October 23, 2018

Jewish Women’s Theatre brings millennial stories to the stage

Kyla Schoer in “The Space Between.” Photo by Sally Hughes

The nonprofit Jewish Women’s Theatre (JWT) was founded in 2008 to bring attention to voices within the Jewish community that don’t always get heard. Its plays have challenged stereotypes, often negative, of Jewish women or Sephardic Jews. Now, the company is turning its focus on the oft-derided millennial generation.

As the troupe approaches its 10th season, JWT artistic director Ronda Spinak said it felt right to “reach out to a younger population to share the wisdom that we’ve gotten over the last nine years about how to create sustainable theater that focuses on Jewish content.”

JWT has launched NEXT @ The Braid, a new arts council of artistic, theater-minded millennials with the help of a $150,000 Cutting Edge grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. The funds allowed 12 fellows to spend nine months developing a Jewish-themed salon-style series in a theater production called “The Space Between.”

The show will be performed on June 21 at The Braid, JWT’s theater in Santa Monica, and will travel to a downtown Los Angeles loft, Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood and Westwood Village Synagogue on June 17, 22 and 25, respectively.

The show’s theme emerged from the tense political climate surrounding the 2016 presidential election and a conversation about the lack of dialogue between different groups. But the show also addresses the issues that 20-somethings in Los Angeles are thinking about.

“We are putting our finger on the pulse of the fact that we are millennials and we see the world — politics, relationships — differently,” said NEXT fellow Amirose Eisenbach, 31.

“The Space Between” is an hourlong play comprising about a dozen stories and songs submitted by members of the public and edited by the fellows. The stories range from humorous to serious. The characters include a young woman losing her mom to cancer, a woman who dates a man and learns he’s transgender, a woman who laments the difficulty of being “always the bridesmaid,” and a funny piece about a hookup gone wrong.

“We all have fears and dreams and feel like the outsider sometimes, but we’re all connected on that level of just wanting to feel like we’re not alone in this world,” Eisenbach said.

Another story is about a teenage girl who goes to a Torah dedication at an Orthodox cousin’s house in Lakewood, N.J., but feels like she can’t look cool wearing long sleeves and a long dress.

“She comes to understand that her cousin is the same age as her, though she wears things that are different and has things that are different, prays in different ways, but at the core they’re still the same, struggling to become adults, struggling to figure out who they are,” Spinak said.

Only some of the show’s content is Jewish-themed. Ten of the 12 fellows are Jewish. The show’s message is meant to be universal and speak to audiences of all backgrounds.

The salon-style show is stripped down, with five actors and no props or costume changes. The actors are dressed in black and sit on stools with their scripts. The intention is for the text and the acting to take center stage.

The fellowship offered training in how to adapt material to the stage and how to cast, direct and produce a theatrical event. All the fellows had input in the selection of the material, and each had a specific focus, ranging from directing to producing to marketing the show.

The program was created to give participants the skills needed to create meaningful work and advance their careers in theater, film and television. It’s also meant to help offset the widespread reduction in arts funding at schools and cultural institutions.

“A lot of younger people are working either one-on-one or in small groups or individually, and so they’re a lot more isolated,” said JWT Managing Director Sharon Landau. “Creating this arts council was an opportunity to create this community where they can collaborate with their peers and have both financial support and mentorship to make theater that’s relevant to their generation.”

The fellows in the program have a variety of experience, from acting in film, television, theater and web series, to hosting podcasts, playwriting and working as a singer-songwriter.

Eisenbach is a writer and producer who has worked at Warner Bros. and Fox Interactive Media, and she launched and ran the independent film division at AMC Theatres. She now has her own event and film company, Radiant J Productions.

“I went out on my own about two years ago because I wanted to make content that really mattered — that not just entertained but that really had social impact,” she said.

Another NEXT fellow, Andrew Fromer, 27, studied theater at UC Santa Barbara and worked for a theater group in Israel. He has acted in feature films, and he edits, directs and hosts his own podcast on the entertainment industry.

“What did I hope to gain? Just the crazy amount of skills that it takes to produce anything,” Fromer said. “Nobody really can concretely say what a producer actually does, and the reason is because a producer does everything,”

JWT’s audience members tend to be over the age of 50. Incorporating millennials into the theater’s creative process may bring in younger people who want to see their stories told onstage.

“We are about giving voice to various kinds of Jews and how we’re Jewish in the world, from various ethnic backgrounds to religious observance,” Spinak said. “So I’m proud and happy that we could put forth a millennial show that will debunk some of the stereotypes and myths surrounding this generation.”

“The Space Between” will be performed June 21 at The Braid in Santa Monica and travel to three venues across the Los Angeles area from June 14–25. For tickets and more information, visit this article at jewishwomenstheatre.org.

Jewish and Muslim artists summon ‘Courage’ together

In “More Courage,” Ayelette Robinson (left) portrays a transgender woman who came out after being ordained as a Chasidic rabbi, and Travina Springer (right) details her conversion to Islam. Left photo by Kevin McIntyre. Right photo by Antar Hanif


On a hot late-April afternoon, five actors — four women and one man — assembled onstage for rehearsal inside The Braid, an intimate venue in the Bergamot Arts District of Santa Monica and home to Jewish Women’s Theatre (JWT) since 2015.

