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

‘Exile’ highlights the journey of Sephardic Jews


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.

From left: Jennifer Taub, Meredith Thomas and Jennifer Lee Laks in “April, May & June.” Photo by Ed Kriege

‘April, May & June’: Siblings and secrets


Three sisters in their 40s spar with one another and discover a long-held secret as they pack up their childhood home after the death of their mother in the new play “April, May & June,” now running at Theatre 40 on the campus of Beverly Hills High School.

Playwright Gary Goldstein described the sisters, whose names make up the title, as a study in contrasts. June (Meredith Thomas), the youngest, is a lesbian who has just broken up with her lover. He characterized her as more free-spirited and brasher than her siblings but said she must learn to better connect with people.

May (Jennifer Taub), the middle sister, is the subject of numerous jokes regarding middle child syndrome.

“She’s kind of the caregiver and the mediator, and wants to take care of everybody and never to be left out,” said Goldstein, who also writes for film and television and is a freelance film critic and feature writer for the Los Angeles Times. “And I think she needs to learn more confidence and to trust herself a little bit more, and I think she does through this experience.

“And then April (Jennifer Lee Laks), who’s the oldest sister, is the one who’s large and in charge and has always been kind of a substitute mother for her sisters in some respects as they were growing up. And she needs to let go and loosen up, and deal with her own life better than she has. So, I think it’s kind of a classic structure for three sisters.”

Goldstein added that, just as the three have very different personalities, they each view their childhood differently.

“April was the most critical of her parents, and particularly of the mother, because she disagreed with the way her mother approached life. She just felt that the mother didn’t have high enough standards, as she called them, and just moved through life without really having goals and having great taste — the things that she, April, the adult April, came to value.

“She tried to do everything to not have the life that the mother lived, as a person and a wife, and found herself, inadvertently, in a bit of the same boat as her mother,” Goldstein said. “When she looks back on it now, there’s this realization.”

On the other hand, the playwright said, May looks back with much more forgiveness and wants for herself what she feels could have been between her parents. “As a result, she somehow knows how to love, how to make it work with her husband, because it was kind of an anti-example that the parents set.”

As for June, Goldstein sees her as falling somewhere between the other two. “She’s very blunt about how the house they lived in was not a great house, and the mother didn’t have great taste in terms of furniture and things like that, and how the father was an alcoholic, among all the things she witnessed,” he said. “And yet, she was not as critical. It was not a matter of being critical of the parents — it was just a matter of being honest about the parents. She saw what she saw, they were what they were, and her takeaway from her childhood was just to go off on her own, create her own life, and be who she was.”

Goldstein has given the sisters a Jewish father and a half-Jewish mother and set the action on Long Island, N.Y. However, he believes the situation could take place anywhere and is universal enough to be about families of any ethnicity. He said he grew up in a mildly observant family, and he writes Jewish characters whenever it makes sense to him to do so.

“I think there’s a unique warmth and connection that Jewish siblings have. I don’t want to be general about it, but I think there’s some very basic emotional things that made sense to me to make them Jewish,” Goldstein said.

He continued, “If I weren’t Jewish, would I have written them Jewish? Probably not. I probably wouldn’t even think about it. If there is anything autobiographical in it, I think some of the emotions and some of the references and things certainly do come from growing up Jewish. It turns the stereotype on its ear because of the kind of person the mother was. She was not what you would think of as the typical Jewish mother.”

In fact, the revelation about the mother that comes at the climax of the play stuns the sisters and brings them closer together as they learn she was not as pedestrian as she seemed. Goldstein hopes the story will inspire audiences to find out as much as they can about their own parents while they still are alive, and also to work on whatever they never reconciled with a parent who is gone.

“When we’re younger, we don’t always think about all the ramifications of the people who’ve always been in our lives,” he said. “But as you get a little older, you really look back and you want to know more about them. There are so many unanswered questions I have about my family members that are no longer alive, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t do the work to try to learn more, even when they’re not here. So, never give up on the memories of people who are gone, because there’s always something to learn about them.”

Female boxer goes toe-to-toe with violence in ‘The Wholehearted’


In 2012, playwright and director Deborah Stein was riveted by a conversation with her artistic partner, Suli Holum, who described a startling newspaper article she had read on a female boxer, Christy Martin. 

Martin, a world champion, had been the first woman in that sport to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated. But outside the ring in 2010, she was brutally stabbed and shot by her husband, who also was her trainer. He left her for dead in their home, but Martin managed to crawl out to the street and get to a hospital. She healed and spoke of her desire to make a boxing comeback in a moving interview on ESPN, but her dream never came true after she lost subsequent fights, including one in which she broke her hand in nine places.

Stein was fascinated by this story of a celebrated fighter who had used her fists to make a living but who nevertheless became the victim of brutal violence. She was captivated, as well, by the saga of a survivor that did not end with the kind of victory widely proffered in popular culture. 

 “Martin’s experience hardly fits the mold of the expected Hollywood redemption saga,” Stein, 39, said during a recent telephone interview. “Those tend to be false narratives. Something horrible happens to a character, and then something strong inside them allows them to triumph somehow. But that’s not actually how traumatic experiences work. If you experience trauma in some form, that trauma will be with you for the rest of your life. It’s like a scar. So Suli and I wanted to move away from the story of a survivor to a story of survival — what really [can] happen to you when you have the rest of your life to live every day with that experience.”

The result is their play “The Wholehearted,” written and co-directed by Stein and co-directed and performed by Holum. It’s not Martin’s story, Stein said, but rather a fiction inspired by a number of female boxers as well as survivors of domestic violence. The play will be performed at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City from Dec. 2-11.

The one-woman show revolves around the character of Dee Crosby, a world champion boxer, whose body and career are shattered after her husband viciously assaults her. The show depicts Crosby’s pain inside and outside of the ring as she relives her past boxing wins, tries to reconnect with her female lover, Carmen, and plots revenge against her husband and trainer, who recently was released from prison. Holum portrays all of the characters as a variety of cameras onstage stream footage of Crosby’s past and present life.

 “The play asks questions about who in our culture gets to be violent and in what ways,” Stein said. “There’s culturally acceptable violence and the glorification of violence and how that actually plays out in the human experience. The play also asks questions about who gets to tell our story and if it’s possible to take back control of our own narrative. The sports news footage that we use throughout the [show] is the cable news version of Dee Crosby’s story, but she is trying to tell a different version of her story. I don’t think she entirely succeeds, but she desperately wants to tell her story and not be a victim in that way. 

 “But we don’t answer any of these uncomfortable questions. We want the audience talking about them instead.”

Creating more questions than answers is how Stein views her work as particularly Jewish. She was raised in Queens, N.Y., by a secular mother whose father fled pogroms in Poland and by a father who had grown up in an observant family in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn.

 “My parents had two polar-opposite relationships to [their heritage], so when they raised me, they tried to find a way of thinking about Judaism that matched their own liberal-humanism approach to the world,” Stein said.

They eventually chose a Reconstructionist synagogue community. For Stein’s bat mitzvah project, the budding writer took photographs of Russian-Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood.

Stein’s earlier play “Natasha and the Coat,” was inspired by her own experience of living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in her early 20s, where tensions arose between ultra-Orthodox Jews and young hipsters. “There were incidents where women riding their bikes in the summer, wearing short shorts and a halter top, were yelled at by [Chasidim] saying their clothing was inappropriate,” Stein recalled. “Natasha and the Coat” tells of a young, hip, secular Jew who falls in love with an Orthodox dry cleaner who must choose whether to become involved with her or to remain true to his family.

Stein also wrote a 2009 play, “Chaplin: The Son of Isidore and Hanna Thornstein,” about a group of Jewish filmmakers in 1930s Paris inspired by Charlie Chaplin. She now is working on a piece about Jewish women immigrants, in part based on her émigré grandfather’s experience.

Stein has received a grant to research his story in Poland next summer, when she will return to her grandfather’s village as well as attend a Yiddish music festival, along with her husband, Andrew Horwitz, the program director of the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.

Her collaboration with Holum began when the two women attended Swarthmore College in the early 2000s. They worked together on two plays with the Pig Iron Theatre Company, which Holum co-founded while still an undergraduate, but went their separate ways until they chanced to run into each other at a dinner party in New York around 2009. Their first play — also inspired by a newspaper article — starred Holum as a woman who discovers that her son does not share her DNA. The pair founded their production company, Stein | Holum Projects, in 2010. 

As research for “The Wholehearted,” Holum trained to become a boxer and she and Stein “watched a lot of boxing videos, domestic violence videos and love stories set in rural desert communities in California or the American South,” Stein said.

 “We brought our designers into the process very early on,” she continued. “When they said they wanted to work with live cameras onstage, we realized this could be a play, in part, about self-portraiture. [In her head,] Dee Crosby is the star of a big Hollywood biopic about her life, and the tension comes from the conflict between that desire and her reality.”

The play ends on a relatively downbeat note, which is deliberately different from “the Joseph Campbell-style hero’s journey,” Stein said. “In Campbell’s mythology, the hero gets to slay the dragon. In ‘The Wholehearted,’ Dee Crosby may or she may not.”

“The Wholehearted” will be performed at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City from Dec. 2-11. For tickets and more information, visit the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Sharing lessons from his life as a ‘Wandering Israeli’


Like many Israeli soldiers, Elad Shippony traveled the world after completing his army service. What’s different about his five-year road trip and subsequent journeys is that he distilled them into a spoken-word stage show.

The result, called “The Wandering Israeli,” is coming to Sinai Temple in Los Angeles on Sept. 11. It will be performed in English at 6 p.m. and in Hebrew at 8:30 p.m.

For Shippony, it’s a homecoming of sorts. He grew up in North Hollywood and Sherman Oaks, and attended Grant High School. His desire to feel a deeper connection to Israel led him to make aliyah at 17. He joined a commando unit in the army and stayed with a family on Kibbutz Mishmar HaSharon, known as the birthplace of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. (Barak at that time was commander-in-chief of the Israel Defense Forces.)

 “I formed a feeling of love and belonging to the country,” Shippony, 46, said in a phone interview.

After Shippony’s three-year IDF service, he backpacked across Africa. He sailed down the Congo River with an army friend in a dugout canoe in search of pygmies. They were captured by Zairean soldiers and held captive in the forest but managed to be released. (You’ll have to attend the show to find out what happened.) 

Later, he bought artwork and crafts in Malawi and brought the objects back to the United States, selling them on the Venice Beach Boardwalk. He also freelanced as a sportswriter for the Los Angeles Daily News.

Shippony realized that his inability to speak Spanish kept him from being able to communicate with a large percentage of L.A.’s residents. To remedy this, he used his savings to move to South America for a year to learn Spanish. 

 “When I came back, I noticed a whole side of Los Angeles that I’d never seen before,” he said. 

When he returned to Israel, he attended Tel Aviv University with a focus on Middle Eastern studies. While in school, he also worked as a counselor for teenagers on Kibbutz Mishmar HaSharon.

Much like his decision to learn Spanish, he realized he needed to learn Arabic if he hoped to communicate with much of the country’s population. Soon after Jordan’s King Hussein and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the 1994 peace treaty between their countries, Shippony boarded a bus one morning in Afula in northern Israel, and by the afternoon he’d arrived in Amman, the capital of Jordan. 

He spent three months living in a backpacker’s hostel, not telling anyone he was Israeli — and this became the central story of “The Wandering Israeli.” 

Shippony befriended Kamil, the middle-aged Palestinian owner of the Cliff Hostel, who offered to be his language instructor and gave him an Arabicized name: Adel. When he returned to Israel with his newfound knowledge of Arabic, “I once again saw things I couldn’t see before. It added a new part to Israel I hadn’t seen,” he said.

 “I believe communication between people is the first step toward peace. Now that I could communicate, I wasn’t scared anymore. Now I could actually speak to the local community,” he said. “When you can speak Arabic, you get respect.”

Shippony got married and found work in the burgeoning high-tech industry, writing blog posts for technical and marketing websites. But it wasn’t what he wanted to do.

 “The piece that I was most proud of writing was my resignation letter,” he said with a laugh.

He built a website and taught himself to earn a living from online marketing and affiliate marketing. That’s when Shippony, who had become the father of a little girl, wrote the play “The Wandering Israeli,” partly to tap into his yearning for the open road.

 “I couldn’t travel anymore like I did before. You have a family to support. You can’t disappear for three months,” he said.

That was a decade ago. He’s since staged more than 600 Hebrew performances of the play in every corner of Israel. Onstage, Shippony slips in and out of characters, accents and languages like they are costumes. Two musicians, Sagi Eiland and Eran Edri, interweave live music to match whatever region of the world he’s talking about. 

Much of the play is humorous, with Shippony poking fun at himself and the situations he found himself in. But the underlying message is the central importance of communication.

 “It’s very non-political,” he said. “Everybody has their own idea of how to attain peace. Everybody wants to live in peace. We can perform in a religious community or in front of a mixed group of Arabs and Jews, and we’re received well everywhere.”

Twelve years after he went to Amman to learn Arabic, Shippony returned to the country with a young film student, who produced a half-hour documentary that was nominated for a prize in the Jerusalem Film Festival. In the movie, he reunites with Kamil, who tells the camera in broken English, “I hate any Israeli, OK? But when I know Adel, my ideas changed.”

Shippony has been staging an English version of his play at the historic Jaffa Theater in the Old City of Jaffa every Monday night this summer. He decided to bring the play to the U.S. to challenge people’s preconceived notions about daily life in Israel. After it’s performed in L.A., it will be staged in Palo Alto and New Jersey. 

Despite all of this, his wanderings continue. Three years ago, he decided to learn Russian, a common language in Israel, by couchsurfing in Russia for a month. 

He also hosts couchsurfers at his home in Kibbutz Magal, located near the Green Line, where he lives with his wife and three daughters. He likes to take visitors to eat hummus in neighboring Arab villages.

 “I really like to show the side of Israel you don’t see on TV,” he said. 

 

“The Wandering Israeli” will be performed at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles on Sept. 11, preceded by a show in San Diego on Sept. 10 (in English only). For more information, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.

‘Paloma’ examines interfaith relationships


Playwright Anne García-Romero, talking about her latest work, “Paloma,” said three of the world’s major religions are represented by the three main characters. “One is Muslim-American; one is Puerto Rican, and she’s Catholic; and then the third character is also American, and he is of the Jewish faith.  And so, in the play, I do bring out aspects of each of their faiths.”

She does so by depicting the relationship of the characters to their respective religions. The main conflict of the play, which is currently at the downtown Los Angeles Theatre Center, arises from a romance between Ibrahim Ahmed (Ethan Rains), a Muslim, and Paloma Flores (Caro Zeller), a Catholic. “There is a lot of discord around being able to have a relationship with an interfaith situation,” García-Romero said.

The contention between the two characters arises from Ibrahim’s desire to follow certain tenets of Islam, particularly the rule that one must remain chaste before marriage. “I wanted to explore how a character like that would exist in a modern context,” García-Romero said, “when peers that he has, or, in this case, Paloma, his romantic interest, don’t share those same values.”  

Not only are her religious values different, but Paloma, a free spirit, also pressures Ibrahim for a sexual relationship. García-Romero described Paloma as a “nominal Catholic.”

“However,” she said, “she talks about the importance of going to Christmas Eve Mass and the importance of the rosary that her mother gave her. So, for her, it’s a touchstone to her family, and it’s something that she does not want to relinquish.”

García-Romero herself is an observant Catholic and said she learned about the Muslim faith from experts at the University of Notre Dame, where she teaches theater.

Regarding the Jewish character of Jared Rabinowitz (Jesse Einstein), García-Romero said, “The play doesn’t really discuss his current practice of his faith, but, for him, the notion of tradition and family are very important. He talks about his grandfather, who was a rabbi, whose life inspires his current profession. He’s a lawyer, and he’s working, in this play, to help his friend, Ibrahim, who needs his legal assistance.”

Throughout the play, we watch Jared preparing Ibrahim’s defense for an impending trial, but we don’t learn until later exactly what charges he’s facing. And, despite Ibrahim’s frequent lack of cooperation in the face of what he insists are unjust accusations, Jared persists in his desire to help his friend.

“For Jared, his faith is reflected in the desire to seek tolerance and justice in his work and in his life, and to continue his grandfather’s legacy of spirituality through justice,” García-Romero said, adding that she is very familiar with Jewish life, having grown up with numerous Jewish friends.

