Celebrating Jewish Culture With a Homespun Mix

February 2, 2017
Ronda Spinak (left) with actors, writers and directors of “Matzo Ball Diaries.”

For two evenings last week, Deborah Kattler Kupetz’s midcentury modern family home in the winding hills of Brentwood underwent a Cinderella transformation when it became a makeshift theater. With 85 chairs set up in the living room and ambient lights casting moody spotlights onto four barstools at the fireplace, this was the setting for the Jewish Women’s Theatre and the performance of “Matzo Ball Diaries,” foodie monologues revolving around Jewish identity.

“I host these evenings because not only is it a privilege, it’s the ultimate hospitality,” Kattler Kupetz told the Journal. Hers is one of many homes and venues throughout the city hosting this program. The next performances are scheduled for Feb. 3 at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles and Feb. 12 at Congregation Tikvat Jacob in Manhattan Beach.

At 7 p.m., audience members began arriving at the Kattler Kupetz home with canned goods for a Jewish Family Services food drive and homemade cookies for a pre-show nosh.

“Who are we as a people? What defines us as a culture?” Ronda Spinak, artistic director at Jewish Women’s Theatre, asked the audience before the show. The answers came as four actors performed vignettes about Sephardic and Ashkenazi customs, kugel, tomato omelets, pancakes, pork chops in cream, cheese blintzes, and, as the finale, matzo balls.

Lisa Klug, a Jewish Journal contributor, wrote the matzo ball closer, a piece called, “A Jewish American Love Poem,” from her humorous book “Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe.” Usually performing it as slam poetry, she had flown down from San Francisco specifically for the premiere of the show.

“This is the first time that my writing is being staged in a theatrical production, and I didn’t want to miss it,” she said. The fact that the production was staged in a home made the experience more thrilling for Klug, who has watched her poem evolve with each performance.

On this particular evening, Cliff Weissman, the only male among the actors, was in the middle of a monologue when the doorbell rang. This is how it goes with the Jewish Women’s Theatre; with performances held in homes, salon-style, phones sometimes ring. So do doorbells. But in the spirit of any performance, the show must go on.

“Partly, it was an economic decision to go into homes, and partly it was reviving and reinventing the tradition Jewish women have had,” Spinak told the Journal. The group also owns The Braid, a performance space and art gallery in Santa Monica, which now is showing “Nourishing Tradition,” an art exhibition with themes similar to those in “Matzo Ball Diaries.”

“What a wonderful way to perform!” gushed actress-writer Shelly Goldstein, an artist-in-residence at Jewish Women’s Theatre who performs in the show. “You don’t have to worry about sets and costumes or props. It’s the most honest, the most generous. It’s raw.”

The production is bare-bones. Actors read from binders, evoking the feeling of a cold-reading. At times, the spare presentation can feel uncomfortable and expository. In “My Lekker Figure,” a monologue adapted from Robyn Travis’ book in progress “The Tokoloshe,” actress Emma Berdie Donson talked about her eating disorder, her skeletal figure and protruding hip bones. The audience fell dead silent.

“Oh, dear” a woman gasped.

“What I love is how powerful the material is received when you just strip it down to the words and the performance,” said “Matzo Ball Diaries” director Susan Morgenstern. “We talk about the teeniest of things, the smallest of pauses, and the inflection and what they mean and how they’ll be received. So it’s really careful detailed work.”

There are moments of levity, as well, when the audience becomes part of the performance; because the venue is a home, the “fourth wall” between actors and audience is often broken.

“I love the piece about brisket,” said Morgenstern, referring to a monologue by Rene Moilanen, “The Secret to Brisket,” which chronicles a granddaughter’s sifting through her grandmother’s recipe book, only to find that each recipe is composed of instant mixes and microwave instructions.

The secret to her grandmother’s brisket? Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix. It’s a running joke throughout the monologue that catches on and soon has the audience chiming in, saying the catchphrase with the actors: Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix. Women in the audience laughed, nodding their heads, maybe because they, too, use Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix in their brisket.

It’s through these stories, about brisket or matzo balls or whatnot, that the narratives of Jewish women (and men) are told. “Stereotypes about Jews are everywhere in society, so we’re trying to hold up a mirror to ourselves in a way,” Spinak said. “We try really hard to offer up a full range of who a Jew is today. We have a very broad view of that.”

The Jewish Women’s Theatre tries to peel away the stereotypes through its productions. The 2017 season continues with “Exile: Kisses on Both Cheeks,” about the Sephardic traditions (March 18-April 3), and “More Courage,” about the correlations between Muslims and Jews (May 6-22). Also, on Feb. 16, Rain Pryor, the daughter of Richard Pryor, teams up with the   Jewish Women’s Theatre to present her one-woman, autobiographical show, “Fried Chicken and Latkes.” It will run for six weeks at The Braid..

Additional shows are being planned by the Jewish Women’s Theatre’s millennial group, NEXT @ The Braid, funded by Jewish Community Foundation’s Cutting Edge Grant and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The millennials are receiving writing submissions through Feb. 20 on the theme “The Space Between,” a show about divisions and finding common ground.

“We need to see our stories. We need to hear our voices. It would be nice to see a well-rounded representation of who we are,” Goldstein said.

Which brings up the question: Who is the Jewish woman?

“She is not one thing,” Goldstein answered.

She is an old family recipe. She is challah rising in an oven. She is a mother-in-law’s kugel recipe. She is Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix.

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