Standing shoulder to shoulder, the actors launched into a dramatic reading of “Stillness,” an original work by the Egyptian-born Muslim poet Yasmin Mogahed. It’s about the serenity a new dawn brings.

The actors alternated lines, including the final verse: “Maybe that’s what’s so beautiful about this time of day: the stillness. And the hope that maybe this day will be different.”

Mogahed’s poem will open JWT’s new show, “More Courage,” a collection of poems, plays and stories performed and written by Muslim and Jewish artists, a mix meant to offer hope for a future of peaceful co-existence. It opens at The Braid on May 6.

Co-directed by JWT veterans Eve Brandstein and Susan Morgenstern, “More Courage” will run approximately 65 minutes. Its content will touch on topics like forbidden love between Arabs and Jews, the trials of being the first Jewish Miss America and a woman’s personal account of converting to Islam.

“Having courage has nothing to do with your religion or country of origin or ethnic background,” said Ronda Spinak, JWT’s artistic director. “What we want to do is to take a universal subject and offer up stories by Jews and Muslims, so that whether you’re a Jew or Muslim in the audience, you’ll identify with the stories.”

JWT, a nonprofit, independent theater company, was created with the goal of providing Jewish women a voice onstage. Spinak and two former colleagues founded it, sketching plans on napkins in 2007. Now, its salon-style shows draw more than 13,000 audience members annually at schools, synagogues, museums, art galleries, private homes, even prisons.

To add Muslim voices to “More Courage,” JWT is collaborating with NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, a Los Angeles-based community-building organization that encourages Jewish and Muslim collaboration. Its leadership, made up of Jews and Muslims, has been instrumental in recommending stories, books, songs and poems — like Mogahed’s — from Muslim artists to be considered for inclusion in the show, Spinak said.

Maryam Saleemi, NewGround’s communication and development manager, told the Journal that her organization was reaching out to Muslim actors to audition for the JWT production and setting up for a performance of “More Courage” at the IMAN Cultural Center, a mosque in Culver City.

Saleemi, who is a co-producer of the show, said she hopes it encourages people to share stories and come together in solidarity during what she sees as a trying time for both Jews and Muslims.

“I think that in this current time, with people living in fear and suspicion due to a rise of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, it’s important to inspire our communities and to hear stories of courage,” she said. “It can’t just be stories of Muslims standing up for Muslims or just Jews standing up for Jews. It’s important to hear many different stories.”

One of the stories that Saleemi helped bring to JWT’s attention is that of Travina Springer, an African-American Muslim actress and comedian.

Springer, who was raised Baptist, visited a mosque with a Muslim friend and a list of questions after devouring a Malcolm X biography in college. Springer’s turn in “More Courage” details that initial interest, her conversion ceremony inside a parked car, her informing her Baptist parents at an Olive Garden (“because that’s where you go in Florida”) and the realities of being a Muslim woman in contemporary America.

“What I do with humor is expose people to different images, alternative narratives to what it means to be Muslim and Muslim in America,” she said. “I don’t think people even think of Black people as Muslims. They just think of foreigners, and that being American is something that’s added on to that identity. But I am American and that is very much what my identity is, while Islam is my faith.”

In a piece titled “Kosher Rebel,” Los Angeles-based actor Ayelette Robinson will play a real-life figure, Abby Stein, a transgender woman who came out after being ordained as a Chasidic rabbi in her ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn community. Julie Bram, a JWT producer for the show, read an interview with Stein in Haaretz and adapted Stein’s own words, with Spinak’s help, into a dramatic essay.

Robinson, who grew up Modern Orthodox in a Boston-area suburb, was raised worlds apart from Stein, who, as the piece illustrates, “never saw a movie, went to a Broadway show or listened to music.” However, Robinson, not entirely unlike Stein, drifted away from Orthodox life as a teen and now identifies as secular, which fractured relationships with family members. She identified with Stein’s courageous journey toward a more truthful life.

“What I really connect to is the fact that [Stein] realized being true to yourself, as cliché as that might sound, is better than anything else in the world, and despite all of the pain of losing connections to family or friends, nothing can dull that pain of living life less than whole,” she said. “It is so much better to just be who you are. Giving that up in exchange for keeping those relationships is really just deafening and paralyzing, and it’s hard to balance.”

A “More Courage” art exhibition, curated by Georgia Freedman-Harvey, an independent curator who sits on the board of the Jewish Artists Initiative, will accompany the show. The exhibition, which will be housed at The Braid, is composed of paintings, framed poems, ceramics, photography and mixed-media works from Muslim and Jewish artists, including renowned Jewish photographer Bill Aron.

“From the photograph of women joyously holding Torahs to the painting portraying the daily act of praying in a mosque, the exhibit touches on the many facets of courage, and what it takes to summon up the strength to express courage,” Freedman-Harvey wrote in her curatorial statement.

Along with Springer and Robinson, the cast of “More Courage” includes Mark Jacobson, Tiffany Mualem and Aneela Qureshi. On May 11, the IMAN Cultural Center will host the show.

