theater Gallery, 380 Broadway at White Street, 4th Floor. Gonna try to catch it myself, let us know what you think of it if you see it!
Theater J and J Street organized several panels that examined the situation through film and performance. Israeli-born storyteller Noa Baum performed her show, A Land Twice Promised, a story of her friendship formed with a Palestinian woman in Davis, California. Their sons become fast friends; the women, more slowly, more deeply.
These mothers exchange their stories as they warm to one another: each coming of age in or near Jerusalem. Surviving the wars of their childhood. Each imbued with a deep fear and mistrust of the other. Their accounts give way to those of their mothers, and others. We heard the Old City fall twice, from different perspectives. (The pregnant implications: can it happen again? Will it?)
Noa is a force. I cannot better describe her. Her performance transports and transforms. After the show, there’s more: she shares her unscripted thoughts. The personal suffering on all sides is immense. It endures, and it shall continue. But it can also paralyze and poison: if the parties conceive of justice as a function of their personal suffering and the memory of their own collective pain, there is nothing for it but more of the same. More »
When I was younger, I was half convinced that all gay people were Jewish. Certainly, the only images of gay people I saw in the media were characters in the plays of William Finn, Tony Kushner, and Paul Rudnick. (That I considered Broadway plays to be “the media” is likely a unique feature of having been a gay, Jewish, middle-class kid.) I’ve remained a fan of all three writers ever since, so I was delighted to see that Rudnick had a new memoir out last month.
I Shudder is a collection of autobiographical essays very much in the David Sedaris mold, although Rudnick’s New Jersey Jewish relatives, New York theatrical exploits and Hollywood headaches provide quite a different framework for his humor. It’s to his credit that stories about his great-aunt Lil are every bit as entertaining as his account of visiting a real-life nunnery for inspiration while writing Sister Act. His only missteps come in the segments that give the book its title. Peppered throughout the book are “Excerpt[s] from the Most Deeply Intimate and Personal Diary of One Elyot Vionnet.” Rudnick certainly can write in character — his “If You Ask Me” column in Premiere magazine, written as middle-aged housewife Libby Gelman-Waxner was hysterical — but Elyot’s complaints about the insufferable people one encounters in life don’t measure up. These essays’ weakness is only made more visible by their inclusion in an otherwise fabulous collection.
Rudnick isn’t the only gay Jewish funny man with a new collection of autobiographical essays. Eddie Sarfaty, a stand-up comedian who’s probably best known to those who summer in Provincetown (where he’s had a regular gig for many seasons) has produced Mental: Funny in the Head. I’ll say up front that it’s unfair to Sarfaty to compare his book to Rudnick’s — but they came out within months of each other, and I read them back to back, so what can you do? On the other hand, I have a soft spot for Sarfaty because he performed a stand-up show as one of Keshet’s very early fundraisers, back before anyone had ever heard of us.
My feelings on Mental are much more mixed. When it’s at its best, such as when Sarfaty writes about his relationships with older relatives, it’s both funny and touching. (His publisher has posted Second-Guessing Grandma, the first essay in the book, for free on-line.) But too much of the book doesn’t measure up to its best parts, and I found myself impatient for chapters on the comedian’s sex life to end so I could get to the good bits about his European vacation with his parents. The nice part of a book like this is that you can skip past chapters you don’t like without worrying that you won’t be able to follow what comes next. The essays aren’t presented chronologically, and when events from previous essays are mentioned, they’re explained as though the reader is encountering them for the first time. I loved roughly half of the essays, but could have done without the other half. (My favorites: “My Tale of Two Cities,” about the aforementioned European trip; “Can I Tell You Something?” detailing the comedian’s experience teaching a stand-up class for amateurs; and “The Eton Club,” a tribute to a certain kind of gay culture that died off with AIDS.)
Both Rudnick and Sarfaty profess their own distance from Jewish religion, but both books are infused with Yiddishkeit, from the focus on Jewish family dynamics to the meditations on how Hillel’s teachings might inform the way we partake in online cruising sites. Neither book is likely to inspire readers to find any great insights into Jewish culture, but I suspect most Jewschool readers will find many moments in each that provoke a knowing smirk of familiarity.