December 10, 2018

Latina Jews put stories onstage

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

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

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

It’s Venezuela.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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