“More Courage” opens at The Braid on May 6. Including Springer and Robinson, the cast includes Mark Jacobson, Tiffany Mualem and Aneela Qureshi. On May 11, the IMAN Cultural Center will host the show. For additional information, visit jewishwomenstheatre.org.

‘Exile’ highlights the journey of Sephardic Jews

AJ Meijer performs Andre Aciman’s “The Last Seder” in “Exile.” Photo by Jan Berlfein Burns

Homesickness and nostalgia are similar, but there’s a subtle difference. Homesickness is when you miss a place you can go back to, and when you do go back, what you’re homesick for will likely still be there. Nostalgia, on the other hand, is a place you cannot go back to because it’s rooted in the past, and you know, deep inside, that the past cannot be lived again.

Nostalgia is a running thread in “Exile: Kisses on Both Cheeks,” a Jewish Women’s Theatre (JWT) show that opened March 18 and runs through April 3 in various venues, including synagogues and private homes. Directed by Susan Morgenstern, “Exile,” like other JWT shows, is a staged reading — performed by professional actors — of more than a dozen thematically connected personal stories and songs that evoke laughs, smiles of recognition and more than a few tears.

The subject matter of “Exile” — the journey of Sephardic Jews — is at times tragic or hilarious and always touching. Sephardim were forced to leave Spain and Portugal more than 500 years ago, after which they settled in far-flung places, from Central America to South Asia, but mostly in North Africa, Turkey, Greece and the Middle East. Over the years, often after being forced into exile again, most Sephardim have found safety in Western Europe, the Americas or Israel, but their history has taught them that safety may not be permanent: However secure a haven may seem, it could eventually turn out to be temporary.

“The motif that I saw repeated is being in a place for a generation or two, North Africa or Turkey, then having to move someplace else for a generation or two, and then having to go someplace else,” said Ronda Spinak, the JWT co-founder and artistic director who adapted and produced this show. “A sense of nomad, that there really is no home. … What you see in a couple of the pieces [in “Exile”] is the sense of, ‘OK, we’re here now, but how long will it be before we have to move someplace else again?’ ”

In a piece called “Becoming American,” Gladys Moreau expresses the uncertainty that many Sephardim carry in their DNA. Born in Egypt, Moreau moved to Italy with her parents, lived there for years, and as a schoolgirl, immigrated to the U.S. In a touching piece in which Moreau talks about Ashkenazi friends who had never met a Sephardic Jew, she writes that she has always felt secure here, but “I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, and this feeling of, yeah, I’m in America, but still … I don’t know.”

The Sephardic writers of the pieces seem to be “groping,” not only to find a place where they can feel secure and at home, but also toward an identity.

In “Living Between the Question Marks,” Ruth Knafo Setton writes: “I dream in French, write in English, mysteriously know Spanish, curse in Arabic, cry in Hebrew,” an apt summary of Sephardic history’s interwoven strands. “I exist between languages, roam between countries, write between genres. … In a sense, I’m always writing in translation.”

That feeling of an uncertain future is captured in “The Last Seder” by Andre Aciman, whose Sephardic ancestors left Iberia, lived in Turkey for generations, then settled in Egypt. The story takes place during Passover in Alexandria in the 1960s after then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser has ordered Aciman’s family and other Jews to leave the country. The piece poignantly expresses a 10-year-old boy’s pain at being uprooted from a place he loves and will never forget.

In “Both Jewish and Arabic,” a young father whose Sephardic family lived in Syria and is now in the U.S., tries to teach his daughter Arabic, which he himself barely knows, and is gratified when she responds. Even though he knows they’ll never go back to Syria, her  counting to 10 in Arabic is a symbolic return to a land where his family once felt at home.

An issue that Sephardic Jews have had to confront, after leaving Morocco or Turkey and coming to North America, is the interaction with Ashkenazi Jews.

“I wasn’t aware that many Sephardim have a sense that Ashkenazis consider them second-class,” Spinak said, “that [Sephardim] are not the real Jews. … So part of this show is trying to get at how much we are alike. … To acknowledge from the part of Ashkenazis, that, yes, we’ve done that to you. And for the Ashkenazis who are being shown this for the first time, that there is a whole different type of Jewish culture that is equally valid and equally Jewish.”

“Differences,” performed by the ensemble, was, according to program notes, “assembled from the internet” and pokes fun of cultural divides between Sephardim and Ashkenazis, while “A Sephardi Air,” by Ruth Behar, zeroes in on the customs relating to the sensitive issue of child-naming — Sephardim name a child after a living relative, while Ashkenazis do not — to highlight divergences and similarities between these two Jewish groups.

Spinak said that she and some others at JWT had wanted to do a Sephardic-themed show for some time. She met with UCLA Sephardic Studies professor Sarah Stein, who “was helpful in giving me a list of books to read about Sephardim: their history, their journey, as well as books of poetry and literature. She suggested different writers, so then I … did a lot of reading.”

While watching “Exile,” it’s no great leap to hear references to current events. “The play’s themes of loss and uncertainty about being forced to leave one’s home resonate deeply … at this day and age,” she said. “The Sephardic story is one that every Jew needs to hear.”