“When I was growing up, I went to several bat mitzvahs and bar mitzvahs, and so I had experiences of going to temple with my friends. And, in my adult life, I have several very close friends who are Jewish, with whom I talk a lot about faith and religion, and how it’s influenced their lives,” she said. “I had one of my friends read the script to get her opinion on the Jewish character.”

In addition, she said, “I was a part of an interfaith dialogue in my last year of college, where I attended Masses and also Jewish services. So I think all of that experience really informed the play.”  

One of the inspirations for “Paloma” was an 11th-century book on the art of Arab love called “The Ring of the Dove” by Ibn Hazm, written while Spain was under Muslim rule. In the play, Ibrahim and Paloma are studying the book as students at New York University and reading the book aloud to each other when they are alone. García-Romero, who read a Spanish translation of the text, which was originally written in Arabic, translated it to English for her play.  

“I began to look at this book and was really so intrigued by not only the poetic nature of the book, but the fact that there was this remarkable culture of poetry and science during this Muslim era in Spain, when most of Europe was, essentially, having a hard time reading and writing,” she said. 

She was also impressed by the fact that, at the time the book was written, the three religions represented in her play coexisted harmoniously in Spain. That notion of harmony is at the heart of her play.

“The universal theme for me is coexistence and tolerance,” she said. “How do we live with someone who has vastly different beliefs? How do we love them? How do we reconcile our differences?   

“I would like audiences coming away with an awareness of the complexity of interfaith relationships, and the ability to question differences in others, and being motivated to learn more about those differences versus making judgments that are uninformed,” García-Romero said. “I hope that people come away from this knowing a little bit more about each faith and really discussing how we can coexist in this modern era.”

For tickets or more information, “Paloma”, visit web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/946306 or call 866-811-4111

Los Angeles Theatre Center
514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles
Runs through June 21, Thursday- Saturday 8 p.m. | Sunday 3 p.m.

 

The ‘Train to Zakopane’ and anti-Semitism


What is it about travel that gets us to reveal ourselves to strangers? Is it that no one knows who we are and we can play with our identity?

In Henry Jaglom’s new play, “Train to Zakopane: A True Story of Hate and Love,” at the Edgemar Center for the Arts, the playwright explores the repercussions of fellow travelers revealing their most deeply held beliefs, including their prejudices.

“Travel opens you up,” Jaglom said in a recent interview. His story — of a train ride his father actually took across Poland in 1928, disembarking in the resort town of Zakopane — has us confronting an unwanted passenger: anti-Semitism.

In the story, which Jaglom’s father first told to him in the 1970s, a mannered Russian businessman (Mike Falkow) on his way home from a family seder meets and begins to fall for a vivacious young nurse who is Polish, Catholic and anti-Semitic. Will he tell her that he is Jewish? Will she become a philo-Semite?

“My father, when he told me the story, described it as ‘the one thing in my life that I’m not proud of,’ ” said Jaglom, speaking of the fact that upon hearing the young woman’s expressions of anti-Semitism, he didn’t immediately reveal his identity. “He thought he could make a better understanding of the Jews if he acted as a non-Jew,” explained Jaglom, who has written several plays and is credited with writing and directing 21 independent films, including “Hollywood Dreams” and “Just 45 Minutes From Broadway.”

“My father had to leave Russia because of the Russian Revolution. In his early 20s, he became a sort-of minister of trade for the Free State of Danzig,” said Jaglom, who is the first person in his family to become an American.

As for the play’s between-the-wars cultural background: “The Poles, with their strict Catholic upbringing, had been taught anti-Semitism from an early age and were known to be the most anti-Semitic people in Europe, far more than the Germans,” Jaglom said.

It is the ease with which bigotry was expressed during that time that Jaglom felt important to bring to life. “It is the almost casualness of that anti-Semitism that is most frightening to me,” said Jaglom, who was born in London and raised in New York.

“The small ways that bigotry can develop into national obsessions has been for me an interesting thing to explore,” said Jaglom, who, after so many years, has found himself traveling back to his father’s story. The story “talks to all kinds of prejudice,” which he looked at as “the thing that is underneath our rational minds.”

With this play, Jaglom wants to start a conversation about that “thing.” He understands that bigotry is hard to deal with on a personal level and he asks the audience, both Jews and non-Jews, to look at themselves.

Actress Tanna Frederick, who plays the Polish nurse, unexpectedly has had to take a look at herself, too.

“It’s the hardest role I have ever dealt with,” said Frederick, who has found that she even has had a “physical reaction” to playing the part. “The character is making anti-Semitic remarks like she’s passing out candy,” she said.

“It’s a lot harder than I thought it would be to employ the prejudicial part of my being in the script for this work,” said Frederick, who in real-life is married to Jaglom and has been featured in several of his plays and films. “I’m a girl from Iowa, and it’s a little scary. I was raised with an open mind and raised not to judge,” she said, and in preparation for this part, she has been “trying to find the pain from which this prejudice stems.”

“I am a bigot, but a specific bigot,” Frederick said, referring to the nurse she portrays, a character attracted to the young Russian businessman. “I am a bigot that you look twice at and think ‘Oh, I might have a little bit of that bigotry in me,” Frederick said.

“It’s a very difficult part to ask someone to play. She suddenly has to examine what prejudice of that sort actually is,” Jaglom said.

In terms of exploring how bigotry can transform over time, Jaglom finds the play’s theme “particularly relevant with what’s going on with Israel today,” he said.

There are “many very nice people who never think of themselves as anti-Semitic who are willing to pile on Israel in a way they don’t with any other democratic country that finds itself in these conflicts,” he said, noting that he has relatives who live in Israel. “I think they don’t realize that the anti-Semitism they inherited somewhere from their grandparents, or great-grandparents, is affecting their perception of events in the Middle East.”

“What we thought was over with the Holocaust, what we thought was no longer a part of the human equation, somehow raises its head again in different ways and under different guises,” Jaglom said.

Yet, in the outcome of the story, love mixes into the equation. The main character, “assumes that an anti-Semite is not quite human. Yet his heart is telling him something different,” Jaglom said.

“There’s a delicate balance between hate and love in the world. This play explores what happens when these things blow up in each other’s face,” Frederick said.

“If people look at themselves and explore their own views, and question their own beliefs and what they might have as prejudice inside themselves, I’m good with that,” she said.

“Train to Zakopane: A True Story of Hate and Love” is at the Edgemar Center for the Arts in Santa Monica. For reservations and information: (310) 392-7327 or edgemarcenter.org. 

Confederate Jews, ‘Asher Lev’ enliven L.A. stages


Just when you thought Jewish theater in Los Angeles was comatose, two plays, “The Whipping Man” and “My Name Is Asher Lev” are on the boards this month.

The West Coast Jewish Theatre’s current Los Angeles premiere of “Whipping Man” is set in an unexpected milieu, the American Civil War.

More precisely, the play by Matthew Lopez unfolds in the immediate aftermath of the bloody conflict, when Caleb DeLeon, a wounded Jewish Confederate officer, returns to his ruined family home in Richmond, Va.

The house has been abandoned save for two of the family’s newly freed slaves, who are waiting for the return of the DeLeon family.

As the Jewish officer (Shawn Savage) and the ex-slaves (Ricco Ross and Kirk Kelleykhan) wait for the devastated city to come back to life, they relive the past and wonder what the future will hold for them.

A dramatic centerpiece of the play is a celebration of the Passover seder by the three men, for Simon and John, the ex-slaves, have been raised in the faith of their masters.

It is Simon, the older of the African-Americans, who links the fates of blacks and Jews when he intones, “Let all who are in need come and celebrate Pesach. … This year we are slaves, next year we may be free.”

Howard Teichman, the company’s veteran artistic director, said in a phone interview that he seeks out plays that deal with lesser-known Jewish themes, outside the Holocaust or shtetl life.

In his research, Teichman discovered that numerous Sephardic Jews, whose ancestors fled the Spanish Inquisition, settled in cities and small towns all over the South, with many raising cotton and keeping slaves.

As was the custom at the time, the black slaves followed the religious faiths and customs of their owners, and while the Jewish masters were not above whipping their slaves, in general they meted out better treatment than the gentile plantation owners, Teichman said.

A different three-actor cast will be on stage at the Fountain Theatre, with the Los Angeles premiere of “My Name Is Asher Lev,” based on the well-known novel by Chaim Potok and opening Feb. 22, with preview performances Feb. 15–21. It will run through April 19.

Set in Brooklyn’s Chasidic community, the play, adapted by Aaron Posner, pits the artistic aspirations of the young Asher, struggling to realize his gift as a painter, against the traditional religious and social views of his parents.

Even as Asher encounters the misgivings of the tightly knit family and community, he also finds encouragement in unexpected places.

His rebbe recommends a teacher — in hedonistic Manhattan — who instructs Asher how to paint crucifixes, and worse yet, nudes.

“The play explores the struggle between art and tradition and between the generations, and trying to discover who you are and what you were meant to be,” director Stephen Sachs said in an interview.

To some extent, Asher’s struggle is akin to his own experience, Sachs said, and while the play reflects a specific time and culture, it also wrestles with universal themes.

Starring in “Asher Lev” is Jason Karasev in the title role, Anna Khaja as his mother and various female characters, and Joel Polis as the father and in other male roles.

Sachs is a co-founder of the Fountain Theatre and has been its artistic director for 24 years; he is also a playwright, whose “Bakersfield Mist” will open in London’s West End this spring.

“The Whipping Man,” is playing currently at the Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd. in West Los Angeles, and runs through April 13. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday matinees. Ticket prices range from $25 to $35 and are available online at www.wcjt.org, or call (323) 821-2449.

Previews and regular performances for “My Name is Asher Lev” will run Feb. 15 through April 19 at the Fountain Theatre at 5060 Fountain Ave. (at Normandie Ave.) on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings with Sunday matinees. Tickets are $34 each, with discounts for seniors, students and previews. For reservations and information, visit www.FountainTheatre.com or call (323) 663-1525.

Neil Simon’s ‘Sunshine Boys’: Can he still make us laugh?


Neil Simon is a close runner-up to William Shakespeare when counting the number of plays turned into movies. But can the works by the Jewish lad from the Bronx prove as durable as the prolific output of the Bard of Avon?

Since, even with a lengthening lifespan, none of us is likely to be around 400 years from now, we’ll have to work within a shorter time frame.

Los Angeles theatergoers of all ages will have a chance to judge how well Simon holds up with the appearance this fall of the revival of his hit “The Sunshine Boys” at the Ahmanson Theatre.

The play centers on two old vaudeville stars who had split up after a partnership of 40 years and now hate one another’s guts. In addition to Simon’s writing, this production has two factors going for it.

One is Danny DeVito as Willie Clark, and the other is Judd Hirsch as Al Lewis, reunited after starring 30 years ago in the TV series “Taxi.”

DeVito won raves from normally acidic London critics last year for his outing in the same role, exchanging insults with the now-late Richard Griffiths, memorable as the British schoolteacher in “The History Boys.”

In a review of the play, London’s Jewish Chronicle felicitously described Simon as “The Sholem Aleichem of Broadway, chronicling the frustrations and misadventures of the shtetl called Manhattan.”

DeVito himself warned in a London interview that “Sunshine Boys” is a lot more than knee-slappers and belly laughs. “There is a sadness in the relationship between the two men that really got to me, and I think it’d surprise American audiences who might have certain expectations about a Neil Simon comedy — and about me.”

Those of us who were of theater-going age between the early 1960s and the end of the last century need hardly be reminded of who Neil Simon was. Now 86, he has written 34 plays, including both the classic, male version of “The Odd Couple” and a female one. In 1966, he had four plays running simultaneously on Broadway and he has received more awards and citations than any man should be asked to nail onto the walls.

Simon himself averred that he has displayed all such honors in his bathroom.

Among his prizes is a Pulitzer for “Lost in Yonkers” and an honorary degree from Williams College. He expressed his appreciation for the latter with a classic Simon-esque quip, noting, “Actually people with honorary degrees are looked upon with disfavor. Would you let an honorary mechanic fix your brand-new Mercedes?”

And alongside all that, he has managed to squeeze in five marriages.

But what about the younger generation, which achieved cognition after the turn of the century?

Ken Levine, a TV comedy writer, baseball announcer and keen blogger, spied Simon while both were waiting for the valets to bring their cars outside a local restaurant.

Awestruck, he whispered to his kids that Simon was one of America’s greatest writers, to which his young son responded, “Then how come we’ve never heard of him?” Levine continued, “I laughed, of course. Everyone knew who he was. Then.”

Few, if any, Angelenos are more familiar with the master’s plays than Gordon Davidson, founding artistic director of the Center Theatre Group (CTG) from 1967 to 2005. During his tenure, CTG staged 15 Simon plays, including seven world premieres, among them “California Suite” and “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” at its Mark Taper Forum, Ahmanson Theatre and the now-defunct UCLA Doolittle Theatre.

 “We showed that a hit play could start in Los Angeles, not just on Broadway,” Davidson observed.

The relationships between the playwright and the artistic director, however, had their ups and downs.

“Neil fired me in the early 1980s, the only time that ever happened to me in my life,” Davidson recalled. At the time, Davidson was trying to whip into shape a Simon play initially called “The Curse of Kulyenchikov,” when he was informed that “your services are no longer required.”

The play, renamed “Fools,” subsequently opened in Boston and New York under Mike Nichols’ direction, but remains one of Simon’s lesser works.

Judd Hirsch will appear opposite Danny DeVito in “The Sunshine Boys.” Photo by Joan Marcus

The men patched up their relationship later, when Simon sought Davidson’s advice on choosing a script, and accepted the director’s choice over his own initial preference.

While Davidson praised Simon’s “extraordinary skill as a comedy writer, with “Sunshine Boys” as a prime example, he believes that Simon’s greatest plays are also among his most serious and “humane,” particularly the double-B trilogy of the 1980s — “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound.”

Plays that depend on jokes “will be less able to withstand the passage of time,” Davidson said. “Plays are not just about timeliness but depend a lot on the quality of performers who can transcend the time factor.”

Gary P. Konas is an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and editor of “Neil Simon: A Casebook.” In a lengthy e-mail correspondence, he analyzed some of his subject’s plays and their chances for longevity.

“I think if a play continues to speak to new generations and is well written, it will continue to live,” Konas wrote. “The best plays of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams hold up because they’re well written and they express universal human themes.”

Turning to Simon’s plays, he noted, “It seems to me that Simon is on firmest footing when he writes out of his family experience [as with the ‘Brighton Beach’ trilogy and ‘Lost in Yonkers’ and ‘The Odd Couple,’ based on brother Danny Simon and his roommate].

“He also writes well about his profession as in ‘Laughter on the 23rd Floor,’ in which he had characters based on Sid Caesar and his fellow ‘Your Show of Shows’ writers. Similarly, in ‘The Sunshine Boys’ [based on a real comedy team], he wrote a metacomedy that allowed him to teach the audience how humor works.”

Further to the point, Konas observed, “Although Simon’s better plays dramatize family relationships, he does so largely through humor. A lot of people are suspicious about the value of comedies, assuming that they can’t express serious themes or that they are simple. The opposite is true. As actor Edward Keane reputedly said on his deathbed, ‘Dying is easy; comedy is hard.’ ”

Simon’s popularity makes him an inviting target for critics, but, Konas added, “Just as hippie love beads and other phenomena of the ’60s seem quaint today, it’s fair to ask whether Simon’s plays are now dated, like cell phones the size of a Buick you see in 1980s movies. I think you see isolated moments in his plays that show him trying too hard for laughs.

“But getting back to your central question, the Simon plays that continue to be revived successfully have, by definition, held up. Others, such as ‘The Star-Spangled Girl,’ obviously haven’t. … ‘The Odd Couple’ was funny in 1965, and it will be funny 50 years from now. I’d also put ‘The Sunshine Boys’ near the top of the list because it’s funny even as it analyses its humor, and it covers the serious theme of aging [not so] gracefully.

“Part of the question may be whether Simon can entertain a generation conditioned by on-screen car explosions, sexting, vulgar rap and constant terrorism threats.” 

Simon’s plays, though dealing with distinctly American characters, have enjoyed impressive success overseas, not least in Israel.

