November 15, 2019

Jewish theater: From Yiddish to multiculturalism

What defines “Jewish” theater?  David Chack, a playwright and president of the Association for Jewish Theatre, promises that question will be among the subjects examined at the association’s upcoming conference, Feb. 5-8 at the Dortort Center for Creativity in the Arts at Hillel at UCLA.

“The theme of this year’s conference is ‘Reflecting and Shaping a Shifting World,’ and I also think the definition is shifting. There was a time when, if you said ‘Jewish theater’ to people, all they thought of was Yiddish theater. That’s not true anymore.”

Chack maintains that one of the shifts in Jewish theater is its movement toward multiculturalism, just as Jews in this country are a mixture of cultures.

“They’re not all from East European Jewish backgrounds anymore. They’re Mexican Jews and Mexicans who’ve converted to Judaism, and there’s Asian-American Jews, etc., and you see it reflected in the artists who are doing theater and film and television today, and you see it in the lives of the people around us. That’s where, I think, Jewish theater is going.”

In keeping with that perspective, the keynote speaker will be Richard Montoya of Culture Clash, the mostly Latino performance troupe known for political and social satire.

“Richard Montoya thinks of his background as being kind of crypto-Jewish from a Spanish-Jewish background,” Chack said, “who came to the Southwest of America and to Mexico, and hid their Jewish roots. He created ‘Palestine, New Mexico’ about that and did a kind of cultural investigation that was also about his own identity, about the identity of the people around him.” 

In a 2009 interview in The Journal, Montoya was quoted as saying, “I’d like to try to answer some questions so my children will know that their great-great-grandfather might be from Damascus, but your great-great-grandmother may have lit Shabbat candles on Friday night.”

For his part, Chack, who is also a producer, curator and educator, has a theater project in Chicago, called ShPIeL — Performing Identity, dedicated to presenting what he calls identity-based work, which might include productions with an African-American, Asian or Latino core; gender-based or transsexual productions; and, of course, plays with a Jewish core.

He maintains that there are theatrical works with strong Jewish underpinnings, even if they don’t appear overtly Jewish, citing Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Death of a Salesman,” as one example.

“Many people have said ‘Death of a Salesman’ not only reflects Miller’s own parents and background growing up in Brooklyn, but also, in fact, was intended to show the Wandering Jew in the same way that Willy Loman (the main character) is like a wandering and traveling salesman.”

Just as there are many variations of Jewish theater, the international membership of the 32-year-old association is varied and wide-ranging, with writers, performers, producers, directors and theater companies — and also many non-Jewish members.

This year’s conference offers a potpourri of activities, including an evening of solo performances and a presentation of readings excerpted from the works of member playwrights. Both evenings will be followed by “Insomniac’s Delight,” a late-night cabaret of “music, monologues and mischief,” produced by Frank Entertainment, which is also staging a pre-conference variety show on Saturday night, Feb. 4, that is open to the public.

Other highlights include a luncheon on Feb. 5, honoring actor Ed Asner as “an artist who exemplifies the highest aims of the Association for Jewish Theatre and the theme of this conference.” A panel on “Comedy and Drama of Ethical Values in Jewish Theatre” follows and will include Naomi Pfefferman, The Journal’s arts and entertainment editor.

Feb. 7 will be spent entirely at USC, where activities have been co-organized by solo performer-writer Stacie Chaiken, a faculty member at the university’s School of Theatre.

“We’re going to look at how artists and arts institutions interact with catastrophic content,” Chaiken explained. “The Holocaust is huge, and there are other targeted mass murders or genocides. And, on some level, and this is not to diminish anything, anytime we address [a] personal story or witness [a] catastrophe — it could include sexual violation, it could include terrible, violent loss of any kind. We have to sort thorough the material of those things to find out what is worth bringing to an audience.”

The program will include a short performance piece by Chaiken, a talk by USC Shoah Foundation Executive Director Stephen Smith on “The Art of Witness” and a panel of artists who employ first-person testimony and historical content as the raw material for their work.

After a kosher box lunch, another panel will talk about “pushing the envelope with new and unexpected work.”

“This is all about theater being activist,” Chaiken said, “about theater and theater artists regaining the kind of musculature that it takes to address real things in the world.”

She continued, “I believe you need to be willing to go into the fray.”

Playwright Wendy Graf, who served on the conference programming committee, agrees.

“The work I’ve been doing in the last couple of years has been slightly off the traditional Jewish theater radar. It hasn’t been ‘Brooklyn Boy,’ it hasn’t been Neil Simon, and that’s not putting those down, but it’s been about 21st century Jews or issues that are controversial in the Jewish community — Israel and the Middle East and Muslims, and all that.”

Graf helped put together a panel on “New Directions in Jewish Performance.”

“One issue I’ll be addressing has to do with stepping out of the Jewish theater community to have my work produced, because some traditional Jewish theater companies find it offensive and provocative.”

That was the case with the 2010 production of Graf’s play “Behind the Gates,” which dealt with the misogyny and spousal abuse she found to be widespread among the ultra-Orthodox Charedi men in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim.

“I had been told that we shouldn’t say anything bad about Jews at all, whether it’s deserved or not deserved, or we shouldn’t say anything bad about Israel at all: ‘The world hates Israel enough as it is, so why stoke the fires of anti-Semitism?’ I’m willing to ask hard questions, and I think that is a new direction in Jewish theater.” 

Graf stressed that despite the institutional resistance, the play got tremendous support from Jewish audiences, as well as from the Israeli community. 

“Controversy sells. We were wishing that they would picket in front of the theater during ‘Behind the Gates.’  What better thing could you get than that?” 

She concluded: “Have a little more trust in people, in the audiences. They’re smart, and they want to be provoked. They want to think; they want to go across the street when the play is over and have a glass of wine and argue. So, if you have a season of three shows, take a chance with one of them.” 

For more information on the conference, visit this story at

Association for Jewish Theatre Conference
Sun., Feb. 5 – Wed., Feb. 8
UCLA Hillel – 574 Hilgard Avenue Los Angeles, CA 90024
Tues. Feb.7 – all day at USC campus and the Shoah Foundation
For more information and complete schedule: or