“Exile: Kisses on Both Cheeks” is adapted and produced by Ronda Spinak, and directed by Susan Morgenstern. Funding for the project was provided by the Maurice Amado Foundation. There is also an art show on Sephardic themes at the Braid, JWT’s home base, at 2912 Colorado St., No. 102, Santa Monica, with works created by artists Rene Amitai, Jaco Halfon, and Sarah True. For dates and venues, please go to jewishwomenstheatre.org or call (310) 315-1400.

The transformative power of women rabbis

It is hard to think of anything that has altered Jewish life more radically than the inclusion of women in the rabbinate. 

Not even the advent of the internet could upset the time-worn traditions of Judaism more than the shape-shifting that occurred when a person who did not even count in a minyan could suddenly hold the most vaunted position of leadership in the Jewish community. 

“Not since Chasidism has there been such a huge shift in Judaism,” Ronda Spinak, artistic director of Jewish Women’s Theatre (JWT) recently observed during an interview. 

Spinak was discussing her latest project, the “Story Archive of Women Rabbis,” a new online video catalogue available at the Jewish Women’s Archive website, in which women rabbis tell their stories. “We contemplated doing a documentary,” Spinak said, “because the footage was so amazing.” 

The project, in fact, was first a staged play. As part of its mission to “tell untold stories of Jewish women,” JWT interviewed 18 Los Angeles women rabbis and then had actors recount their lives and struggles in the rabbis’ words. The interviews also produced 1,000 pages of transcripts covering issues ranging from personal theology to struggles with fertility. The play’s success affirmed for its creators a deeper public interest in their subject, so they decided to invest in a more elaborate undertaking.  

Seven years and $60,000 later, JWT has collected video testimonies from more than 175 women rabbis worldwide. Carefully curated into video clips, the result is both time capsule and oral history, recalling the groundbreaking work of pioneers and the creative innovations that followed. 

“People will look back at the time when women were ordained as rabbis as a time that totally transformed the way Judaism is practiced,” Lynne Himelstein, a co-director of the project, said. “The fact that we have the technology to record these amazing stories is a precious opportunity that we needed to take advantage of.”

By most accounts, the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi was the German-born Regina Jonas in 1935. Legend has it she discovered her passion for the rabbinate at age 11. She pursued her education at the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies in Berlin and graduated as an “academic teacher of religion” after her Talmud professor refused to grant her ordination, even though she responded to her dilemma with the paper, “Can a Woman Be a Rabbi According to Halachic Sources?” Rabbi Leo Baeck, a leader of Liberal Judaism and one of Germany Jewry’s most influential figures, was not convinced, either. It was liberal-minded Rabbi Max Dienemann who finally stepped in and agreed to grant Jonas smicha, although Adolf Hitler’s rise to power curtailed her legacy.

Jonas ministered to Berlin’s Jewish community in defiance of Nazi authority until she was deported to Theresienstadt in 1942. There, she continued in her role, joining the renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, author of “Man’s Search for Meaning,” in counseling and teaching prisoners in the camp. In 1944, she was deported to Auschwitz and murdered, at age 42. 

No one remembered or told her story for nearly 50 years. 

It wasn’t until 1991 that Katharina von Kellenbach, a researcher and lecturer in the department of philosophy and theology at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, found Jonas’s personal effects in an East Berlin archive and brought her legacy to life.

That legacy has now found immortality on the internet as part of the “Story Archive of Women Rabbis,” which seeks to ensure that other legacies such as Jonas’ will not again be forgotten. 

“One of the great gifts of feminism is discovering all these stories that have been hidden away for so long,” Sally Priesand, who in 1972 became the first woman rabbi in the United States, says in a video.

For the inaugural launch, the organizers profiled 25 rabbis, five of whom are based in Los Angeles — Rachel Adler, professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR); Sharon Brous, founder of IKAR; Denise Eger, founder of Congregation Kol Ami; Laura Geller, rabbi emerita and former senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills; and Naomi Levy, founder of Nashuva. Each profile is artfully done, offering a brief biography and a series of thematically curated video clips that tend to have colorful titles. In one, “The Only Rabbi Doing This Work,” Eger, among the first openly lesbian rabbis, recalls the late 1980s when she was a minority rabbi ministering at the funerals of “masses of young Jewish men” who died of AIDS.

“I tried very hard to get to the personal,” Spinak said. “I would often ask: What was your personal crisis and how did Judaism help you get through it? Rabbis don’t talk about those things very often.”

For Adler, the Rabbi David Ellenson Professor of Jewish Religious Thought at HUC-JIR, the pain of not being counted in a minyan was formative. In “What Am I, a Cockroach?” Adler comes off as both defiant and vulnerable: “There’s a real sense in which, if you aren’t counted in a minyan, you stop being thought of as a full person,” she says.

In “Tragedy Entered My Life,” Naomi Levy recounts the trauma of her father’s murder when she 15 and how it transformed her concept of God. “For me, at that time, God died too,” she says. “I just couldn’t understand how the God I loved, the God I prayed to, the God I thought I understood through my studies, would permit such a horrible thing to happen. … Did I stop believing in God? I didn’t. I just started hating God.” 