Much of the credit goes to Dan Almagor, who translated “Lost in Yonkers” into Hebrew for the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv, followed by “The Odd Couple” and “Broadway Bound.” (That’s no mean feat, as anyone who has tried to explain an American gag or a play on words in a foreign language will testify.)

In the ’60s and ’70s, audiences could see five Simon plays simultaneously in Tel Aviv and London, said Almagor, an old and close friend who resides in both cities.

However, as Simon’s playwriting productivity has waned in past years, so has his popularity in Israel, although his impact persists in a different way.

 “We now have a number of Israeli writers who turn out situation comedies using Simon’s style,” Almagor noted.

The last word, fittingly, belongs to Neil Simon himself. In the introduction to the second volume of his “Collected Plays,” published in 1979, the author mused about his success, as well as the pains and joys of writing.

At one point, when he was nursing an ulcer and feeling low, he had two hit shows on Broadway, a new play in manuscript and two films ready for shooting.

“Did I sit back and revel in my good fortune?” Simon asked himself and the reader, then answered: “Not if you were born in the Bronx, in the Depression and Jewish, you don’t.”

After a lunch with Woody Allen, who like Simon at the height of his creativity was showered with praise and awards, the two morose New York Jews agreed: “The fun is getting there, the work is the joy, the results are just something to deal with.”

Simon expanded upon the statement, writing, “I’m most alive and most fulfilled sitting alone in a room, hoping that those words forming on the paper in the Smith-Corona will be the first perfect play ever written in a first draft.”

“The Sunshine Boys” starts previews Sept. 24, opens Oct. 2 and closes Nov. 3 at the Ahmanson Theatre of the Los Angeles Music Center. For ticket information, call (213) 628-2772 or visit centertheatregroup.org.

Will ‘Rappaport’ be Jewish Theatre’s last show?


Nat (an old New York Jewish guy): Hey, Rappaport! I haven’t seen you in ages. How have you been?

Midge (an old New York black guy):  I’m not Rappaport.

Nat: Rappaport, what happened to you? You used to be a short, fat guy, and now you’re a tall, skinny guy.

Midge: I’m not Rappaport.

Nat: Rappaport, you used to be a young guy with a beard, and now you’re an old guy with a mustache.

Midge: I’m not Rappaport.

Nat: Rappaport, how has this happened? You used to be a cowardly little white guy, and now you’re a big imposing black guy.

Midge: I’m not Rappaport.

Nat: And you changed your name, too.

This variation on a hoary vaudeville routine found a new lease on life in the play titled — wait for it — “I’m Not Rappaport.” And even if you saw the movie, with Walter Matthau and Ossie Davis, it’s worth another look, courtesy of the West Coast Jewish Theatre.

Playwright and screenwriter Herb Gardner wrote only a handful of plays in his career, but among them were such memorable and durable hits as “A Thousand Clowns,” “Conversations With My Father” and “The Goodbye People.”

In “Rappaport,” he starts on a light, bantering note in the first act, as Nat and Midge, firmly planted on their favorite bench in Central Park, pass the time in conversation.

The year is 1982, and Nat, an old-leftist and erstwhile admirer of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, does most of the talking.

A man of considerable imagination, Nat spins tales of his days as an undercover agent for Uncle Sam one day, or as a fiery labor leader another day.

Midge, a cantankerous guy to begin with, grows more and more skeptical of Nat’s yarns, but can’t avoid getting involved in Nat’s crazy schemes.

In one of the funniest ones, Nat, dressed up as a Mafia boss, enlists Midge as his “hit man,” to rescue a girl from the foils of a vicious drug dealer.

In the second act, the mood darkens as the two geezers face the indignities of physical decline, of becoming “invisible” to younger generations, and are targeted by thugs and con men.

Particularly tense and touching is a confrontation between Nat and his married daughter, Clara, as the latter tries to harness her father’s strange independent ways by pressing him to enter a retirement home or limit himself to organized activities appropriate for the aged and senile.

Veteran actor Jack Axelrod stands out as Nat, unmistakably Jewish without ever descending into caricature.

Carl Crudup as Midge plays more of a straight man, whose ghetto vernacular is initially difficult to follow, but his flashes of anger and assertiveness redeem his manhood.

Maria Spassoff is particularly effective as Nat’s concerned daughter, who thinks she knows better what’s good for him than the father himself.

The man who keeps the West Coast Jewish Theatre together and going is Howard Teichman — producer, director, fundraiser and just about everything else.

I’ve known Teichman for many years and we usually exchange some light banter during intermissions and after the shows, but this time he was uncharacteristically serious and glum.

“ ‘Rappaport’ may well be the last show we’ll ever put on,” he said, and I checked to see whether he was kidding.

He was not. Even though the pay for actors performing in nonequity theaters (fewer than 99 seats) is pitiable, the expenses of renting a theater and production costs are not covered by ticket sales and private donations, he said.

The problem is not limited to Los Angeles. Jewish theaters across the country are closing, even in New York, Teichman said. The exceptions are Phoenix and Chicago, where the local Jewish federations subsidize the Jewish theaters.

Teichman has made the rounds from the Jewish Federation here to Steven Spielberg’s foundation, without success. He is now appealing to members of the Jewish community to keep the theater alive by sending contributions. Also welcome are volunteers to help backstage on shows, staff the box office or read new plays.

“I’m Not Rappaport,” continues through June 23 at the Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. For reservations and to contact Teichman, phone (323) 860-6620, e-mail wcjt@sbcglobal.net or visit wcjt.org.

The mishegoss of mom, shmaltz-free


Anybody who has trod the boards knows that little blitz of stage fright that can flood through an actor when a member of the family is in the audience.

Jane Press, author and star of the play “My Mother’s Keeper,” has long since dispensed with any such anticipation. Her mother, Della, attended the play’s world premiere last year at the Carl Cherry Center for the Arts in Carmel, Calif., and — at age 83 — will make the journey south to see its L.A. premiere at the Electric Lodge in Venice this weekend. Press’ daughter, Monica Steiner, also saw the play in Carmel, mere weeks before giving birth to the playwright’s first grandchild, Colin Steiner. 

But even when she doesn’t have kin in the seats, Press spends her evenings at the theater surrounded by family. “My Mother’s Keeper” is a memory play about four generations of the author’s family, from her great-grandmother all the way down to Press, who is a character in the play both as her adult self and — played by a different actress — as 11-year-old Janie. 

“The interesting thing is that, as we go along in rehearsals, I see my grandmother and my mother coming through. The actors start to channel them,” Press said. “At one point, I play my great-grandmother and she comes through me. It’s a very interesting experience. I keep saying to the director, ‘The angels are circling.’ ”

Perhaps, but they’re not always particularly angelic.

While Press can talk about the mishegoss with which all colorful families — Jewish or otherwise — must deal, “My Mother’s Keeper” presents the “mish” (as Press calls it) as both funny and quite painful. The play spans nearly 100 years, jumping between the early 1900s and the present day. An event from 1914 involving Press’ great-grandmother Lina Moscowitz sets off a cycle of damage and dysfunction that will filter down through subsequent generations. Press says she wrote the work — the first she has written after decades of acting — in part to “break the chain.”

“A major theme of the play is the blessings and curses that are inherent and inherited from, in this case, mother to child,” Press said. “I specifically looked at the mother-daughter dynamic, which is just as specific as the father-son dynamic. However, everyone has or had a mother. That’s what makes this play universal.”

If “My Mother’s Keeper” is our guide, then Press’ own dame was a piece of work. The opening monologue finds Press making reference to the abusive relationship between Joan and Christina Crawford alleged in the memoir “Mommie Dearest.” As depicted in the play, Della is selfish, controlling, hard-hearted and physically abusive to her children, who call her “the police woman.”

During an interview, when she speaks of her mother — Della Press, née Thelma Colodny — Jane calls her “Della” more often than “Ma.” Even so, things have changed. 

“She’s mellowed a lot. She’s a real doll now,” Press said of Della. “I’m the only one of her four children who speaks to her or who has any relationship with her. Old age is a great leveler, and when your children become adults and won’t have anything to do with you, I think that got her attention.” 

That understanding between mother and daughter was hard won. For Press, breaking the chain took years of therapy and recovery through 12-step programs. 

“We are so fortunate to have such wonderful tools available to us,” she said. “I finally felt strong enough to be able to address the issues I wanted to share. And I wanted to give voice to this whole generation of women that are being portrayed in ways that I think can be deeper, stronger, more accurate and funnier.”

Ah, yes, funny. 

For all its emotional thorniness, “My Mother’s Keeper” is intended to provoke guffaws and tears in equal measure. Press’ Grandma Ida and her cadre of mah jongg-playing Brooklyn bubbes are built for laughs, but they are depicted exactly how the then-adolescent Jane Press remembers them. Ida Colodny — the funniest of them all — was the equivalent of a stand-up comedian, a woman constantly enlisted to tell jokes at large social and family gatherings. In fact, one of the props used in the play is a plastic bag filled with punch lines that actually belonged to Colodny. The actress who plays Ida rummages through it and gives young Janie — and the audience — a sampling of the now-legendary Ida wit. 

“She was very beloved in Brooklyn,” Press said. “In those days, before TV, they had large gatherings in all our houses. We have a black-and-white picture somewhere of people dressed up all around these big round tables and they’re all turned toward the camera and smiling, and there are cigarettes and ashtrays and cigars, and everybody’s having a great time. They used to have big get-togethers, big luncheons and dinners, and my grandmother was the entertainment.”

The play depicts the tender and very close relationship shared between 11-year-old Jane and Grandma Ida, but director Robin McKee, who has been with “My Mother’s Keeper” since its inception, insists that the play is shmaltz-free.

“I don’t like sentimentality,” said McKee, who is not Jewish. “Whatever kind of sentimental stuff was in there, we’ve been able to weed out. I think I helped bring a sort of concept to it. It was a beautiful series of memories and scenes. By reordering scenes and connecting ideas, we were able to find a shape to the piece that leads to an emotional truth.”

During the play’s Carmel run, Press and McKee heard from numerous audience members who insisted that the exploits of the Moscowitz and Colodny clan closely mirrored the “mish” of their own families. And these comments came from families who were Irish, Asian and Indian. The humor may be Jewish, but the experience of being part of a big, crazy family is universal, McKee said.

Press, who lives in Monterey, hopes to take the play to New York eventually. They have sent “My Mother’s Keeper” to Tyne Daly in the hopes of interesting her in the role of Grandma Ida. 

As for the L.A. run, which will last through June 16, the timing — and particularly the opening — is by no means coincidental.

“We have two shows on Mother’s Day, and it’s the perfect Mother’s Day experience,” Press said. “But I don’t recommend it for children under the age of 9.”

 

“My Mother’s Keeper” plays Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. Sun., May 12: 3 p.m., 8 p.m. Through June 16. Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice. $28. (310) 306-1854. electriclodge.org

Calendar Picks and Clicks: Dec. 15-21, 2012


SAT DEC 15

“Voices and Visions” 

Connecting Jewish thought, art and people, this exhibition at the Skirball features artworks that pair contemporary Jewish artists with past and present Jewish thinkers, including Hillel, Maimonides and Susan Sontag. The project aims to inspire reflection, conversation and a deeper connection to Jewish values, as renowned artists and designers Milton Glaser, Arnold Schwartzman, Carin Goldberg and others interpret and graphically transform the words of Jewish luminaries into striking images. Through March 17. Sat. $10 (general), $7 (seniors, full-time students), $5 (children 2-12). Free. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. skirball.org.

 

SUN DEC 16

“El Idish”

Celebrate Yiddish culture in Argentina with an afternoon of film, song, dance and food. The festivities include music by the Modern Yiddish Tango Trio and clarinetist Gustavo Bulgach, a tango demonstration by Karen Goodman, Chanukah empanadas and Argentine wine. Miri Koral, CEO at the California Institute for Yiddish Culture and Language (CIYCL), introduces “Sowing Wheat — Reaping Doctors,” a multimedia presentation. The event kicks off the CIYCL’s 2012-2013 series on contemporary Yiddish culture. Sun. 4 p.m. $12 (general), $10 (CIYCL and Santa Monica Synagogue members), $5 (students). Santa Monica Synagogue, 1448 18th St., Santa Monica. (310) 745-1190. yiddishinstitute.org.

Chanukah Music Festival

The City of West Hollywood hosts a Chanukah Music Festival at Plummer Park featuring Kol Sephardic Choir and Flamenco Dancers. Including singers from Los Angeles and Orange counties, Kol Sephardic Choir will perform a repertoire consisting of Sephardic Romanceros sung in Ladino and liturgical/religious songs in Hebrew with Sephardic melodies. Sun. 4-5:30 p.m. Free (guests will receive a CD with $20 donation). Plummer Park, Fiesta Hall, 7377 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 557-1096. kolsephardicchoir.com.

“Kosher Lust” 

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, television and radio host and author of the international best-seller “Kosher Sex,” opines on one of his favorite topics: relationships. Appearing at the West Coast Torah Center, he examines the importance of building marriage on covetousness, rather than romance. Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, director of Jewlicious Festivals, moderates. Sun. 7 p.m. $10. West Coast Torah Center, 322 N. Foothill Road, Beverly Hills. (310) 277-5544. jconnectla.com.

 

TUE DEC 18

“The Rabbi’s Cat”

Set in 1930s Algiers, this animated adaptation of the beloved series by French comic-book artist Joann Sfar tells the story of a widowed rabbi, his beautiful daughter and a cat that swallows the family parrot and gains the ability to speak. Philosophical, skeptical and lustful, the cat insists he wants a bar mitzvah and, joined by the rabbi, embarks on a journey in search of Jerusalem. Sfar co-directs. French animated feature “The Painting” as well as short films “Dripped” and “Tram” also screen. Sun. 8 p.m. $13 (general), $11 (students). Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica. (310) 260-1528. americancinemathequecalendar.com.

 

THU DEC 20

OU West Coast Torah Convention

The Orthodox Union’s (OU) West Coast 22nd annual Torah Convention explores “The Quest for Spirituality.” Tonight, Rabbi Jacob Schacter of Yeshiva University delivers the keynote address, “The Quest for Spirituality — Timeless Challenge: Contemporary Solutions,” followed by a panel discussion featuring Rabbi Meyer May, executive director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and David Suissa, president of TRIBE Media Corp/Jewish Journal. Other events include scholars-in-residence at OU-member synagogues on Shabbat morning, a Shabbat luncheon at Pat’s, and the Dr. Beth Samuels Memorial Lectures on Sunday, featuring Rebbetzin Yael Weil and Rebbetzin Aviva Tessler. Thu. Through Dec. 23. Various times and locations. ou.org/synagogue_services/westcoast

 

FRI DEC 21

“The Guilt Trip” 

An inventor (Seth Rogen) hits the road with his mother (Barbra Streisand) on a quest to sell his latest invention. “The Guilt Trip” is based on a real trip screenwriter Dan Fogelman took with his mother. Co-stars include Adam Scott, Colin Hanks and Brett Cullen. Fri. Various times, prices and locations. guilttripmovie.com.

My Jerusalem 

Blending nice Jewish boy Jeff Klein’s upbringing with his inclination for bruised rock anthems, Austin, Texas-based quintet My Jerusalem recently released its sophomore album, “Preachers,” which songwriter Klein describes as “post-modern Southern gothic soul.” Appearing at Hollywood venue the Fonda Theatre, My Jerusalem opens tonight for L.A. punk rockers X during the famed group’s “X-mas 2012.” Fri. 9 p.m. $32. Fonda Theatre, 6126 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 464-6269. fondatheatre.com

Surviving a Survivor


It’s an age-old, common dilemma faced by adult children of aging parents: What is the right thing to do when those parents begin to lose their faculties? That theme is at the heart of “Surviving Mama,” by playwright Sonia Levitin, which opens Oct. 12 at the Edgemar Center for the Arts in Santa Monica.

“When you have an aging parent and you have to make a decision, it can’t just be a cookie-cutter decision,” Levitin said in an interview. “You have to take into account everything about that person — their early life, what they endured, their personality and how they are going to react. What’s going to be the next step for them? And people are very different. Almost everyone I talk to has an aging parent, and I hear many different stories — of sibling rivalries coming out, some parents going on their own, making a plan; others a little resistant.” 

