‘Chosen’ Offers Lessons of Acceptance

April 11, 2018
From left: Sam Mandel, Dor Gvirtsman and Steven B. Green in “The Chosen.” Photo by Ed Krieger.

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Chaim Potok’s beloved novel, “The Chosen,” the tale of two teenagers — one Chasidic, one Modern Orthodox — who become unlikely friends in Brooklyn from the years of the Holocaust through the birth of the State of Israel. The two boys and their fathers clash over the ideology of Zionism and the melding of Judaism with the modern world.  But they ultimately manage to overcome their differences to come to a place of understanding.

Potok’s best-selling 1967 novel was adapted into a film starring Rod Steiger in 1982, a short-lived off-Broadway production seven years later, as well as a 1998 play co-written by Potok and playwright Aaron Poster. The play went on to enjoy more than 100 productions in this country and around the world.

In 2017 — 15 years after Potok’s death in 2002 — Gordon Edelstein, artistic director of the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn., approached Poster with a proposition. “He said my version of the play was great — but it could be better,” Posner said in a telephone interview from his home in Silver Spring, Md.

Instead of being taken aback, Posner accepted the challenge and streamlined the play by removing the character of the narrator from his previous version and focusing more specifically on the story of the fathers and their sons. The new version premiered at the Long Wharf Theatre last year and is now running through June 10 at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood.

“We don’t try to bridge our differences. And this play is all about bridging differences.” — Simon Levy

It was the Fountain’s longtime producing director, Simon Levy, who brought the play to the venue. He was drawn to the piece because of its themes of tolerance: “The conversation in our country has become so toxic and negative that we no longer talk to each other,” he said. “It’s all about choosing sides, sticking to your tribes, and then everyone else is the enemy. We don’t try to bridge our differences. And this play is all about bridging differences.”

Levy was also drawn to the play, in part, because of his own family’s fraught experiences regarding Judaism. While his mother, Rosina, grew up in an Orthodox home in England, her father disowned her after she gave birth to Simon out of wedlock in 1949. “I was a bastard child and he refused to recognize me, and my mother was furious,” Levy said. Levy’s grandfather subsequently refused to ever see his grandchild. And he later disowned his other two daughters after they married non-Jews.

To get away from her father, Rosina Levy moved with the then 2-year-old Simon to San Francisco, and she gave up Orthodoxy altogether. “She was very proud to be a Jew, but she would not raise me religiously,” Levy said. She refused to allow Simon to become bar mitzvah. “That was her anger, her backlash against her father,” he said. “She had a very challenging push-pull with Judaism.”

“The Chosen” explores some similar themes, Levy said. “What Potok and Posner have done is to set up the dynamics between opposing belief systems, and then try to reconcile those worlds.”

To prepare to direct the play, Levy meticulously researched Chasidism and Zionism as well as World War II. He also relied on input from two Los Angeles rabbis to ensure the authenticity of his production: Rabbi Emeritus Jim Kaufman of Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village, and Daniel Bouskila, formerly the rabbi at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood and now director of the Sephardic Educational Center.

Bouskila frequently met with the four-person cast for question-and-answer sessions and also lent his entire rabbinical library to help decorate the stage set. All four actors in the play are Jewish, which adds to its authenticity, Levy said. Dor Gvirtsman, who plays the Chasidic teenager, was born in Israel and decided to become an actor after seeing a production of “The Chosen” in Palo Alto when he
was a pre-teen.

Levy believes that the play resonates today. “The heart of Judaism is that opposites can exist at the same time,” he said. “There can be two different interpretations and that’s OK. My feeling is that there’s a lot of that we could use in the United States Congress right now.”

“The Chosen,” Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles. Fridays, Saturdays and Monday evenings and Sunday matinees through June 10 (dark May 11–14, 28). Discussions follow matinee performances on April 22 (“ ‘The Chosen’s’ Place in Literature”); and May 6 (“The Many Faces of Israel’s Jewish Community in 2018”). For tickets and information, call (323) 663-1525 or visit www.FountainTheatre.com.

Naomi Pfefferman is the former Arts & Entertainment Editor of the Jewish Journal.

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