 Although common threads emerge — views on theology, creative new rituals, soulful prayer — the topics are mostly “all over the place,” Spinak admitted. “It goes from, ‘What’s it like marrying another rabbi?’ to ‘What’s a good death?’ ”

Overall, though, the archive offers a consistent portrait of the ways a once marginalized group fought for representation in their religion. 

“One woman talked about how congregants would say, ‘Rabbi your drash was amazing, but your shoes are fabulous,’ ” Spinak recalled. “And she said, ‘I don’t know which comment I liked better.’ ” 

This exemplified at least one dilemma many women rabbis share: “How can you be your feminine self and be perceived seriously?”

Another shared trait is a feeling of outsider status, which inspired the women to demand new forms of inclusive experience.

“For that first generation of women rabbis, it was all about bringing the matriarchs into prayer, changing God language to be non-gender specific, and creating new rituals and blessings that had not been part of the Jewish conversation. They also offered new interpretations of Torah,” Spinak said. “This is the legacy of the trailblazer generation.”

“A lot of what we’ve heard from these interviews is that women entering the rabbinate have brought a kind of ‘a softer side’ to how Jews look and perceive and interact with rabbis,” Himelstein added. “The image of the rabbi as a man with a long beard and white hair is [gone].”

“Instead of the father authority figure, people project the mother figure onto women rabbis,” Spinak said. “And they work within that and they know that.” 

The organizers hope that these interviews will be of interest to all people, Jewish and non-Jewish, young and old, and provide a portal into the Jewish experience, particularly for those who do not live near urban Jewish centers. 

“What I had hoped when we started is that people who maybe don’t have access to rabbis or are not affiliated could go online and hear what these women have to say about God and holy moments and maybe feel not as alone,” Spinak said.

So, did all this time spent studying women rabbis perhaps inspire a new career interest?

“It didn’t make me want to be one,” Spinak said, “but I really have a …  well, yeah, maybe a little bit.”

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Latina Jews put stories onstage

During a recent Jewish Women’s Theatre (JWT) rehearsal, a young actress reads a solo scene from a show that’s about to open. She plays the role of a woman who steps into an old-fashioned New York hardware store and is suddenly flooded with warm memories of a similar store run by her late grandfather when she was a child. 

It’s a powerful moment for the storyteller, transporting her back to a time when she was part of a Jewish community, in a foreign land, that had, to a large degree, integrated into the life of the country while retaining its separate identity — its shuls, its social clubs and its own way of life. 

The country and the Jewish life that the storyteller remembers with such visceral clarity is not Poland or Russia of a century ago, and it’s not Iran or Syria in modern times. 

It’s Venezuela.

In the hands of actress Marnina Wirtschafter, the scene evokes laughter and tears. But for the piece’s writer, Deborah Benaim, the look and smells of the hardware store do more than evoke the nostalgia felt by many uprooted immigrants; in her case, the longing is not only for her abuelo’s hardware store, but also for the Latin American life she’s left behind.

The Ferreteria [hardware store] in Caracas” is one of a dozen pieces that comprise “Chutzpah & Salsa,” a JWT production opening on May 15 and running through May 24 at various locations in Los Angeles. 

Like most JWT presentations, “Chutzpah & Salsa” is composed of stand-alone stories centered around a central theme. Most of the pieces in this show are slice-of-life vignettes written by Jewish women whose families — after leaving (or escaping from) Europe or the Middle East — emigrated to Latin America and, after several generations, found their way to the United States.

Ronda Spinak, JWT’s co-founder and artistic director, said what’s attractive to her about “Chutzpah & Salsa” is that it brings the Latina Jewish immigrant story to life and helps the audience “see the universality of it.” 

Susan Morgenstern, the production’s director, pointed out that for most people, if you say “Jewish immigrant,” it conjures up images of Tevye leaving a Russian or Polish shtetl and arriving, finally, at Ellis Island. But many Jews who migrated from Europe and the Middle East in the late 19th and early 20th centuries went to Latin America instead, and this is “equally the Jewish immigrant story,” she said.

Suzanna Kaplan, who is producing “Chutzpah & Salsa” with Spinak, is from Mexico City and has been JWT’s literary manager since the company’s second year. “Ronda asked me if I thought I could put it together, and I dove right in and found people to help and guide me, people in the Latin American-Jewish community who are doing amazing things,” Kaplan said.

The writers include Sonia Nazario, who won a Pulitzer Prize when she worked for the Los Angeles Times; Cuban-born poet Ruth Behar; novelist and academic Barbara Mujica; and Fulbright scholar and author Ivonne Saed. 

“The writing is by people, mostly women, who have a background in different parts of Latin America, from Argentina to Mexico,” Spinak said. 

Other pieces are by writers who were born and grew up in Cuba, Venezuela and Chile; the stories cover a wide range of ages.

“We wanted to make sure that we’re balancing the stories so that they’re all fresh,” Morgenstern said. “We want humor, of course, and some romance, but mostly we want the dramatic, profound, heartfelt stories that have as one of the underlying themes: escape and finding your new home.”