Levitin’s play traces the life of Marlena, called Mama (Arva Rose as the older Marlena, Gina Manziello as her younger self), who, when we first meet her, is a feisty, independent woman of German-Jewish heritage in her mid-80s. She has almost set her apartment on fire and is displaying other signs of encroaching dementia. Her youngest daughter, Anne (Manziello, in a dual role) continually clashes with her middle daughter, Stella (Sharon Rosner), over whether to put Mama in a home, and it is clear Mama resists the idea with all her might.

Much of the action is shown in flashback, as we revisit significant events in Marlena’s life. The story reverts to Germany in 1923, when, at the age of 26, she exhibits the strength and resolve that will carry her through life by defying her autocratic father, learning a profession, and marrying the charming, flamboyant Gustav (Peter Lucas). Fifteen years later, with the advent of Nazism, Gustav flees to Cuba, and Marlena escapes to Switzerland with their three young daughters, where they are helped by a priest who enlists the aid of a Catholic family.

The following year, Marlena, the girls and Gustav reunite in America, and Gustav, who is a designer, goes into the shmatte business. But he is a womanizer, and Marlena endures an unhappy marriage.  

After Gustav dies, Marlena falls in love and has a short-lived relationship with another man as the dementia overtakes her.

Levitin based the work on her own late mother’s life, incorporating memories her mother related, as well as on her own recollections, some of which go back to her days as a young child in Nazi Germany.

“I remember that Hitler parade that I refer to in the play. It was very frightening.  I remember scattered things. I remember being in Switzerland.”

Levitin said she also remembers how impoverished she, her mother and her sisters were in Switzerland. “My mother wasn’t allowed to work because she wasn’t a citizen, and you had to be a citizen. She was willing to do anything, and she was absolutely destitute. She went to an agency that was supposed to help refugees, and they told her to go back to Germany. She did go to a rabbi, and he found families for her who were not Jewish but would take the children.” 

Once in America, Levitin’s mother, who had been raised in a beautiful home, with a nanny and maids, still struggled. “She had to work,” Levitin recalled, “and she had to work at very grimy jobs, cleaning other people’s houses, scrubbing the floor, after hours, in a restaurant. This is a woman who came from a well-to-do family.

“My mother’s experience has had an effect on my children, in that they understood her independence and her courage,” Levitin added.

Levitin recalls that just as the character of Anne, her counterpart in the script, is in denial about Marlena’s dementia, she herself could never acknowledge her mother’s mental deterioration. 

“Anne says in the play, ‘You know, I haven’t even said it to myself.’ And it was gradual, and the truth is, I never said it until this woman came over to assess her, the woman who ran the group home, who was lovely. She met my mother, and we talked. I remember it was outside on the lawn, and my mother went in for a sweater or something, and the woman said, ‘Well, she’s going to fit right in. They’re all demented.’ It was like the bottom had just dropped out. Yes, I knew, but I didn’t know. I had managed her; I really had.”

The character of Marlena as an old woman shares her life story with the viewer at key moments in the play, coming to the apron of the stage to address the audience directly. Those segments transition into flashbacks, and, for director Doug Kaback, they represent Marlena’s growing isolation.

“Her mind is drifting to the events of her past, and I think what she’s really analyzing and experiencing in a way, because we bring these events to life, is a sort of validation of the things that she did to save her children and herself, to hold on to a marriage that was proving very fateful and without passion. Her arc is to come to terms with that and to recognize that, even though she sometimes has a caustic character, she has tremendous love and value, and has accomplished really heroic things in her lifetime.”

But, Kaback added, she is burdened by a lifelong sense of guilt.

“She carries such a huge weight, and this terrible horror of what she experienced getting out of Nazi Germany, and the fact that so many loved ones remained, and that she couldn’t help them, and the tragedy of their early deaths, is something that she just can’t quite make whole for herself.  Consequently, she drifts more and more internally, into a world of loss, and she’s pulling back from life in a way.” 

Rose, who plays Marlena, believes that her character’s guilt over having left her contentious mother, Lucie (also played by Rose), in Germany as the Nazis were taking power is pivotal.

“It creates a deep sadness, a great defensiveness and a depression that is not uncommon in many Eastern European Jews,” Rose said. “We come to guilt easily. She didn’t just abandon her mother. She abandoned her mother knowing, in her gut, that she was abandoning her to something terrible. So, even though she begged her to leave, she knew that she could have done more, and that it was, to a certain degree, self-serving that she didn’t do more.”

Rose was particularly drawn to this material because of its ethnic underpinnings. “I’m very Jewish. Most of the theater that I do, that is of consequence and that matters to me, often has a Jewish theme. I am not just an actor. For the last 25 years, I’ve been a family therapist, and the combination of the family dynamics, the Jewishness of the plot and the characters, made it completely irresistible to me.”

Rose would like the play to transmit a sense of what she calls “the incredible bond between family members, particularly mothers and daughters.”

And Kaback hopes that “whatever station we’re at in life, we’re able to see in Marlena a reflection of ourselves, and a recognition that we, too, have to confront some very challenging and difficult questions as we grow older.”

As for what Levitin would like audiences to take from her play: “I want them to come away with a feeling of the fullness of life, the triumph of life and of people over all the things that can befall them. I want them to become encouraged by the show, and to say, ‘Wow! That was a woman who knew how to live.’ ”

 


“Surviving Mama”

Edgemar Center for the Arts, on the Main Stage

2437 Main St., Santa Monica, CA 90405

Oct. 12- Nov. 18

Fri. at 8 pm, Saturday at 3 and and 8 pm, Sunday at 5 pm.

Tickets:  $34.99

RESERVATIONS: (310) 392-7327

ONLINE TICKETING: http://www.edgemarcenter.org/ 

‘Jewtopia’s’ universal truths


David Katz knew minutes into watching Bryan Fogel’s “Jewtopia,” a star-studded independent film adapted from the hit comedic play about interfaith dating, that it would anchor his Malibu International Film Festival. Unfortunately, Katz had his epiphany at 3 a.m.

“It was so frustrating,” he said. “I wanted to call Bryan, but I had to wait until a decent hour.”

Fogel, a Malibu resident, felt compelled to submit his first movie to his local cinema showcase. And Katz, the festival’s executive director, chose the film from more than 2,000 submissions. 

“Jewtopia,” which had its world premiere on April 26 at the Newport Beach Film Festival, screened opening night at the 13th annual Malibu International Film Festival on Sept. 22, winning its Audience Choice Award. 

“He deserves this,” Katz said. 

It took writer-director Fogel six years to make the film version of “Jewtopia,” about as long as it took to bring the play, which he co-wrote with Sam Wolfson, to fruition. 

“It was a tough one to get going,” Fogel said. “Getting a movie made is a miracle … because the studios are only interested in making ‘The Avengers.’ ” 

When it came to adapting the hit play, which opened in May 2003 at West Hollywood’s Coast Playhouse, Fogel looked to broaden its appeal. For instance, gone are the play’s in-jokes about the online Jewish dating site JDate.

“It’s very different from the play,” Fogel said. “Ultimately, it’s a great buddy movie. The play is a cast of seven; the movie has a couple hundred. It’s a very loose adaptation. In a play, the characters tell you the sky is falling. In a movie, you better show the sky falling.” 

“Jewtopia” revolves around Chris O’Connell (Ivan Sergei) and Adam Lipschitz (Joel David Moore), two childhood friends who reunite years later. Chris, a non-Jew, feels comfortable dating decision-making Jewish women, while Adam escapes his Jewish roots by pursuing shiksas. The pair form a “Strangers on a Train”-style pact, schooling each other on how to score with their women of choice. 

Jennifer Love Hewitt and Jon Lovitz co-star in the film, which also features Rita Wilson, Tom Arnold, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Nicollette Sheridan, Wendie Malick and Phil Rosenthal, creator of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” 

Most of the stars had not seen the play, Fogel said, but “the cast fell in like dominoes,” thanks to a strong script.

Fogel says that “Jewtopia’s” humor is universal because it taps into “an ongoing truth of humanity.” “I don’t think it’s just gentiles and Jews; it’s all religions and cultures. If you’re North Korean, being with someone from South Korea is taboo. It’s universal. It’s ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ” he said.

Fogel says that the play — a hit with audiences from West Hollywood to Manhattan — was based on real-life experiences. 

“I never went through what Adam Lipschitz went through. I’m not that person. I didn’t go through those anxieties or have a nervous breakdown and enter a mental institution,” said Fogel, who grew up in a Modern Orthodox household in Denver and attended the University of Colorado, Boulder. “But there’s something very real going on in a Jewish home, having pressure on how to live your life and who you date.”

Although less Jewishly active today than during his youth, Fogel attends Jewish Federation functions and says his Jewishness informs everything he does. “It’s the sum of your existence, and how one is brought up ultimately affects who you are,” he said.  

Still friends with his collaborator, Fogel said he had not seen Wolfson, a television writer, in a few months and was unaware of what projects he was currently working on. Wolfson’s involvement with the film was limited to co-writing the script, Fogel said.

Andy Fickman, the play’s director, produced the movie, which was shot throughout Los Angeles, including in Sherman Oaks, Simi Valley, Burbank, Venice and the Santa Monica Mountains in July and August 2011.

Production designer Denise Hudson, costume designer Caroline B. Marx and art department assistant Jessica Shorten said they enjoyed collaborating on this first-time filmmaker’s production. 

“There were so many comedians on the set,“ Marx said. “It was a fun summer!”

At Saturday night’s after-party, revelers — Jews and non-Jews alike — smiled as they recalled the film. 

“It hit home for me with my own Jewish upbringing,” said Jeffrey Blum, who was among the 200 moviegoers at the Toyota-sponsored festival’s opening-night gala at Malibu Lumber Yard, an upscale shopping complex off Pacific Coast Highway.

Sonia Enriquez, who enjoyed the play, said she didn’t know what to expect from a film adaptation of “Jewtopia.” 

“I was pleasantly surprised,” she said. “It’s very different from the play. It’s a whole new experience.”

“There were times when the running joke ran too long,” said Mary Faherty, who added that the film was surprisingly good. 

“I love the film, even as a non-Jewish person. There are themes in it that are universal,” she said. “Everyone’s got their struggles with their culture and their parents. It feels good to know you’re not the only one being tortured!”

For more information about “Jewtopia,” visit jewtopiamovie.com.

A playwright’s work wrestles with doing the right thing


The situation created by writer David Gow in his two-character play, “Cherry Docs,” is virtually guaranteed to produce explosive drama. A skinhead facing trial for a racially motivated murder is being defended by a Jewish publicly appointed attorney. The cherry docs of the title refer to the steel-toed cherry-colored Doc Marten combat boots the youth wore when he repeatedly kicked his victim.

The play was first staged in 1998, in Toronto, and has been in constant production around the world for about 14 years, Gow said. It was turned into a film in 2005 and is currently being staged by the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon.

Although he doesn’t tie the story to any specific event, Gow, who is Jewish, cited some factors that inspired the play.

“My mother’s parents were of the generation that was lucky enough to get out of Belgium at the time of the Second World War. Both my grandfathers were in the Second World War, and so, when I lived in Ottawa, in Montreal and Toronto in the 1980s, and I would see skinheads — in particular, white supremacist skinheads — I would look at them and think of the history that my family had been through, and I would have a really visceral response to them, and I would think, ‘Well, what’s this all about?’

“There was a young guy with whom I was in school who was kicked in the face outside of a gay bar,” Gow continued, “because he was in the gay village, and some skinheads attacked him because he was gay. And then there were a couple of cases, a few, in fact, in Canada, where a Jewish lawyer ended up representing a skinhead on trial for murder.”

Early in the proceedings, Michael (Andrew Walker), the perpetrator, says he was drunk and is sorry his victim died, but he also makes racist remarks and even tells Danny, the lawyer (Alan Blumenfeld), “In an ideal world I’d see you eliminated. In this world I need you more than anyone.”

In approaching his character, Walker said, he imagined a backstory for the skinhead, after Gow shared some of the thoughts he had while writing the play. (Walker, who also played Michael in the film version, is currently working on a movie and won’t join the production until Sept. 18; until then, understudy Mark Cecil replaces him.)

David Gow

“Michael had a father,” Walker imagined, who “was probably a big drinker and beat his mom a bit. His mom was a real pushover. His dad would probably beat him up a bit, too, as he grew up. He was pushed out of the house at a young age, spent lots of nights on the streets, and slowly started to find this family in the skinheads. From 13 or 14 years old, he’s been committed to a life as a skinhead and has a family of skins that he has fun with and who are all like-minded, and also come from the same sort of upbringing that he did.”

For his part, Danny openly despises Michael’s belief system, but takes the assignment and does his best.

“He comes up against everything he believes in — his training and a background as an educated intellectual,” Blumenfeld explained. “He comes up against his political beliefs of tolerance and liberal, progressive inclusion. And when faced with someone with such violently anti-Semitic, bigoted hatred, he takes on the challenge of trying to find, as he says at the end of the play, a small piece of redemption, because he believes in tikkun olam, mending the world, and he sees this as a possibility.”

Blumenfeld believes the transformation that occurs in Danny because of his relationship with the skinhead is an unexpected outcome for this character.

“Danny’s character helps the skinhead see something different, but as a result, this Jewish lawyer winds up seeing the dark side of his own personality and loses sight of what it is that he’s doing.”

The actor added, “He has a spiritual breakdown. He has a dark night of the soul as a result of this interaction.”

On the other hand, Michael is transformed in a different direction. “He’s on this teeter-totter,” Walker said. “The ongoing phrase, the token phrase, is ‘bringing Michael through the eye of the needle.’ This is what Danny keeps saying to him through the entire play, basically, ‘I’m trying to take you through the eye of the needle. Once you pass through this eye of the needle, then you can decide,’ because I just have to connect with life, with reality, with people.”

Walker continued, “So, he’s now being put to the test, and every single belief, and everything in which he’s had some sort of trust, is now being questioned.

“There’s a line at the very end of the play, where Michael says, ‘If this man, Danny, is willing to help me, how could he be the spawn of Satan?’ ”

Both men have grown in a painful manner, Gow observed, and, Danny, who has suffered many losses, begins to discover a form of spirituality.

The action unfolds over the course of seven days, which Gow says is an intentional allusion to the story of creation.

“There’s a mythic template that sits underneath the play, and that mythic template is a battle between two people who could as easily be principals, or beings, inspired through looking at the literature of the Torah, and so these people are embodying struggles which have existed through time.”

Ultimately, Gow stressed, the story examines the necessity for people to coexist and to go beyond tolerance to actually love one another, or there will always be war, strife and murder. He pointed to the current recession in the United States and remarked that most people imagine themselves a victim of the situation, even when they still have their jobs, their education and their homes — and they have decided that they can’t hire anyone.

“I had a rabbi once who said to me, ‘You should pay people to do things.’ I said, ‘Why, because they’ll make a good job of it?’ And he said, ‘No. You should pay people to do things, because if you don’t give the other guy a plate of food to eat, he’s going to have to come after you eventually.’ And, I actually saw, as a result of that, in my own life, that when you hire other people, when you engage other people, when you show some compassion to other people, it, generally speaking, provides you, as the person who looks out for someone else, with much more than you’re giving.  You usually get more in return for your compassion and your kindness than whatever it is that you put on the table.”

“Cherry Docs”
Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum
The S. Mark Taper Foundation Youth Pavilion
1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd.
Topanga, CA 90290
(310) 455-2322 main office
(310) 455-3724 fax
(310) 455-3723 box office
http://www.theatricum.com
Thursdays, Sept. 6, 13, 20, 27; Saturdays, Oct. 6, 13. All shows at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $20
A panel discussion follows each performance.

Shlomo Carlebach’s life comes to the stage in ‘Soul Doctor’


As he researched the complex life of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach for a new musical, playwright Daniel Wise found a surprisingly candid source.

Neshama Carlebach, a successful recording artist and popular performer of her father’s compositions, openly revealed his many struggles as “a lonely and conflicted” Orthodox rabbi—both rock star and spiritual shepherd.

“When someone collaborates on a show and at the same time is the daughter of the subject matter, and she is serving of the show rather than her own perspective, it helps make the show what it is,” Wise says. “It was also very brave.”

