Jewish Journal

Passover Through Theater and Art

Artwork by Marilee Tolwin.

I sit through most seders in a state of internal conflict, pinned between my desire to engage in a lengthy, substantive discussion and my simultaneous longing to eat. The longer the conversation, the more minutes pass before the brisket is served. The Jewish Women’s Theatre (JWT) serves up a solution — a Passover-themed art exhibition and theater piece stimulating enough to let you rush through the shallowest seder and still feel intellectually sated overall.

The performance, called “Crossing Our Red Sea,” and accompanying art show opened March 10 at The Braid in Santa Monica. The pairing kicked off with nine visual artists sitting on folding chairs onstage, talking about their work. Many had been inspired by a day of Passover study with Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom synagogue.

Viewed in context of one another, the visual artworks present a nuanced meditation on liberation. Susan Landesmann’s “The Path” is an inkjet map of the Middle East covered with encaustic paint in green, blue, gold and red. Next to it hangs a large photograph by Nancy Kaye of a little blond girl in a red velvet dress, skirt lifted to reveal pink tennis shoes, as she prepares to leap over a sidewalk gap. The piece, called “Leap,” offers another take on the meaning of “path” and the leaps of faith we take to reach our destination.

To the left hangs a black-and-white photograph from the 1960s of artist Jan Berlfein Burns’ father exiting an elevator on a bicycle, dressed in a business suit and glasses. Called, “Why is our father different than all other fathers?” it reads as another version of freedom. Just as a little girl can leap with carefree spontaneity over a crack in the sidewalk, so can a grown man surpass societal mores, cycling to work at a time when bicycles were largely considered child’s play.

The visual artworks present a nuanced meditation on liberation.

Other artists in the exhibition include Eve Brandstein, Laurie Gross, Ellen Kimmel, Sonia Levitin, Peachy Levy, Laraine Mestman, Sandy Savett and Sara True.

For the theater piece, four actors perform works written by 13 authors. JWT artistic director Ronda Spinak adapted the works and JWT director Eve Brandstein directed. The four actors, dressed in black, sit on black stools before a beige wall for the staged reading, which hovers between the privacy of a book and the energy of live theater.

Some of the readings are funny, such as “A Blight to Remember.” Written by Shelly Goldstein and performed by Kate Zentall, it includes examples of the author’s family tradition of inventing contemporary plagues for Passover. Renee Moilanen’s “The Third Plague,” performed by Tiffany Maulem, is a humorous look at the hysteria accompanying that ancient and all-too-contemporary plague, head lice.

Actor Melanie Chartoff performs, among other pieces, her own story, “Indecent Sexposure,” about being caught on camera shopping at the Hustler store on Sunset Boulevard — a  shopping excursion prescribed by her doctor. This experience freed her to worry less about what others think, and the telling included the stellar observation, “I’m in the adolescence of
old age.”

Other pieces were as serious as the plagues, like Esther Amini’s “Am-ree-kah,” an excerpt from a memoir-in-progress. Her parents, having fled religious persecution in Persia, find themselves turned away from a Manhattan synagogue as “not Jewish” because they don’t speak Yiddish. Determined to make it in America, they head uptown to another synagogue, where they are welcomed. The piece is a moving reminder of how many people don’t live with the freedom we take for granted.

The evening ends with the uplifting, soulful “Dayenu Remix,” written by Shawn Goodman and performed by Maulem and the ensemble (including AJ Meijer, a new JWT company member). Dayenu, the name of a thousand-year-old Passover song, means “It Would Have Been Enough.” Part of the “Remix” goes:

“If I could stay in bed wrapped in the morning’s sweet dream before jolting awake to check my nerve-wracking email, that would be enough.

“Dayenu!

“If I could get to the sink without taking inventory of my wrinkles in the magnifying mirror, that would be enough.

“Dayenu!

“If I could spend the best part of the day on meaningful goals and not mindless minutia, rather than the other way around, that would be enough.

“Dayenu!”

If you can get to “Crossing Our Red Sea” this year, that might be enough.

“Crossing Our Red Sea” runs through April 7 at The Braid in Santa Monica. The gallery show runs through April 30. For more information, visit jewishwomenstheatre.org.


Wendy Paris is a writer living in Los Angeles. She is the author of “Splitopia: Dispatches From Today’s Good Divorce and How to Part Well.”