“In one piece, Barbara’s piece, you find out the uncle and the brother left Germany right before the war because of an incident that happened, an incident that people will understand and recognize,” Spinak said. “What they will be surprised by is that a similar incident happens again in Chile. … And that’s laid into the larger story being told, which is whether the second generation feels accepted in Chile.” 

Another story, “Can’t Take the Mexi Out of the Jew,” performed by the woman who wrote it, Erika Sabel Flores, is about her physical and spiritual journey after leaving her home in Mexico. The story describes her time with New York Jews — who, it seems, weren’t observant enough for her — to a spiritual awakening in Israel, to living with Chabadniks in Florida, to eventually finding a Mexican area near Miami where she felt comfortable.

Machatunim” (“in-laws” in English), written by Maureen Rubin from a story by JoLynn Pineda, is different from the other tales in “Chutzpah & Salsa.” It’s about an American non-Jewish woman — her father is Latino, her mother a fair-skinned Midwesterner — who had always been unclear about her ethnic and racial self-identity. As an adult working in finance, she falls in love with a Jewish man and decides to convert to Judaism. Her struggle in the piece is how to inform her parents, especially her Latino father, about her conversion. 

“What drew me to JWT in the first place,” Morgenstern said, “is that on our stage, there’s always a mixture of Jews and non-Jews, young and old. … It’s all about the embrace, the welcoming, and the audiences range from the secular to the Orthodox. And I love that the community is not a club that’s keeping people out, but in both our art and in our way of life [we’re] embracing in, and that’s very much represented in this particular show.”

At The Braid in Santa Monica, JWT’s home, “Chutzpah & Salsa” will have a companion art show opening on May 22. 

“What we always do, every time we have a new theme in the salon, we have a new art show, so that people who come to The Braid have this combination of art and dramatic performance that mesh,” Spinak said. “So it will be a very, very full experience of fine art and performance art. The idea is to be immersed in the art.”

“Chutzpah & Salsa” runs from May 15 through May 24 at various venues in Los Angeles, including Jewish Women’s Theatre’s home, The Braid, 2912 Colorado St., Santa Monica, No. 103. For information and tickets, call (800) 838-3006 or go to


Healing the unbearable

The transformative experience that followed one woman’s unspeakably tragic loss after her son is killed by terrorists is dramatized in the solo show, “The Blessing of a Broken Heart.” 

The play, adapted for the stage by Todd Salovey from the book of the same title by Sherri Mandell, is a production of the Jewish Women’s Theatre and is being staged at The Braid in Santa Monica through March 20.

Salovey, associate artistic director at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, said that he first encountered the book 10 years ago at the home of a friend who had invited him to a Rosh Hashanah lunch. 

“The language and the spirituality and the poetry just spoke so loudly, and I felt that these words would work beautifully on the stage. Later that year, when I was looking for a piece to develop for the San Diego Rep season, I decided to start to work on a version of it,” Salovey said.

“The first actor I ever worked with on it was Lisa Robins, who still plays the part now. We did some workshops with small audiences around San Diego, and I thought the piece revealed a lot about the Jewish approach to tests that a person has in life — and where one could grow and become more because of the challenges and tests that we face.”

Mandell, an American living with her family in the settlement of Tekoa on the West Bank, faced one of the most excruciating challenges conceivable for a parent. In May 2001, her 13-year-old son, Koby, ditched school with a friend and went hiking in one of the ancient caves dotting the landscape. The next day, their bodies were found — they had been battered to death with stones the size of bowling balls, their deaths attributed to Palestinian terrorists who were never caught.

Mandell said she wrote the book in the first year after the murder as a kind of elegy because she was in such pain, and she wanted some way to keep Koby alive. It was a way, she said, to connect to his soul.

“People always talk about moving on, and I say you move with — there’s a continuing relationship. You continue with the loss. I read somebody who said loss is like the presence of an absence. So, there’s something that’s present, but I feel like there’s also a soul connection,” Mandell told the Journal. 

In addition, Mandell found a way to connect to others who have suffered similar losses by establishing the Koby Mandell Foundation. It had its first program, a retreat for bereaved mothers, 10 months after her son’s death.

“By July 2002, we had a summer camp for bereaved children. All were victims of terror,” she said. “By 2003, we had a camp for 600 kids, also victims of terror. They had lost a mother, father, sister or brother … because it was the [Second] Intifada. Eventually we started taking other bereaved children, not just from terror, but people who had suffered loss. Now we have spiritual support groups, we have yoga, groups for psychodrama and other programs for the mothers and the kids. The kids have camps during the year.”

Mandell worked closely with Salovey in developing the play, which has had two brief tours to East Coast schools and synagogues and a short run at a Jewish theater in Phoenix. But Salovey, who also directs the play, called this presentation its first full, extended production.

He added that, though the story deals with healing from heartbreak, audiences seem to find humor in certain parts, such as sections about Mandell’s youth on Long Island, where she grew up with no Jewish influence in her life. 