As Neshama explains, her father’s message is that everyone “can surpass their own walls. Some people say he was an angel. He was a person. But he was a strong person. He made beautiful choices and that should be a inspiration for the world.”

Some of Carlebach’s followers aren’t so pleased with the candor.

“Reb Shlomo was a soul on fire who was a rebbe to thousands,” says Shy Yellin, president of the Carlebach Shul on New York City’s Upper West Side. “He was a tzaddik rooted in the love of God and His Torah and whose purpose, like other great rebbes, was to connect us to ‘Hashem yisborech’ in the deepest way. Because he was human, with all the challenges one faces, Shlomo could relate to his flock and we to him. If he made any mistakes, they were long ago expiated. He was beloved by all.”

During his lifetime and perhaps even more since his death in 1994, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach—known widely as Reb Shlomo or simply Shlomo—is credited with reinvigorating Jewish life with uplifting song and spiritual teachings. His fascinating trajectory is the basis of a Broadway-bound show, “Soul Doctor: The Journey of a Rock Star Rabbi,” the first new Jewish hit musical in decades.

Neshama shares an official “creative credit for additional material” for the show, which is carried by more than 30 Carlebach melodies, often with new lyrics by David Schechter. “Soul Doctor” sold out in test runs in Florida and New Orleans, and opened to a limited engagement July 24-Aug. 19 at the New York Theatre Workshop. Again, the show rapidly sold out.

Producers are negotiating with a New York theater for an open-ended run. 

As a cultural phenomenon in the 1960s music scene, Carlebach’s songs grew wildly popular. He performed on stage with Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Jerry Garcia, Pete Seeger, the Grateful Dead and Nina Simone, among others. He played venues from Carnegie Hall to hippie coffeehouses, prisons to ashrams. He even performed spontaneous midnight concerts under New York City’s West Side Highway for the local homeless, whom he often knew by name.

Carlebach died suddenly when his heart failed on airplane at LaGuardia Airport in New York. His annual yahrzeit triggers memorial concerts around the world. In a category all his own, his music now captivates Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, gay and lesbian, Orthodox and Chasidic communities.

Cross-over Jewish reggae sensation Matisyahu coined himself a “Bob Marley-Shlomo Carlebach fusion.” Even Pope John Paul II used Carlebach’s composition “Brothers and Friends” to open his last Mass at Giants Stadium in New Jersey.

“Soul Doctor” reveals how Carlebach’s music and heart-centered teachings of “boundless love and joy” touched disillusioned hippies and dropouts, says Wise, who also directs the show.

The musical riffs on the successful formula of “Rent,” which Wise took on tour around the world. Both employ actors playing multiple roles and doubling as stage hands, gracefully transforming sets through scenes.

“Soul Doctor” travels from contemporary Vienna back to Carlebach’s childhood there under Nazi occupation, from a New York home and a dynamic musical beit midrash to the psychedelic House of Love and Prayer in 1960s San Francisco and more, in the multiple loops of Carlebach’s explorations of Jerusalem. Caracas. Nepal. And beyond. 

As his newly published commentary on Genesis reveals, Carlebach also was an innovative Torah scholar. As a Chasidic figure and composer of niggunim—wordless, expressive tunes infused with spirituality—Carlebach bridges Old World and new, pre-war Orthodoxy and the post-war establishment he realized wasn’t reaching America’s rapidly assimilating Jews.

Despite its rabbi protagonist, “Soul Doctor” attracts diverse audiences because “It’s about how we are spiritually all the same,” says veteran Broadway composer and orchestrator Steve Margoshes, who wove together the score for “Soul Doctor” and previous Broadway smashes such as Elton John’s “Aida,” “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” and “The Who’s Tommy.”

In the 1950s, the thirtysomething Orthodox rabbi searches American counterculture and becomes intimate friends with Simone, a then-unknown jazz singer who introduced him to gospel music and R&B.

Carlebach suddenly finds himself “torn between his deep traditional roots and his dream to create a Jewish revival through his joyous and soulful melodies,” Margoshes explains. “He wakes up one day and decides the Jewish experience is bankrupt and he is going to reinvigorate it, no matter the personal cost.”

Their unusual connection—Simone later became the musical voice of the civil rights movement—helped Shlomo shape contemporary Jewish music and reinvigorate the American Jewish experience in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Wise says.

With composite characters and scenes, “Soul Doctor” is not a strictly factual presentation of Carlebach’s life. Rather than pure hagiography, it is a gripping exploration of the many challenges and controversies encountered by Carlebach.

“It is more the idea of Shlomo than what historically happened,” says Rabbi Naftali Citrin of the Carlebach Shul and Carlebach’s grand-nephew. “It’s a version of Shlomo’s life that can’t possibly contain everything.”

“Soul Doctor” reflects the humanity of this larger-than-life personality leaving an Orthodox dynasty to become Chasidic while attempting to reach the young and unplugged through conventional rabbinic teachings. The methods prove ineffective, so Carlebach struggles again to break out of the mold of previous Orthodox leaders and “become Shlomo,” the recording star, performer, spiritual minstrel and friend still both treasured and criticized.

Carlebach grapples with questions of modernity and how to heal young broken souls who expect a hug and won’t dance with a mechitzah.

“Soul Doctor” doesn’t shy away from Carlebach’s struggling with his upbringing’s Orthodox restrictions against even casual physical contact with women and intense condemnation from the establishment and his own father. Audiences watch him find love, attempt to balance family with touring, and ultimately encounter a devastating divorce when his wife takes their children—Neshama and her sister, Nedara (now a married mother of two living in Israel)—to Toronto.

Today, the sisters honor their father’s rich contributions to Jewish tradition through the Carlebach Legacy Trust, which collects his teachings, compositions, photographs and bootleg recordings. Neshama, also a mother of two, is working on her ninth album celebrating her father’s music, despite Orthodoxy’s concerns of kol isha, or halachic rulings regarding men hearing women sing. She also is trailblazing interfaith concerts with the Rev. Roger Hambrick and members of the Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir of the Bronx. Their album, “Higher and Higher,” was a sixth-time Grammy entrant last year.

“There is work to be done,” Neshama says, “and not everyone is down for the work.”

This is Lisa Alcalay Klug’s third article in a JTA series about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s legacy. Klug is the author of two humor books, “Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe,” a National Jewish Book Award finalist, and “Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe,” a celebration of Jewish women debuting in October.

Calendar Picks and Clicks: August 11-17, 2012


SAT | AUG 11

NEIL DIAMOND
The Grammy-winning pop-rock icon played a series of sold-out shows at the Greek in the summer of 1972, which led to the multiplatinum double live album, “Hot August Night.” Forty years later, Diamond returns to the Greek stage to celebrate the anniversary of those concerts, performing such hits as “Sweet Caroline,” “Cracklin’ Rosie,” “Solitary Man” and “I Am…I Said.” Sat. Through Aug 25. 8 p.m. $49-$250. Greek Theatre, 2700 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 665-5857. greektheatrela.com.


SUN | AUG 12

SEPHARDIC JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL WORKSHOP
Experts from the film industry—producer Robert Israel (“Ace Ventura: Pet Detective”), documentarian Bette Jane Cohen (“The Spirit in Architecture: John Lautner”) and animator Brooke Keesling (“Boobie Girl”)—present clips of their work and discuss the moments and people who have inspired them. Sun. 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Free. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. RSVP (323) 272-4574. sephardicfilmfestival.com.

“VOICES FROM THE SILENCE”
A new print of 1924 Yiddish silent film masterpiece “Yidishe Glik” (“Jewish Luck”)—based on Sholem Aleichem’s satiric stories about daydreaming entrepreneur Menakhem Mendl—marks today’s 60th anniversary of the executions of 13 leading Jewish literary and civic figures in the former Soviet Union. Los Angeles Times and NPR film critic Kenneth Turan appears in person to introduce the screening. Sun. 5 p.m. Free. Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 389-8880. yiddishkayt.org.


TUE | AUG 14

REGINA SPEKTOR
The Russian-born singer-songwriter puts her multi-instrumental chops on full display on new singles “All the Rowboats,” a haunting sample-driven number, and “Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas),” an upbeat piano-pop tune, from her new album, “What We Saw From the Cheap Seats.” Spektor has proven that she hasn’t lost her touch even after six albums. Tonight, she performs with special guest Only Son. Tue. 8 p.m. $39.50-$55. Greek Theatre, 2700 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 665-5857. greektheatrela.com.


WED | AUG 15

“SHALOM AMIGOS”
The migration of approximately 1,000 Jewish settlers to the Dominican Republic during World War II – and the integration of Jews into Dominican society – forever changed the Caribbean nation. Tonight at the Skirball, an interactive Web documentary examines the relatively unknown history of the Jewish community in the Dominican Republic through the memory of the settlers and their descendants. A Q-and-A with directors Adrien Walter and Emmanuel Clemenceau follows. Wed. 8 p.m. $6 (general), $5 (Skirball members, full-time students). Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. skirball.org.


THU | AUG 16

JEWLICIOUS SUMMERFEST
Rock n’ roll meets religion at Jewlicious’ summer camp-style festival for young professionals (18 and over). Taking place over the course of four days and three nights, this annual overnighter features performances by reggae singer Pato Banton, acoustic-pop musician Ari Herstand, Mikey Pauker and others. Activities include horseback riding, mountain biking, late-night Torah learning, and discussions on social entrepreneurship and relationships, among other topics. Thu. Through Aug. 19. 3 p.m. $56-$699. Brandeis-Bardin Campus American Jewish University, 1101 Pepper Tree Lane, Brandeis. (310) 277-5544. jewliciousfestival.com.

DUDAMEL CONDUCTS COPLAND
Celebrated Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Venezuelan pianist Sergio Tiempo in a performance of quintessential American composer Aaron Copland’s four-movement “Symphony No. 3,” which fuses jazz, neoclassicism and modernism. Thu. 8 p.m. $1-$133. Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. (323) 850-2000. hollywoodbowl.com.


Friday | AUG 17

“IT IS NO DREAM”
The latest production from Moriah Films, the Oscar-winning film division of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, explores of the life and times of Theodor Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism. Co-written and produced by Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and directed by Richard Trank, the film features narration by Ben Kingsley and stars Christoph Waltz as the voice of Herzl. “It Is No Dream” follows Herzl as he meets with kings, prime ministers, ambassadors, a sultan, a pope and government ministers in his quest to create a Jewish homeland. Fri. Various times. $11 (general), $8 (children under 12, seniors). Laemmle’s Music Hall 3, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Laemmle’s Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (310) 478-3836. laemmle.com.

Rothko’s passion, tragedy galvanize Molina’s portrayal in ‘Red’


John Logan’s two-person play, “Red,” which spotlights the legendary Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko, is set a decade before the notoriously prickly painter committed suicide in 1970. The drama, which opens at the Mark Taper Forum on Aug. 12, begins as Rothko (Alfred Molina) has accepted a hefty commission to create a series of murals for the swanky Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s iconic Seagram Building. He intends his luminous, contemplative paintings to transform the space into a “temple,” while his initially timid new assistant, Ken (Jonathan Groff), grows bolder and insists that the work will merely serve as décor for pricey boozing and dining.

Rothko ultimately can’t stomach the project; he changes his mind upon visiting the elitist watering hole where, he says, he felt “underdressed … fat … too goddamn Jewish for this place.” He promptly cancels his commission, returns his paycheck and eventually donates nine of the murals — transcendent floating color fields in russet and darker hues — to the Tate Gallery in London. A year later, Rothko slashed open his arms with a razor in his New York studio and died at the age of 66. “His body was discovered the same day that the Seagram murals arrived at the Tate, which shocked everyone,” Molina, 59, said before a recent rehearsal at the Taper. “You can see a correlation between his evolving [palette] and his downward spiral,” Molina added. “As he says in the play, his great fear is that “ ‘one day the black will swallow the red.’ ”

Read more at jewishjournal.com/the_ticket.

Jesse Eisenberg writes Holocaust-themed play


Actor Jesse Eisenberg has written a play revolving around the Holocaust.

The play, called “The Revisionist,” will open at New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre, off Broadway, in 2013, according to the Times of Israel.

Eisenberg, who portrayed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network” and is now starring in Woody Allen’s “To Rome With Love,” has not indicated whether he will appear in the play. He appeared in his play “Asuncion,” which also ran off Broadway last year.

“The Revisionist” will be about a science-fiction writer who travels to Poland and meets with a relative who survived the Holocaust and has a secret.

‘The Exorcist’ at the Geffen: No green vomit, but plenty of evil


William Peter Blatty was a Georgetown University student in August 1949 when he came across a front-page story in the Washington Post titled “Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy Reported Held in Devil’s Grip.” Blatty, a devout Catholic, was fascinated by the accounts of the 14-year-old’s bed violently shaking and torrents of curses in Latin whenever the exorcist commanded the demon to leave the boy.

Two decades later, Blatty recalled this case and others to create his 1971 iconic supernatural suspense novel, “The Exorcist,” in which a 12-year-old girl named Regan is possessed by a malevolent spirit. The novel became a best-seller and was turned into an Oscar-winning film, an international sensation that had patrons fainting in the theater as the Regan character spewed thick green vomit, turned her head around 360 degrees and masturbated with a crucifix. 

Read more at jewishjournal.com/the_ticket.

In bed with Roy Cohn


The notorious attorney Roy Cohn (Barry Pearl), onetime counsel for Sen. Joseph McCarthy, deals with his demons in Joan Beber’s surreal play, “Hunger: In Bed With Roy Cohn,” currently running at the Odyssey Theatre. Beber, who is having her first production in Los Angeles at age 78, places Cohn in a state of limbo, a purgatory of the mind, where he is nurtured by a sexy maid (Presciliana Esparolini) and haunted by significant figures from his past, including his mother, Dora (Cheryl David); hotel heir G. David Schine (Tom Galup); Ronald Reagan (David Sessions); Barbara Walters (Liza de Weerd), who remained a loyal friend because Cohn had once helped her father; and convicted spy Julius Rosenberg (Jon Levenson).

Cohn was brilliant, handsome — at least in his youth — loyal to his close friends, and, reportedly, could be extremely charming. He was also known as a merciless prosecutor and litigator, a bigot, a snob and a closeted gay man living in denial. He even denied to his death that he had AIDS, the disease that killed him in 1986.

He is best remembered as lead counsel during the Army-McCarthy hearings. The Army had accused Cohn of exerting pressure to obtain special treatment for Schine, who had been drafted. Cohn and McCarthy countered that Schine was being held hostage in retaliation for McCarthy’s inquiry into suspected Communist infiltration of the Army. It was also widely rumored, though never proven, that Schine and Cohn were lovers, but Schine subsequently lived a heterosexual life, married and had six children. 

Prior to his work with McCarthy, Cohn had been a prosecutor in the 1951 espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and claimed to have been instrumental in having the couple executed. Ethel’s brother later admitted that he had lied when testifying against the Rosenbergs, and a co-defendant in the case stated after 18 years in prison that Julius had been a spy, but Ethel had not. 

Beber learned years after the Rosenberg executions that her father, a Republican activist in Omaha, Neb., wanted to help Ethel, who was his distant cousin, but had to keep it very quiet to protect his career as a lawyer. He tried to get then-Sen. Dwight Griswold of Nebraska to intervene with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, to no avail.

“He also formed a committee with other people in Omaha who felt that the Rosenbergs were being targeted,” Beber said. “Then he went to visit Ethel in prison about two weeks before she died. He asked her what he could do for her, and she said, ‘Tell my sons to change their name.’ ”

Beber said she knew little about Cohn or the Red Scare until she began researching the Rosenberg case 20 years ago for her play “Ethel Sings.”

“I was very intrigued that this guy who was Jewish would be so instrumental in causing the death of the Rosenbergs, and I couldn’t understand how a person with any kind of conscience could do something like that, especially someone who was Jewish. I was intrigued with that, [and] I wanted to know if there was a reason behind it.”

Beber, who is Jewish, said that once she began working on her current endeavor, she watched several dramatic depictions of Cohn.

“I always saw him portrayed as kind of a one-sided person and just evil to the core,” she observed. “I wanted to see another side of him, and then I started reading many, many books.

“The more I read, the more I realized what he was up against growing up … being gay in such a repressed society, so I wanted to present another aspect of him.”

Beber’s play, though not strictly a musical, has characters bursting into song and dance, with choreography by Kay Cole.

