Thoughts on Amalek from the Jerusalem Sermon Slam

For anyone trying to hold on to those last breaths of Purim, here is my piece from the recent Jerusalem Sermon Slam on the theme of Amalek, in which I consider a bizarrely persistent custom about about language, Amalek’s relationship to sexual violence and degradation, and how we capture that dystopic reality theologically.  It was a provocative evening — a safe space for dangerous Torah (h/t for that phrase to my student, Rabbi Eric Woodward).  Check out the other videos from the event, as well.  My personal favorites are by Charlie Buckholtz (Amalek, predatory housing corruption, and more), Candace Mittel (remembering so that there’s no room left for Amalek), Bonna Haberman (how we produce Amalek), and Julie Seltzer (finding Amalek through its physical letters).  To find out more about Sermon Slam and to support its next steps, you can check out the Kickstarter campaign.  Check out upcoming Sermon Slams March 24 in Philadelphia, March 27 at Brandeis University, April 3 triple-header in Berkeley, Boston, and NYC-Washington Heights, April 7 in Philadelphia (Interfaith), and April 10 in Providence.

Handle With Care: A Jewish Play Born from an Interfaith Marriage

The Cast of Handle With Care

The Cast of Handle With Care

When I first skimmed the press release for Handle With Care, a play currently running off-Broadway in the theater that used to house Old Jews Telling Jokes, I thought I had the whole thing figured out in advance: a non-Jewish playwright married an Israeli actress and wrote a show for her. Simple, I thought. It must be a comedy exploring the hilarity of intermarriage, like an Abie’s Irish Rose for the Pew Report generation. I couldn’t have been more wrong. For although playwright Jason Odell Williams has written a play about love bridging disparate lives, it’s about a burgeoning love affair between an Israeli Jew and an American Jew, finding each other in the most unlikely of circumstances: their “meet cute” occurs when a delivery man loses the box containing the remains of Ayelet’s recently deceased grandmother, which he was supposed to be bringing to the airport for return to Israel. Josh, Ayelet’s love interest, is the delivery man’s only Jewish friend, so naturally he gets the call to help translate the situation to the distressed Israeli who speaks very little English.

The result is a charming romantic comedy that would be right at home on JCC stages anywhere in the country. That the play was written by someone who’s not himself Jewish (although he is part of a Jewish family) is surprising, so I was glad to have the opportunity to speak with both Williams and his wife (and star of the show) Charlotte Cohn about that play, their marriage, and working with one’s spouse.  More »

Making the Stars of David Sing

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.”

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A Palestinian, and Israeli, and a German Walk into a Malmö Theatre….

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 »

Bad Jews, Great Performances

Tracee Chimo, Michael Zegen and Molly Ranson in Bad Jews. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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.

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Soul Doctor brings Carlebach to Broadway

[Soul Doctor show logo]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 »

Nu? Vat took you so long?

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).

They’re still raising money for the show, which debuts in September. I don’t know anything about this company, but let’s hope their shows have higher production values than their website.

Socalled Tales From Odessa

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.

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 Doesn’t Care If You Find The Feminist Message

cross-posted from Jewsesses With Attitude

Throughout March, Baruch College Performing Arts Center has been presenting a series of Jewish comediennes in partnership with the Jewish Women’s Archive and Baruch’s Jewish Studies Center called Solo in the City: Jewish Women, Jewish Stars. With a mix of well-known names and up-and-comers in the lineup, the series defies the temptation to draw generalizations about funny Jewesses.

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.

Jewish culture on Kickstarter, today

A couple of interesting Kickstarter projects of Jewish interest.

Makings – Songs from Tillie Olsen’s Journals is a musical project created by the grandson of the left-wing Jewish author of, most famously, Tell Me a Riddle. (Background info from Jewish Currents, Jewish Womens Archive, and Wikipedia.) Downloads of the album start at $10.


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Make Tshuvah Early! Prepent with Storahtelling

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.

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Tony Kushner: Latest Victim of Jewish McCarthyism

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 )

Tony Kushner
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 »

“Homeless in Homeland”

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.

Vital stats:
Wednesday July 14th, 7pm

Nuyorican Poets Cafe
236 E 3rd street NYC between ave B and C

$12/$7 students

You can see Video Clips of the show here.

Bloody Esther

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. some of the cast of Bloody EstherAdditionally, 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.
  • Bloody Esther's bloody bride?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.

The Best Penis Jokes From Suburban Philly to Downtown Jerusalem

People ask me, “How Catholic were you?” Catholic enough to know I was going to hell. So I switched religions!

-Yisrael Campbell in Circumcise Me

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 »

They sing! They dance! They impale!

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.

Discount for Jewschool readers for Granada!

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!

Maimonides comes to New York, via Granada

This sounds interesting. New play in New York City featuring a woman who thinks she’s Maimonides, exploration of Sephardi folk tales and the expulsion from Spain:

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!