“She didn’t go to Hebrew school. She didn’t really go to synagogue, and her grandmother would make her bacon sandwiches for lunch,” Salovey said. “While her friends were in Hebrew school, she would be home watching television — and, on her 13th birthday, her parents took her to a production of ‘Hair’ on Broadway. 

“But, as she grew older, she began to search. She went to Israel, and she met someone who had also rediscovered his Jewish roots, and they moved to Israel and started a life together.”

Mandell, who is now Modern Orthodox, explained that the primary influence leading her to the practice was her husband, Seth, who wanted an observant Jewish home. Second, there was the learning involved in the religion. 

“I love the learning, and I love that it’s spiritual. When I discovered that Jews believe in the world to come, and reincarnation, and learning Kaballah, I just found it so interesting. I think that there is a beauty there, and a truth.”

She also commented on the seeming contradiction in a blessing coming from a broken heart. 

“There’s some kind of breaking apart that has to occur for something new to come into the world. I think that’s one thing I didn’t understand. And I didn’t understand the truth that comes with knowing death, the truth that one acquires about life.” 

Mandell continued by saying one learns what’s really important in life and that there must be something above and beyond our mundane concerns. 

“I just got off [a] plane, and there was a college student next to me. She was complaining about having to wait so long to get off the plane. She said something like, ‘This is a nightmare.’ But, when you know what a nightmare is, you know what it’s not. You have, I think, a more accurate view of the world. And I think [you learn] to turn to God, because that’s what happened to me.”

“The Blessing of a Broken Heart” is presented by The Jewish Women’s Theatre at The Braid. For tickets and more information, please click here.

Artists wrestle with own visions after studying story of Jacob’s Ladder

Struggles aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes they can even provide inspiration. 

The inspiration for a new group art exhibition at The Braid in Santa Monica was a much-interpreted dream and a wrestling match that nobody witnessed. 

In the apocryphal passage in Torah, Jacob, grandson of Abraham, successfully wrestled the guardian angel of his brother, Esau, and ended up receiving the angel’s blessing. The concept of Jacob’s struggles — both his bout with the angel and throughout his life — resonated with Ronda Spinak, artistic director of Jewish Women’s Theatre, which operates both an art gallery and performance space at The Braid.

“From a contemporary point of view, you could look at the concept of wrestling with angels, wrestling with God and wrestling with man. What are those moments in our lives that we have to wrestle with something?” Spinak said. “Maybe it’s choices about the people we live or don’t live with. Maybe it’s our careers or choices about our children. What do we wrestle with in our life morally or ethically? That was a subject we could spend a lot of time with.”

Spinak did just that. Gathering a group of artists from around the Los Angeles area, she brought in Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso from Indiana for two days of Torah study. Lynne Himelstein, director of JWT’s Story Archive of Women Rabbis, underwrote the cost of the workshop. 

Collectively, the artists wrestled and struggled, both with Jacob’s choices and with their own. After the two days were over, the artists went home to develop their own modern take on the theme.

The fruits of their labors are on display through March 20 in “Beyond Jacob’s Ladder: Mapping the Story” at the Gallery at The Braid. Participants in the mixed-media exhibition include photographer Julie Bram, writer and sculptor Robin Russin, portrait painter Laraine Mestman, ritual spaces designer Laurie Gross, textile artist Peachy Levy and poet/artist Eve Brandstein. Although the gallery’s director, Marilee Tolwin, herself a painter, missed the Torah study session, she also contributed a piece for the show. 

As the exhibition’s title suggests, group members were by no means restricted to depicting the most celebrated parts of the Jacob story: the ladder to heaven that appeared in his dream, the struggle with the angel or the theft of his father’s birthright from Esau. The conflict over Jacob’s marriage to sisters Leah and Rachel and his unfair treatment by their father, Laban, were also fair game.

“I came with a certain amount of material and, at first, I was concerned that maybe I didn’t have enough,” said Sasso, who was the first woman rabbi to be ordained in the Reconstructionist movement. “I didn’t have to worry about that at all.”

Santa Barbara-based Gross raved about the two-day retreat, saying the experience took her back to the early 1980s, when study of text would feed her work.

“You forget how much you get by spending time with colleagues and scholars studying,” Gross said. “For me, it was such a treat and an unusual thing in my life to be invited to sit and study for two days. I absolutely loved it.” 

Sasso had participants delve into the implications of Jacob’s ladder dream. In the dream, Sasso said, God gave Jacob the opportunity to ascend to heaven, but he was distracted by the angels descending. When the dreaming Jacob was ready to climb the ladder, it was too late.

“We talked about when those moments of opportunity come around — do we take them? And if we don’t, do they come around again?” Sasso said. “We created lots of opportunities to imagine where their lives fit into this narrative.” 

As weighty as the issues and the discussion often were, the gathering had its light-hearted moments, as well. In honor of Esau selling his birthright to Jacob for a meal of lentil stew, one of the artists cooked a lentil stew and brought it to the second day of the gathering. 

“So not only did we read and listen to the story, we tasted it, too,” Sasso said.

Gross, who also runs the Avi Schaefer Fund in memory of her son, as well as her art studio, said she ended up wrestling with a different type of struggle — availability of time and finding an inspirational concept.