“I loved the fact that [Beber] was very daring and very theatrical,” said director Jules Aaron, who described his close collaboration with the playwright.

“We developed several different things about the show, which are pivotal. I think we both wanted to understand why [Cohn] was who he was, without being sentimental or sympathetic toward him, but we wanted people to connect enough with him that they would stay with the play. That’s the trick when you have a Richard III, or someone who’s something of a villain in history. You want the audience to have some feelings about the character.”

But Aaron didn’t want Pearl to sentimentalize the character.

“I kept saying to [Pearl], ‘You don’t need the audience to sympathize with you. Keep him strong.’ ”

The director feels that the key to Cohn is his relationship with his devouring mother, Dora, who came from a wealthy background.

“If he had had another mother, would he have been different when he got older, since we’re sort of products of our family, and, of course, our social situation? That, to me, was the main factor in presenting someone who was a product of, and I don’t mean this in a sexual way, an incestuous relationship with his mother.”

From Pearl’s perspective, Dora is someone who keeps her son dependent on her, even as she is destroying him.

“She’s like the ultimate stage mother. There are moments when I say, ‘Why do you treat me this way; and my dad (who was a respected judge), you always put him down.’ At the same time, I ask ‘What should I do, Mama?’ 

“I’m learning from her. I get my bigotry from her. She has a speech about ‘every wop and spic,’ you know, she goes on and on.”

Pearl continued, “She was an elitist, and [Cohn] learned a lot. He says, ‘I was born at the wrong time to the wrong mom.’ She had a huge influence on him. That wasn’t very much explored in any of the pieces that I saw, or any of the history.”

Pearl also described Cohn as a self-hating Jew who denies his Jewish background and, at one point in the play, refers to Jews as “kikes.”

But, Pearl said, the playwright does explore the possibility of redemption by creating a younger, more innocent version of Cohn. This alter ego is a graceful figure, continually beckoning to the older Roy.

“The young Roy, throughout the play, prods the audience and prods the older Roy to ‘get going’ and ‘get up and move ahead,’ Beber explained. “He tries to show him the way, the potential for what he could have been, but the audience is left not knowing which direction he chooses, and whether he comes to any important realizations about how he has lived.”

In an aside, she added, “I think he doesn’t, but that’s beside the point.”

“Hunger: In Bed With Roy Cohn” continues through March 11 at the Odyssey Theatre.

“Hunger: In Bed With Roy Cohn” runs Saturday, January 21 – Sunday, March 11, 2012 at the Odyssey Theatre (2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90025).  Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.; Sundays at 2:00 p.m.  Tickets for Friday are $25.00; Saturday and Sunday are $30.00.  For more information, please call (310) 477-2055 or visit www.odysseytheatre.com.

C’mon, Amanda Green, ‘Bring It On’


At one point in “Bring It On: The Musical,” inspired by the rival cheerleading film of the same name, Bridget, the team’s chubby mascot, gets some moxie from a pep talk about a boy she likes.

“Why walk around like you’re made of asbestos,” a friend sings, “when [he] loves your eyes, your thighs, and your breast-is?”

The lyricist with the audacity to rhyme asbestos with breast-is is Amanda Green, who penned the show’s songs with Lin-Manuel Miranda (“In the Heights”) and composer Tom Kitt (Pulitzer Prize winner for “Next to Normal”). Their show will arrive at the Ahmanson Theatre on Nov. 11.

The daughter of legendary Broadway lyricist Adolph Green, Amanda Green has a resume that highlights her wicked wit. She earned a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle nomination for her first musical, “Up the Creek Without a Paddle,” which she describes, alternately, as “a West Coast version of ‘Sex and the City,’ ” and “basically a gynecological exam set to music.” She recalled that her late father, who shared her bawdy sense of humor, was particularly tickled by a ditty from that 2000 show, which she describes as “a filthy, unprintable song.”

Then there was the musical version of the cult film “High Fidelity,” which Green collaborated on with Kitt, her classmate from the famed BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop; and “For the Love of Tiffany: A Wifetime Original Musical,” which she recounts as a “wild romp that skewered Lifetime TV movies, in which I also acted, playing a triple amputee German housekeeper with a feather duster in my stump.”

When director and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler invited Green to work on “Bring It On,” however, she didn’t set out to parody the pompom set. “I wanted to have fun with this world, but I wasn’t interested in clichés,” she said.

Green began by rewatching the 2000 film, which stars Kirsten Dunst and Eliza Dushku. With book writer Jeff Whitty (“Avenue Q”) and the other collaborators, she then helped to create an entirely new story and characters for the show.

“Bring It On: The Musical” evolved into the story of Campbell, the captain of a cheerleading squad at a lily-white school who is determined to bring her team to victory at a national competition. Her classmates include Bridget, who wears the team’s ungainly parrot-mascot costume; Skylar, aka “Bitter Bitch Barbie,” who has a sidekick named Kylar; and Eva, Campbell’s worshipful admirer, who may or may not be reminiscent of the duplicitous villainess in “All About Eve.”

But then Campbell is transferred to a more urban school that doesn’t even have a cheerleading squad; she struggles to fit in and to convince the queen bee of the hip-hop dance crew to compete against her old team. Life lessons and acrobatics ensue; when “Bring It On” premiered at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta in early 2011, critics described the cheerleading numbers as almost epically athletic.

“I am blown away by Amanda’s work, and it’s been a tremendous experience getting to work with her again,” said Kitt, who asked Green to collaborate with him on “High Fidelity” after meeting her at BMI. “When I first met her, I didn’t know right away that she was the daughter of Adolph Green. She does have this very original and unique talent for lyric writing — this incredibly witty voice mixed with a real sense of craft.

“The worlds of competitive cheerleading and high school are ripe for hilarious and poignant moments, and Amanda’s lyrics are dead on in terms of paying tribute to and also celebrating and laughing at the world of adolescents,” Kitt added of “Bring It On.” “The way Amanda puts things we all feel into unexpected comic writing makes the laugh even bigger, because the audience doesn’t see it coming.”

Green, who is in her 40s, had no cheerleading experience to draw upon when she began working on the show two years ago. While growing up on New York’s Upper West Side, she attended the prestigious High School of Performing Arts — which she said was really like the school in the film, “Fame,” minus the dancing atop taxis — before transferring to a private school her sophomore year. “There wasn’t even a football team, never mind a cheerleading squad,” Green said. “That just wasn’t part of my idiom.”

For “Bring It On,” she didn’t want to draw upon the popular-culture image of “the cheerleader as a bimbo, and ‘rah-rah,’ stuck up and vain,” she said. “I really wanted to delve into their world and understand who they are.”

To this end, Green read books about the subject, interviewed cheerleaders and attended their competitions. “What I found was that they are these incredible athletes, and incredibly dedicated; it’s a very hard sport and what they do is very admirable,” she said. “So I approached it like we were going to have fun with this world, but not from the outside in.”

Amanda Green, co-lyricist of “Bring It On: The Musical.”

As Green began writing lyrics for the show’s approximately 23 songs, which merge pop and hip-hop with more traditional musical theater sounds, she found that “each character had their own voice. As a writer, I love people who have an odd way of speaking or a particular rhythm or vocabulary, so I try to write for each character and how they would express themselves.”

The fictional Campbell is sure of herself, but not without some undercurrents of insecurity, while Skylar both embodies and lampoons stereotypes. “She’s almost nice in her complete bitchiness, because she has such a commitment to it,” Green said. “It’s expressed in lyrics just because she is so unapologetic and gleeful about it.”

In one song, Skylar recalls her own experiences of trying out for the cheerleading squad: “I felt so belittled — man, they put me on the rack. And now that I’m a senior, this is my chance to give back! I’ll uphold the great tradition with these young lives on my watch. Let’s set the stage, I’ve come of age, to be a raging, castrating bee-yotch!”

Green, who laughs easily in a phone conversation from her home on the Upper West Side, has something of a musical theater pedigree. Her father, the son of Hungarian Jewish immigrants, and his longtime collaborator, Betty Comden, created some of Hollywood and Broadway’s greatest hits, writing lyrics for such musicals as “On the Town” and “Billion Dollar Baby,” as well as screenplays and songs for movies like “Singin’ in the Rain.” He met Amanda’s mother, the Tony-winning actress Phyllis Newman, when she understudied for Judy Holliday in his musical “Bells Are Ringing.” Amanda Green recalls her father’s story about how Jule Styne, after a creative argument, stormed out of the room, then stormed back in, naked and dancing a jig.

The “Bring It On” collaboration was somewhat more cordial, she quipped. The production, however, is itself facing a complaint, filed in early August by the Writers Guild of America, accusing the movie’s producers of exploiting the rights of the film’s screenwriter, Jessica Bendinger, by producing a new musical based on the story, according to The New York Times.  In a statement, a spokesperson for the show said, “As a policy, the producers of ‘Bring It On: The Musical’ will not comment on legal matters. The national tour will begin [preview] performances in Los Angeles on Oct. 30, 2011 as scheduled.”  A WGA spokesperson declined to comment on the matter.

For her part, Green said she had no information about the issue.

Talking of her heritage, she said, “Judaism was always part of our cultural heritage; we were always very proud of that,” she said, adding that her childhood home was also a meeting place for luminaries such as Styne, Cy Coleman and Leonard Bernstein, who took turns serenading one another at the piano. When she performed the starring role of Maria in a summer-camp production of Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” the maestro himself sent her a congratulatory opening-night telegram.

Green studied theater and English at Brown University and then attended the Circle in the Square Theatre School, initially aspiring to become a performer rather than a lyricist. She explained, “You don’t compete with your parents, without even consciously saying, ‘I’m not going to do what they do.’ “ And so she wrote her own songs and sang in cabarets—and even went to Nashville to write country music, “because I always had an offbeat sense of humor that didn’t lend itself to straight pop songs,” she said. “But when I enrolled in the BMI musical theater workshop, that’s where it clicked for me. I was like, ‘This is where I belong.’ I just understood the genre, because I grew up with it; I get it, I love it, and I can be as eccentric as I want to be, as long as it serves the character.”

For more information, please visit centertheatregroup.org.

China’s obsession with Hitler


A Chinese Hitler, dressed like a mall cop, mopes in an underground bunker in 1945 as his empire is collapsing around him. But it’s not all bad news. “My stomach hurts, and it’s bigger. I’m pregnant!” Hitler exclaims, stroking himself mindlessly.

“Hitler’s Belly,” a hit play currently touring China, answers the eternal question of what the world’s most notorious dictator looks like when portrayed by an overweight Chinese man pretending to be pregnant. It mixes snippets from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” old newsreel footage, slapstick with Chinese sensibilities, and an extended fart joke. As Hitler prepares to give birth, Chaplin—also a character in the play—wanders the bunker, impersonating Hitler to his underlings. Chaplin spars with Hitler, and then everyone raps. Genocide is not mentioned.

Chaplin made his famous 1940 satire, in which he plays both a Jewish barber and Adenoid Hynkel, the blabbering dictator of Tomania, in part because of the actor’s similarity to Hitler: They each sported a distinctive mustache, they were born four days apart in April 1889, and they shared a love for Richard Wagner’s music. In his autobiography, Chaplin’s son, Charles Chaplin, recalled his father saying: “He’s the madman, I’m the comic. But it could have been the other way around.”

Meng Jinghui, the play’s shaggy-haired director, first saw “The Great Dictator” in 1984, he told me, and he thought it would be fascinating to watch Chaplin interact with Hitler. But he didn’t begin work on his play until he saw a glint of Hitler in his favorite leading man, Liu Xiaoye. “I was wearing a hat and put on a little mustache,” said Liu, who plays Hitler, Chaplin, and Eva Braun, often switching between characters mid-sentence. Meng recalls: “He put black on his finger and put it up here, and said hey, don’t I look like Hitler? And I said, hey, you can be Hitler.”

One of China’s best-known theater personalities, Meng has enjoyed a long string of successes adapting foreign concepts to Chinese audiences. He brought Rent to China as the story of a missing real-estate tycoon. “We don’t have bohemia, we don’t have so many drug users or gay people, and we don’t do threesomes,” he told NPR in 2009. “So, we use your structure, and we put our lives into it.” Unlike “The Great Dictator,” “Hitler’s Belly” declines to tackle questions of Judaism, focusing instead on issues relevant to a Chinese audience: corruption in the Ministry of Railways, lies from the government, and the difficulty of affording a house. Many artists prefer to satirize the present in China by criticizing the past.

“The most difficult part of the acting for me was moving between history and politics,” said Liu. To announce the birth of his son, Hitler holds a press conference. He tells the Chinese journalists in attendance that the pregnancy is a “miracle,” a loaded term because it mocks the government’s response to a recent deadly train crash—after a bullet train derailed last July, killing scores, a Railway Ministry spokesman called the rescue of one child survivor “a miracle,” invoking the ire of many. This draws a healthy laugh from the audience.

The play, which has toured Shanghai, Beijing, and will be in Guangzhou in October, has played almost exclusively to packed houses, Meng said. On the performance’s last night in Beijing in early August, the theater was filled with people in their 20s and 30s, constantly laughing and clapping at the satire and the slapstick, according to the director. Liu portrays a bumbling, melancholic side of the dictator, who shouts “Heil Myself!” whenever anyone salutes him. He does a gentle Chaplin, and his Eva Braun flashes her chest to Hitler whenever she gets excited.

In China, Hitler isn’t known for the Holocaust, but rather for achieving social stability with a very high human cost. “In general, they refer to him as very lihai, very hardcore, someone who is strong, powerful,” said Rabbi Nussin Rodin, a Chabad representative in Beijing. “You can be strong and powerful and good, and strong and powerful and bad. It’s weird. I don’t know what to say.” With China’s regime facing growing internal criticism for mishandling any number of things, from the escalating price of fuel to train safety, Hitler’s perceived image as a strong leader who was able to maintain social stability makes him an attractive figure to many.

Outside the Beijing theater, which is perched above a karaoke parlor in a wealthy part of town, college student Liu Mingyu said that he came because of the director and thought the play was funny. “There’s nothing good about him,” Liu said of the Hitler character, “except that he’s strong-willed, that’s the only advantage he’s got. But in general he’s a bad guy, I suppose.”

Some Chinese sympathy toward Hitler is fueled by a persistent—and false—rumor claiming that when Hitler was an impoverished young student in Vienna, he was taken in by a Chinese family named Zhang. “Looking at Hitler From a Different Angle,” an article published last month on the website of the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, reported that during Hitler’s youth, a Chinese family gave him “Oriental style selfless help,” and that because of this he had a “warm and close feeling toward China.” Many Chinese believe that Hitler had secretly supported China during World War II, despite Germany’s alignment with China’s wartime oppressor, Japan. Hitler is well-known in China; rural residents especially don’t necessarily see him as a sign of evil. Olivia Kraef, a Beijing-based sinologist from Germany, related a story of a recent trip in China, where someone wanted to drink a toast to Hitler with her. “That was the first thing he came up with when he met me,” she said. “Hitler, soccer.”

Bizarrely, support for Hitler does not in any way suggest disdain for Jews. On the contrary: Chinese people on the whole are very approving of Judaism and Jewish culture, seeing Jews as experts in both moneymaking and child rearing, with a long history and a strong tradition of education. And, unsurprisingly in a country where Mao’s all-seeing portrait still hangs from Tiananmen Square, Chinese tend to shy away from comparisons between their homegrown contender for the title of history’s greatest butcher. “I don’t think there can be any comparison between Hitler and Mao,” said Meng. “Mao’s biggest spirit was to serve the people; Mao loved the people. That’s the biggest difference.”

Isaac Stone Fish is a Beijing-based reporter for Newsweek and the Daily Beast. This article originally appeared on Tablet Magazine, tabletmag.com.

‘Rachel Corrie’ on stage: agitprop or art?


“The American Jewish community has a problem keeping silent,” says scholar Michael Berenbaum, and he ascribes the “problem” to guilt over our collective failure to speak up during the Holocaust.

In a very different time and on a vastly different scale, the option of silence versus public protest faces Los Angeles Jews in advance of the opening of a play many view as anti-Israel propaganda.

The one-woman play, “My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” will open Sept. 1 at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, an outdoor venue in Topanga Canyon. Although it is hardly a prominent theatrical event for a cultural mecca like Los Angeles, its focus on a controversial historical figure from Israel’s recent history raises questions of artistic freedom and historical balance.

Rachel Corrie, who grew up in a liberal, non-Jewish family in Olympia, Wash., traveled during the Second Intifada to the Gaza Strip as part of an activist movement to “shield” Palestinian inhabitants from the Israeli army.

She was killed March 16, 2003, at age 23, while confronting an army bulldozer assigned to demolish a house believed to harbor hostile militants. Some allege the bulldozer driver killed Corrie on purpose because she would not move out of the way. Others say the driver did not see her and ran over her accidentally.

The dramatic circumstances of this young American woman’s death in the midst of a widely covered conflict quickly turned the incident into an international cause célèbre.

Corrie, a compulsive writer, left behind a huge cache of diary entries and e-mail letters, which two Londoners, actor/director Alan Rickman and journalist Katherine Viner, have edited into a 70-minute play.

“My Name Is Rachel Corrie” opened in London in 2005 to full houses and glowing reviews. A planned New York premiere in early 2006, at the nonprofit New York Theatre Workshop, met a different fate, however.

The timing of the New York opening was inauspicious. It was a moment when the always-heated emotions surrounding the

Israeli-Palestinian conflict had been intensified by Hamas’ election victory in Gaza, a group listed as a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States. The play’s intended opening also coincided with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s massive stroke, which left the Israeli leader in a coma.

So, before opening the play, James Nicola, artistic director of the New York theater, decided to poll local Jewish religious and community leaders as to their feelings about the work, according to a New York Times report.

Nicola concluded that the announced play “has made this community very defensive and very edgy … and it seems reasonable to me to postpone the opening indefinitely.”

Nevertheless, the play opened later that year at a commercial theater in Greenwich Village, and that production left New York Times critic Clive Davis cold.

“An element of unvarnished propaganda comes to the fore … with no attempt to set the violence in context,” Davis wrote. “We are left with the impression of unarmed civilians being crushed by faceless militarists.”

In a rebuttal, Viner, the play’s co-editor, defended her work as “a piece of art, not a piece of agitprop.”

Various productions of the play have since been staged in Seattle, Chicago, Australia and Ireland.

Samara Frame will portray activist Rachel Corrie in “My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” opening Sept. 1 at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum.

Perhaps with the unhappy New York experience in mind, the Theatricum Botanicum’s board decided to do some advance outreach to the local Jewish community, with veteran character actor Alan Blumenfeld, a longtime board member, volunteering to make the contacts.

In an interview with The Jewish Journal, Blumenfeld noted that, so far, attention has focused on Corrie’s dramatic end, rather than on her life. In assessing the play, he said, “I think it is important to figure out who she was and what she tried to do — separate from her death.”

In one of her diary entries, the then-21-year-old Corrie describes herself as “scattered, deviant and too loud.” Susan Angelo, who directs actress Samara Frame in the upcoming production, sees Corrie as a rather naïve young woman who knew little about the Middle East conflict and could have gone to any global hot spot in her search “to make her life meaningful.”

Co-editor Viner, in an epilogue to the play’s script, sums up Corrie as “messy, skinny, Dali-loving, list-making, chain-smoking, with a passion for the music of Pat Benatar.”

A reading of the play shows Corrie portrayed as an intelligent, idealistic, super-imaginative and introspective teenager and young woman, who strove, somewhat self-consciously, to appear unconventional.

In trying to evaluate the Jewish community’s mood, Blumenfeld spoke with representatives of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Israel-advocacy group StandWithUs.

Blumenfeld said he found the representatives of all three groups friendly and forthcoming. As a result of the discussions, representatives from the community will provide audiences with factual written material and participate in “audience talk-back” sessions following all four performances of the play.

In an interview, Patsy Ostroy, founding president of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, said she had not seen the play but she anticipated “a negative reaction in the Jewish community,” while at the same time fully defending the play’s right to be heard and seen.

Catherine Schneider, Federation’s senior vice president of community engagement, said she had expressed her deep concern about the possible impact of the “play’s misinformation” on audiences, but also explored with Blumenfeld possible future stagings of other works at Theatricum Botanicum, perhaps by young Israeli authors.

Roz Rothstein, CEO of StandWithUs, a group that on its Web site describes its mission as fighting the “delegitimization of Israel,” expressed concern about the play’s approach: “I can fully understand that Rachel’s parents are heartbroken …  but the play itself consists of one-sided anti-Israel propaganda.”

StandWithUs does not advocate a boycott of the play, she said, but it will distribute to audiences a leaflet featuring pictures of eight Israeli women, all also named Rachel, who have been killed in terrorist attacks.

Although the Simon Wiesenthal Center was not part of Blumenfeld’s advance discussions, its founder and dean, Rabbi Marvin Hier, said that based on Israel’s record and government investigation of the case, he is convinced Corrie’s death was accidental.

“In a free country, the producers of the play have every right to put it on,” Hier said, “but to any friend of Israel, I would say, ‘Don’t see it.’ ”

Veteran peace and civil-rights activist Gerald Bubis also emphasized the right of any play to present its message, nevertheless predicting that “the more Jews attack the play, the more publicity it will get.

“My advice about the play is leave it alone, leave it alone,” Bubis said. “If it’s good, it’ll survive; if it’s bad, it won’t. In either case, nothing will happen to the Jews.”

Two telling evaluations came from theatrical producers who have had their own struggles with controversial plays.

Howard Teichman, artistic director of the West Coast Jewish Theatre, recalled that two years ago he wanted to put on “Behind the Gates” by Wendy Graf, much of it set in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim quarter.

Though Teichman considered the play “brilliant,” when he presented the project to his board, a majority turned it down, concerned that the contents would offend religious sensibilities. “I still think one of the theater’s missions is to present all points of view,” he said.

Gordon Davidson, who served for nearly four decades as artistic director of the Center Theatre Group, staged “The Devils” by John Whiting as his very first production. Among other topics, the play dealt with religious hysteria and sexual repression among 17th century nuns and priests, and the reaction by the Catholic Church and powerful politicians almost aborted Davidson’s career at its start.

“I realize that a given play may cause anger and hurt, but if I chose it on its merits, I have to take the responsibility,” Davidson said. “And what better exercise in democracy can there be?”

So far, the Jewish community, or that segment aware of the Rachel Corrie play, is generally taking its upcoming performance with equanimity.

Blumenfeld said that the theater sent out notices of the play’s schedule to its mailing list of 4,000, and just seven came back with e-mailed comments.

“Three said, ‘I’m excited and will attend,’ ” Blumenfeld said. “Two responded with, ‘I am concerned about the play. Can we discuss this?’ And two more messaged, ‘How dare you put this on? I’ll never set foot in your theater again.’ ”

Performances of “My Name is Rachel Corrie” are on successive Thursday evenings, Sept. 1, 8, 15 and 22, at the Theatricum Botanicum’s S. Mark Taper Foundation Pavilion, located at 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., midway between Pacific Coast Highway and the Ventura Freeway. For tickets ($12 each) and information, phone (310) 455-3723, or visit www.theatricum.com.

A leaflet will be distributed to audiences by the group StandWithUs.

Family history informs justice, guilt in ‘Wiesenthal’


He was often called “the Jewish James Bond” and “the Conscience of the Holocaust” for his activities in the pursuit of Nazis. It was a mission to which the late Simon Wiesenthal dedicated some 58 years of his life, after having been a prisoner in several concentration camps during World War II. The iconic figure lives again in the one-man show “Nazi Hunter — Simon Wiesenthal,” starring and written by Tom Dugan. The production is now running at Theatre 40, a professional theater company located on the campus of Beverly Hills High School.

The play is set in April 2003, on the day of Wiesenthal’s reluctant retirement and the closing of his office at the Jewish Documentation Center in Austria, where he remained after the war, despite the fact that, as he states, the Austrians were responsible for the slaughter of at least half of the 6 million Jews exterminated by the Nazis.

“If you want to find a cure for malaria,” Wiesenthal says in the play, “you must live among the mosquitoes.”

Wiesenthal is addressing the last group of students he will entertain at his office, lecturing them about his work, his experiences, his philosophy, and the Nazis. He is emphatic that one can’t condemn a whole people for the evil actions of some, and he tells his listeners that former camp prisoners testified on behalf of Nazi officers who had not committed atrocities and had shown some sympathy for the inmates. He says that one guard saved his life in a camp, and he invited that man to his daughter’s wedding. He also insists that, in hunting Nazis, he is not out for revenge but wants the perpetrators of Nazi atrocities brought to justice.

For purposes of the performance, the audience members become the students, and the character on stage regularly interacts with them. He also takes them back in time, reliving events from his past.

During a recent interview, Dugan, who is Irish-Catholic, explained how the idea for this project was born. “I’ve always been interested in World War II and particularly in the Holocaust, because of my father’s place in history. His infantry unit liberated the Langenstein camp, a sub-camp of Buchenwald, and I specifically remember one time when I was a child of about 7 years old. I had watched some World War II movie, and I was feeling the shrapnel that he still had under his skin. I said to him, ‘You know, Dad, you must really hate Germans.’ And he said to me, ‘Are you crazy?  Half of my family is German.’ ”

Dugan continued, “My father said, ‘I don’t judge people by the group to which they belong; I judge them by their actions.’ As a 7-year-old, that took me a while to digest. “It was that rejection of collective guilt that drew me to Wiesenthal’s story. And when I heard that he had passed away, I read his obituary; I read his books; and then I read books about him. I thought this would be an appropriate story for me to tell, not only because of my father’s connection to it, but, because, years later, I married a Jewish woman, and I have two beautiful Jewish boys, ages 8 and 9.” 

Dugan remembered wartime memories his father shared.

“The stories that he told me over the years were appropriate for the age that I was. But the main themes, especially when I was young, were very powerful. He talked about the cowardice of the SS officers once their guns were taken away.”

That cowardice is highlighted at certain points in the play. In one section, Wiesenthal talks about being at the War Crimes office, saying that, just as he had trembled before the SS men, they were now trembling before the Americans. At another moment, Wiesenthal tells his listeners that he takes his greatest pleasure not from apprehending Nazis, but from one Nazi threatening another by saying, “I will tell Simon Wiesenthal where you are.”

To add some leavening to such a dark subject, Dugan includes a dose of Wiesenthal’s engaging humor. “I don’t think I could have told this story if Wiesenthal himself did not have a fabulous sense of humor,” the actor said. “When he was a young man, he actually did amateur stand-up comedy. So, I thought, ‘What an opportunity to tell such an important story, share the words of wisdom from such a man and have the challenge of making it entertaining as well.’

“The most important thing, for all the shows I do, is that I really have to feel like I’m sharing something important with each and every audience, giving a message that is positive and uplifting. I always tell the students that come to see my shows that they’re meant to be entertaining and, if you’re not careful, you might learn something.”

According to Dugan, Wiesenthal wanted the public to learn how banal evil can be. In the play, the Nazi hunter describes his reaction when he attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel. He says that, as the defendant entered the courtroom, he appeared as harmless and innocuous as a bookkeeper.

“It took me a while to get my brain around the banality of evil,” Dugan said. “How can there be a man so evil that he isn’t obviously a sociopath or a sadist? There’s also the realization that just blind obedience to authority can create the Holocaust.

“The theme that struck me the hardest, going back to when I was 7 and my father talked to me about his experiences, was his contention that anyone is capable of committing evil acts, in the right circumstances, with the right desperation … anyone. And I said, ‘Not us, Dad, right? Not you, not me, not Mommy.’ And he just said, ‘Anyone is capable.’ It frightened me, but it’s true,” Dugan said.

“I say in the play that the savage in all of us lurks underneath this wafer-thin veil of civilization,” Dugan concluded. “He will always be a part of us. All we can do is contain him. That’s what I want audiences to take away with them, that we’re all part of this history. This is not distant from us; this is our story.”

“Nazi Hunter – Simon Wiesenthal,” Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. through June 21. $25.00; students and members of the 4A’s half price on standby at the door. Theatre 40 at the Reuben Cordova Theatre, 241 Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills High School Campus (off Little Santa Monica Blvd.). Free indoor parking. Reservations: (310) 364-3606.

At Beit T’Shuvah, they sing a song of ‘Freedom’


“How long must I roam, to find my way home …”

Natalie sings the lines tentatively, tugging at her black T-shirt, her voice soft and sweet.

But soft and sweet won’t cut it for a drug addict trying to work her way back into her family on seder night.

“This is your story. Stand up for it. What are you afraid of?” director Laura Bagish urges her.

Natalie, who asked that only her first name be used for this article, plays the lead role of Shira in “Freedom Song,” a Passover-themed musical produced by Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish residential rehab facility in Culver City. The actors are all alumni and residents of Beit T’Shuvah, and at a late-night rehearsal in the facility’s lunchroom, which also serves as both auditorium and synagogue, they are feeling the pressure of the three shows they will be performing before Passover.

Playing a lost daughter feels particularly familiar to Natalie: She is 18 and was addicted to heroin when, three months ago, she left Beverly Hills High School to check herself into Beit T’Shuvah.

As the cast cheers her on, she sings with more depth, but she’ll have to get stronger before her first performance, just days away.

“Freedom Song” was written nearly seven years ago, based on the real-life stories of Beit T’Shuvah residents. Conceived as a one-time production, the 45-minute, edgy musical has played continually since then to thousands of people at synagogues, schools and other organizations across the country.

The show serves as a form of therapy for the actors, but it is also a catalyst for the audience. After each performance, the cast holds a dialogue with the audience, and nearly always someone from the audience comes forward with an addiction story of their own.

“It’s amazing that the play is such a vehicle for people opening up, for cutting through the denial and allowing people to speak in a way that seeing a didactic seminar about addiction just wouldn’t do,” said Beit T’Shuvah’s Cantor Rebekah Mirsky, a former country singer who co-authored the script.

The actors use the Passover story as a lens through which to view their own journeys, and in turn reflect back to the audience a new way of internalizing the Passover story: What are you a slave to? Do you retell your foundational story and pull meaning from it, or do you hide your truth from yourself and from others? Do you truly understand what it means to live free of deception? 

The staging juxtaposes a 12-step meeting with a family seder. The music, a mash-up of original theater tunes, Jewish liturgy and forceful pop, with interludes of rap, plays as a constant underscore for dialogue that weaves itself into the music.

As the story unfolds, the audience learns that the seemingly happy family members on one side of the stage are enslaved to their idea of normal, while hiding truths about themselves. The addicts on the other side of the stage share their tales of deception and self-sabotage — tales that each new round of actors writes into the script to reflect their true journey. The addicts, the audience learns, have grown to understand that owning their narrative is the only road to authentic living.

The show highlights the haggadah’s imperative for storytelling. Even if the story is shameful — 200 years of slavery, 20 years of addiction — telling it can be a powerful tool not only for an ongoing process of national rediscovery, but for deep and difficult self-improvement.

“For people who have had to be secretive, who have been ashamed of themselves and been hiding in many ways from themselves, this is really powerful,” said Beit T’Shuvah director Harriet Rossetto, who founded the program in 1987. “The message to addicts often is, ‘If anyone really knows who I am, they won’t love me.’ And I think that is what our people get — that sense that I can be me, and tell my story, and people will still love me.’ ”

Ira S., a 53-year-old who worked in the entertainment industry, is recovering from decades-long drug and alcohol abuse (he asked that only his last initial be used). He moved into Beit T’Shuvah in 2008 and now works there as a counselor. He plays Grandpa in “Freedom Song.”

“I’m not the kind of person that people see a lot. When I first came here, it was all about trying to get by without being on the radar. I was trying to hide more than being present, and that was a part of me that needed to change,” he said in an interview.

He said he was reluctant to join the cast and froze his first time on stage. But, now, he credits “Freedom Song” as being a major part of his recovery.

“I feel like I belong to something. I never felt like I belonged before,” he said.

Beit T’Shuvah is the only rehab residence in the country to integrate Judaism and the 12-step program. Its 120 beds, plus 30 outpatient slots, are always full. Two off-site residences house clients who are well into recovery, and Beit T’Shuvah recently purchased another building, next door, which it will use for its popular Shabbat services and an expansion of outpatient offerings, possibly including a drop-in center. Its prevention curriculum has reached thousands of teenage and middle school students.