Nearly a month before the deadline to finish her work, Gross says she panicked, fearing she would not be able to complete the assignment. She refocused and spent some time with the concept and remembered a work that she had begun 20 years ago: a ladder with winged messengers attached.

“I sat with that for about a week and I thought, ‘I can’t do this. It doesn’t reflect anything I gained, the richness of that exchange [with her fellow artists],’ ” Gross said. So, she “gave myself the weekend, and I began to figure out a way to create the circular ladder out of fabric. A week later, the piece came together.”

For her part, Tolwin created a textual oil painting for the exhibition, drawing from elements of Jacob’s dream and the concept of wrestling. She took inspiration from circumstances in her own life, most notably reconciling her less secular approach to Judaism with that of her Orthodox husband.

“We wrestled with that for five years. I wrestled with him and he wrestled with God,” Tolwin said. “We went back and forth. Finally, I realized it’s OK for me to be what I am. I’m a good Jewish person. I am who I am, and that’s fine.” 

Drama queens

One of the biggest and most obvious challenges in raising Jewish awareness and building Jewish connection is finding ways of getting your point across. Every week, across Los Angeles, there are hundreds of classes and sermons that aim specifically to do that: get a Jewish point across.

This could be a Shabbat sermon on the parasha of the week, or weekday classes on raising Jewish children, improving your marriage, refining your character, connecting to Jewish peoplehood and so on.

These classes convey plenty of valuable information, but rarely will they use the device of drama. And by drama, I don’t mean a speaker using a dramatic tone. I mean real drama, as in professional theater drama.

Like the drama I saw the other night at Rosanne Ziering’s home, performed by the Jewish Women’s Theatre (JWT).

For almost two hours, professional actors performed mini-plays that dealt, in dramatic ways, with the kind of subjects I often hear about in sermons and classes. The only difference is that here, I was spellbound. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the performers or wait to hear the end of the stories.

There was a woman whose husband had personal habits that drove her nuts, but who discovers the depth of her love for him on a birthday card; a daughter who was disappointed that her mother didn’t share words of wisdom as she was dying—until the very end, when the mother spoke about her lifelong preoccupation with her weight.

There was a single mother whose teenage son ignored her—until she was diagnosed with breast cancer; a husband who admitted to his wife that, 50 years earlier, a woman they both knew almost seduced him, and that he still had the ticket where she wrote down her room number; a Jewish woman who shows up at a local fair at a Catholic high school and realizes how much she needs a community of her own.

There was a dancer-turned-successful lawyer who has an epiphany and ends up quitting her profession; a Jewish family traveling with a Palestinian family who were stopped at the Jordanian border when the Jewish women’s vitamins are thought to be drugs; a Christian woman in jail who discovers Judaism and leaves behind her mother’s oppression.

There was a woman reading a communist manifesto who learns from her father, who lived under Stalin in the 1940s, not to take words at face value but to question. She remembers this on his yahrzeit. 

There were stories like that all night long. The title of the show was “The Moment You Knew,” and it was billed as “Jewish women share stories of discovery and awakening.”

The theater group started pretty much the same way—with three Jewish women sharing stories around a kitchen table. It was in spring 2007 when theater lovers Ronda Spinak, Ellen Sandler and Deena Novak gave birth to JWT as a way to explore themes of Jewish identity for women in America.

The format is what they call “salon theater,” and it is usually performed in intimate home settings for audiences of about 50 to 100 people, depending on the size of the home. Over the years, they have attracted many volunteers and professionals from the theater and entertainment worlds as well as community funders, who have helped them grow their program.

They now have several shows a year based on different themes. Their previous show was titled “Saffron and Rosewater,” and it explored the search for Jewish identity among Persian women. They’ve also produced shows dealing with the theme of gratitude and one titled “Eden According to Eve,” which re-examined Bible stories from a woman’s perspective.

Last year, the group performed at the Museum of Tolerance a play titled “Stories From the Fringe: Women Rabbis, Revealed!” which used interviews with female rabbis in Los Angeles and was written by Spinak and Rabbi Lynne A. Kern.

Themes for upcoming shows will be “The Art of Forgiveness,” “Woman Plans, God Laughs” and “Oh Mother.”

A big key to their success is that they use theater professionals. Most of the plays are based on true stories, but these stories can’t simply be told: They must be produced, written and performed for dramatic effect.

That’s why the stories enter you.

The dialogue, the body movement, the timing, the delivery of the words, the pacing: Just like on a Broadway stage, everything is geared to getting you to listen to a story and absorb it.

By “adding” to reality, they deepen it. By “performing” the truth, they help you understand it.

Maybe it was the fact that they weren’t trying to teach me anything that made me feel I learned a few things that night, in addition to being entertained. Among other things, I learned that a “women’s” show must absolutely be seen by men, if for no other reason than that the sexes need to understand each other better.

At the end of the show, I went over to Spinak, who runs the group and is the artistic director, and made a suggestion: Create a show for next year on “Receiving the Torah” and perform it on Shavuot night in an Orthodox synagogue in Pico-Robertson. The only restriction, I said, would be no music.

She smiled, and without any hint of drama, said it would be a great idea.