While Beit T’Shuvah self-reports an impressive success rate of 65 percent, 85 percent of “Freedom Song” participants stay clean, according to Beit T’Shuvah’s Rabbi Mark Borovitz, who is married to Rossetto. The show allows for deep artistic expression and gives the participants responsibility and the sense that people are counting on them, Borovitz said.

“They know they’ve touched someone, which I’ve heard them say again and again was a bigger high than ever getting loaded was,” Rossetto agreed. “And when you give up your external high, there is a void, and if you don’t fill that with some other highs, it’s very hard to stay sober.”

Watch the trailer below.

Bon Jovi to play Israel


Bon Jovi will perform in Israel in the coming year, the band’s lead singer Jon Bon Jovi told Larry King on his talk show.

During an interview on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” Bon Jovi said the rock band would include Israel on its list of stops during its “The Circle” world tour in 2011. The group, which was at the height of its popularity in the 1980s, also will visit Greece for the first time.

Several high-profile musical artists have canceled shows in Israel in the past year, bowing to political pressure from pro-Palestinian groups.

Rod Stewart appeared at Ramat Gan Stadium in June. The rock band Deep Purple will return to Israel in May for two concerts, Ynet reported.

All-women ‘Joseph’ a dream come true


At a recent dress rehearsal at Temple Beth Am for the Jewish Women’s Repertory Company’s (JWRC) November production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” Margy Horowitz, the company’s founder, musical director and accompanist, played piano while the narrator belted out the famous opening line: “Some folks dream of the wonders they’ll do, before their time on this planet is through.”

Horowitz, to her frustration, couldn’t take her eyes off the sheet music, but she doesn’t have to watch the performers to know the narrator is describing her. The Chicago native dreamed of creating an outlet for observant Jewish women to realize their love of performing even though the Jewish law of kol isha prohibits women from singing solo in front of men.

“I founded [JWRC] in 2005 purely out of jealousy, because my best friend, who lives in Chicago, called one day and said she got a leading role in ‘Mary Poppins’ in a Jewish women’s theater group, so I thought, ‘Why can’t I do it here?’ ” Horowitz said in an interview before rehearsals.

Friends dismissed her as a “dreamer,” saying no one in Los Angeles would be interested, yet this production of the family-friendly biblical favorite has not only proven them wrong but also assures that if “some folks” have a dream, they can realize it.

Horowitz, a professional piano teacher, launched JWRC with a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado,” for which she cast anyone who auditioned. This year, only 31 out of 52 hopefuls got parts, and the company has moved from performing at Beverly Hills High School to the state-of-the-art Nate Holden Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles. The band has expanded from a piano accompanist to include drums and a violin. JWRC subsists through ticket sales and ads, yet last year it donated $5,000 to Aleinu Family Resource Center, up $3,000 from 2005.

“Now it’s just a way for Jewish women to get together and perform and enjoy each other and be creative together,” Horowitz said, surrounded by a few visibly proud cast members dressed in their colorful costumes. But, she said, “There are so many more things that came out of it that I didn’t imagine. Friendships have been made. You have Bais Ya’akov parents friends with Beth Am parents,” she said, referring to the ultra-Orthodox girls’ school and the Conservative congregation, respectively. Horowitz is a member of the Modern Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation.

The ambitious “Joseph” musical is a symbolic choice, as it tells the tale of the fractured tribes of Israel coming together around one man’s dream. And indeed, the atmosphere in the rehearsal hall feels like a Jewish sisterhood: Women of all ages, callings and denominations — mothers, teachers, lawyers, therapists, professors, students and a doctor — happily synchronizing steps, singing and letting go as they move to the cohesive and professional choreography.

At first, Horowitz was surprised that she’d draw women who aren’t concerned with kol isha. When Caryn Malkus, an English and dance teacher, and a Beth Am member, was cast for a role in the 2007 production of “Guys and Dolls,” she didn’t know men weren’t allowed to attend performances. But she loved the experience so much that she came on as choreographer in 2008 and is this year’s co-director.

“It’s very empowering for women that we’re able to play all the parts and that we can put it on on our own with some technical help from men, but with the nuts and bolts done by women,” Malkus said.

And while cast members commit anywhere from six to eight hours a week throughout the four-month rehearsal period, often juggling parenthood and/or a full-time job, Malkus believes participation enhances her family life.

“There’s nothing better than having kids come watch you,” said Malkus, a mother of twin boys. “First of all, you’re out so much in the evening it’s hard to explain for them why it’s important you’re gone, but once they see the show and connect what you’ve been talking about with reality, it’s amazing for them. We’re becoming role models for our kids. You can be a mom, a doctor, a cantor, and do something creative for yourself.”

Horowitz says quality time with her family has only intensified. “In the musical, there is a line when the brothers say to Joseph, ‘Your dreams of course will not come true,’ and my husband says, ‘Your dreams of course will all come true.’ It’s a culmination of everything that I could have wanted for this group, and more.”

Performances of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” will take place at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles on Nov. 20 and 21. For more information, visit

Young Jews, Catholics to debate Passion Play


For the first time, young American Jews and German Catholics will formally debate the meaning of Germany’s controversial Passion Play at Oberammergau.

The traditional, notoriously anti-Semitic play about Jesus’ last days has undergone serious revisions since Catholic and Jewish leaders first discussed the matter some 40 years ago. The young people will analyze how the play has changed and assess the current performance.

The Americans’ trip May 6-16 is being co-sponsored by the New York-based American Jewish Committee and Germany Close Up, a Berlin-based program designed to introduce American Jews to modern Germany.

Rabbi Noam Marans, AJC associate director of interreligious and intergroup relations, said in a statement that the planned conference would help ensure “that the significant advances in Christian-Jewish understanding and cooperation are sustained and furthered.”

The Oberammergau Passion Play is repeated every 10 years with a new cast, director and stage designer. It has been a source of friction and unusual cooperation between Jewish and Catholic leaders, particularly since the liberalizing Vatican Council II (1962-65), when the Church officially warned against blaming Jews in eternity for the death of Jesus.

Over the decades, Church representatives have worked closely with American Jewish leaders to reshape the traditional text of the play to reflect modern sensibilities, with AJC’s former head of interreligious affairs, Rabbi James Rudin, at the forefront.

It is no mere intellectual exercise, Marans said in his statement.

“Passion plays, especially Oberammergau, the most influential of its genre in the world, can be troubling vehicles for anti-Judaism and, tragically, have inspired violence against Jews,” he said.

‘Accidental Mexican’ Ilan Stavans probes cultural identity in first play


As an “accidental Mexican” born to an Eastern European family, author and essayist Ilan Stavans has hurdled critics to become one of the nation’s foremost commentators on Latino culture. As a Mexican American, he has written widely on immigration, the clash and fusion of languages and the quest for acceptance.

As a Jewish Mexican American, he has made himself a wrecking ball aimed at the walls — literal and imagined — that make virtual strangers of his varied ethnic roots.

“I’m very interested in borders or the absence thereof,” said Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. “We live in a world where every country is perfectly delineated with lines, where we can have fences or where we can have helicopters and dogs and patrols. To what degree are those borders replicated in our minds? How do we cross a border that is fictional or imaginary, or do we carry them with us forever?”

Cultural identity and the roles people play for the sake of assimilation are themes Stavans probed in his 2005 short story, “The Disappearance,” which follows a Jewish Belgian actor who seemingly fakes his own kidnapping by a neo-Nazi group. Stavans last year partnered with Massachusetts theater group, Double Edge Theatre, to adapt the story into a play, which will premiere at the Skirball Cultural Center Oct. 16-17.

The production marks the first time Stavans has helped adapt one of his works for performance — an endeavor inspired, in part, by the performer he’s known longest.

“It all comes from having seen my father at the theater. He was very influential for me,” said Stavans, who, as a child, watched his father become a popular stage and soap opera star in Mexico City. “I don’t feel that I have cut loose from my past — I feel that my past is still with me. I have spent my entire life as a writer trying to return to it.”

Stavans’ grandparents immigrated to Mexico from Poland and Ukraine, escaping pogroms and anti-Semitism. They wanted to settle in the United States, but strict immigration quotas pushed them south. Stavans grew up in Copilco, a multiethnic, middle-class enclave in the southern part of Mexico City, and attended a Yiddish-language school.

Being one of a handful of Jewish people in his neighborhood was sometimes difficult.

“On the one hand, it made me feel special and unique, but it also made me feel vulnerable,” Stavans said. “I grew up with a sense of being a minority — that just by accident, I was Mexican. We were Jewish because our ancestors were Jewish, but we were Mexican because someone had put his or her finger on the map and said, ‘We need to escape; let’s go here.'”

Stavans dabbled in filmmaking and theater and began writing novels. He dropped out of college and traveled in Europe and Israel but never felt comfortable calling either place home. Back in Mexico, he got his bachelor’s degree from the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in 1984. At age 25, he moved to New York City to pursue the life of an intellectual. But the transition wasn’t easy.

“When I came to this country, I became an altogether different person,” Stavans said. “I was never a Mexican in Mexico; I was a Jew. Upon arriving to the U.S., and particularly to New York City, I somewhat magically ceased to be Jewish. All of a sudden, I became Mexican.”

Amid shifting ethnic labels, Stavans also grappled with the newest piece of his cultural puzzle: being an American. He dove into academics, earning graduate degrees at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University. An Amherst professor since 1993, he has, over the years, built a reputation as a prolific writer, lexicographer, translator and cultural analyst.

Throughout his career, Stavans said he has been criticized “a million times” by both Latinos and Jews, who claim he isn’t an authentic enough face for either culture to act as its spokesperson.

“I’m an appetizing target because I’m not your standard Latino or your stereotypical Jew,” he admitted. “But criticism is a source of energy. As long as you present work that is grounded, responsibly structured and aesthetically refined, criticism simply means that the work matters.”

Stavans’ numerous books include “The Hispanic Condition: The Power of a People” (1995), the autobiography “On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language” (2001), “Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language” (2003) and the newly released “Resurrecting Hebrew” (2008), which chronicles the revival of the language in the late 1800s by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Stavans also edited “The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories” (1998), “The Poetry of Pablo Neruda” (2003) and the three-volume “Isaac Bashevis Singer: Collected Stories” (2005), among others.

His short story, “Morirse Está en Hebreo,” was recently adapted as the 2007 feature film, “My Mexican Shivah,” in which his father, Abraham Stavans, had a role.

Not bad for an exile who didn’t even pick up English until his mid-20s.

“I feel very close to the Jewish diasporic tradition that traverses borders, both with countries and languages,” Stavans said. “There is something within Jews that defies established borders — or maybe that is inspired by them — to break them, to go beyond them. Diaspora is in our blood; it’s the source of our intellectual and spiritual sustenance. We can carry in our books the DNA that will keep that Jewishness alive through the next diaspora.”

The question for Stavans is how that Jewishness might be expressed.

Fictional actor Maarten Soëtendrop glides from stage to stage at the peak of his success in Stavans’ “The Disappearance.”

The Belgian population goes into an uproar when the Jewish actor is kidnapped by a band of neo-Nazis, reappearing 18 days later in an alley, bloody and beaten. But when Soëtendrop — a Holocaust survivor — confesses to plotting the whole scheme, suspicions swirl over his intentions, his past and whether, in a larger sense, Jews can ever find stable footing as perpetual outsiders in foreign cultures.

“I wanted to address the ghosts that Jews carry within themselves when living in a country where we are a minority,” Stavans said. “I wanted to explore the changing nature of Jewish identity — how do we react to the environment? Are we hypocrites because we keep one truth for ourselves and present another truth to society at large?”

The work is based on the true story of a prominent Belgian actor, Jules Croiset, whose self-staged kidnapping Stavans read about in The New York Times in 1988.

The story’s themes of secrecy and betrayal appealed to Stacy Klein, founder and artistic director of Double Edge Theatre, who wanted to collaborate with Stavans after reading some of his material.

Klein invited Stavans to see the Ashfield, Mass., group’s interpretation of “Don Quixote” in 2006. At the beginning of the piece, Stavans recalled, the performers staged a bonfire in which they were burning books.

“They knew I was going to come to that particular performance, and they put on top of that pile of books three or four of my own books,” he said. “I was shocked to see that my books were being burnt right in front of my eyes. It was a very provocative statement. I thought what they were doing was quite interesting and a relationship started.”

Stavans attended several Double Edge rehearsals, sometimes taking part in their improvisations.

“The shaping of the play was very untraditional,” he said. “Rather than the writer sitting in his office and deciding where to start, I gathered everyone in the troupe, read my story and each of the actors began improvising different aspects of the story.”

Not only is Double Edge’s production of “The Disappearance” Stavans’ first theatrical adaptation, but it will also serve as the author’s acting debut — Stavans said he plans to join the cast onstage during select dates in roles he won’t reveal beforehand. “It’s going to be a surprise for the audience,” he said.

After an engagement at the Skirball Cultural Center the show will travel to Legnica, Poland, and New York City.

On Oct. 15, also at the Skirball, Stavans will give a lecture titled, “Who Stole the Statue of Liberty? Immigration in America Today,” in which he will discuss the modern immigration experience.

For tickets or more information, call (877) 722-4849.

Balancing the seen and unseen is a juggling act


In the defining moment of Sara Felder’s performance piece, “Out of Sight” — about a mother and daughter who clash over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — she juggles machetes while precariously balancing on a rola bola.

“There’s danger in trying to ‘see’ someone you [oppose], and in being seen,” says Felder, who brings her semiautobiographical monologue combining storytelling, vaudeville and circus arts to the Skirball Cultural Center May 21 and 23. “The show is about whether we can have an intimate relationship with someone with whom we sharply disagree, how we can ask questions and open up dialogue.”

Felder manipulates shadow puppets to create images of seeing and not seeing throughout the show, which is partly inspired by her own arguments with her late mother.

“I tell the true story of how my mother lost her eyesight as a girl by staring too long at a solar eclipse,” Felder says. “She was so transfixed she couldn’t look away, even though her eyes hurt, and for that she paid a terrible price. All my life I have been haunted by that story, and I thought it would be a good way to approach the metaphors in the play.”

Felder began writing the piece several years ago when she realized she had never discussed Israel in a play, despite decades of dissecting her Jewish and lesbian identities onstage. The politically progressive Felder says she remained silent out of respect for her mother, Francis, a passionate Zionist who had come of age during the Holocaust.

“When asked about her regrets in life, my mother would never say, ‘It was the day I looked into the sun — she would say it was the day she did not chain herself to the fence to protest President Roosevelt’s policies about Jewish refugees from Hitler.”

After refugees aboard a German trans-Atlantic liner were turned away by the Roosevelt administration and forced to return to Nazi Germany, Francis Felder vowed to support Israel so Jews would always have a safe haven. Sara Felder grew up in a proudly Zionist household, and, while at UC Berkeley, eagerly signed up to spend a school year in Israel.

“It was right after the Camp David accords, a quote-unquote peaceful, optimistic time,” the artist recalls. “Then on a class trip to Gaza, this Palestinian kid threw a stone at the bus. In the play, I tell the tale as if he threw it directly at me, because that’s how I experienced it. It was just a small moment, but it completely changed my perspective.” Felder sought to learn about the Arab perspective and came to feel that “everything my mother had taught me was wrong. Or at least, incomplete.”

In the play, Felder uses a balancing trick (invented by W.C. Fields) to build a block wall while describing the rift between the fictional mother and daughter.

“When I create a show, I look for objects that can tell the story more efficiently than words ever could,” she says.

Now 49, Felder learned to juggle in college and as a member of the Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco. She incorporated the craft into her own monologues when she discovered that viewers “would listen to whatever I said, so long as I was juggling; it opened people up to different points of view.”

As for juggling knives, she says she’s only bled once onstage: “As soon as a machete leaves your hand, you know if it’s a good throw or not, and you can decide whether to stick out your other hand to catch it or to let it fall to the floor.”

Felder has juggled everything from boom boxes to latkes (which she says are harder than machetes, because they’re greasy) in solo shows such as “June Bride,” which is loosely based on her own Jewish lesbian wedding.

Tossing machetes on a rola bola could described how she sees much of her work. “I like to explore the balancing act of being Jewish in America today,” she says.

Sara Felder will also deliver a lecture, “From Fanny Brice to Woody Allen to You: A Short History of Jewish Humor,” on May 22. For information about her lecture and performances, visit www.skirball.org.