February 19, 2020

‘Family Secrets’ Reveals Jewish Skeletons

Michael Naishtut, Niloo, Debbie Kaspar and Rosie Moss in “Family Secrets.” Photo by Maureen Rubin

A granddaughter learns that her beloved rabbi grandpa was a con artist. A daughter discovers that her doctor father is into degradation pornography. A sister is never told about the sibling who died before she was born. 

These are three of the dozen provocative tales told in the Jewish Women’s Theatre (JWT) production “Family Secrets,” currently playing at The Braid in Santa Monica and other locations through Jan. 29.

Opening with the lively song “My Dysfunctional Family,” the show is a mix of poignant, shocking, funny and touching true stories about sex addiction, forbidden romance, sexual abuse, teenage pregnancy and hiding one’s true self, all told from a Jewish perspective.

“Family secrets are so compelling because we all have them,” co-director Susan Morgenstern told the Journal after a rehearsal. She contributed the aforementioned piece about her older sister’s hidden death. “The poison of it was keeping the secret, so to hear it now and know that audiences will hear it is very cathartic,” she said.

Rosie Moss, one of the show’s four performers, found much to relate to in the material. A piece about a Polish grandfather’s relationship to Judaism resonated with her.

“My grandfather’s family is from Poland and Russia, so it’s easy to think about the generations before me coming to America and what that means for your identity,” she said. “I didn’t have a swindling rabbi in the family, but we have some not-so-perfect characters that I don’t know the full stories about, and I want to go call my grandmother and get more details. This stuff is all pretty universal.”

JWT Artistic Director Ronda Spinak narrowed down some 60 submissions to choose the 12 in the show. “I asked myself, was I moved by this? Did I learn something? Did I laugh out loud? If the piece has one or all of those, it [went] in the possible pile,” she said. Then she looked for variety, balance and resolution. “It wasn’t enough to share the secret. What happens when that secret is shared or not shared? How does that play out? What kind of impact does the keeping or sharing of that secret have? The pieces in the show answer that question or don’t answer it.”

Spinak co-founded the nonprofit JWT 12 years ago “to give voice to Jewish women to tell their stories onstage. Our mission is to create, produce and preserve Jewish stories so that future generations will know what it was like for the Jewish man and woman in America. We do men’s stories, too. Men come to our shows,” she said, although the audience is typically 55 percent or more female.

Spinak spoke about the JWT’s roots in “the tradition of Jewish women having salons in their homes, to bring forth cultural voices. We’ve performed in synagogues, museums, a women’s prison.” “Family Secrets” will play at several local synagogues and theaters over three weeks before heading to Santa Barbara and the Bay Area. 

“[The show] will make people think about their own secrets and the impact of learning those secrets and the impact of not telling them. If you’ve kept a secret, there’s usually a reason for it.” — Ronda Spinak

“There are so many different ways to be Jewish and to practice Judaism,” Spinak said. “We try to represent that in our shows.” 

Upcoming JWT shows include “It’s a Lie,” which, Spinak said, tells “funny, ironic stories surrounding death.” It opens in March, followed in May by “True Colors,” about Jews of color. “There are many ways to do Jewish,” Spinak said.

Spinak, whose heritage is Ashkenazi and one-quarter Sephardic, grew up in Orange County and has fond memories of attending Camp Hess Kramer. “I learned to have a spiritual connection to nature and to mash up creativity and Judaism,” she said.

Although her parents “didn’t believe in God anymore” after her sister’s death, Morgenstern said she found her way back to Judaism though JWT, where she’s been the resident producing director for six years. 

“I’ve started to understand exactly how Jewish I am,” she said. “Everything that matters to me is Jewish. I’m much more spiritual and focused on my Judaism. I feel more connected. I love my work here. It’s meaningful to me and I see the impact that we have.”

Co-director Lisa Cirincione, who also acts at JWT, was surprised at how deeply the plays have affected her. Raised Jewish by a Jewish mother (her father is Italian and Catholic), she said she “loved the material because it allowed me to learn about my own Judaism. The content penetrated my heart really deeply and quickly, and kept me coming back. I’ve gotten to play all kinds of Jewish women: American Jews, Russian Jews, Iranian Jews.”

New Jersey native Moss grew up in a “proud, culturally Jewish family. Reform but with a lot of traditions,” she said. “My brother is in his last year of rabbinical school and my mother is the executive director of a synagogue in Manhattan.” Her paternal grandmother sang and told stories in Hebrew, Yiddish and Polish, and influenced her desire to perform. 

Moss appeared in the JWT’s “Guilty Parties” last year, and she wrote and produced the short film “Enchanted LLC,” about a children’s party performer, based on personal experience. “It’s not a Jewish theme, but that’s what I want to do next,” she said.

Moss hopes audiences will come away from “Family Secrets” with “an understanding of all of our flaws, that we’re not perfect. Maybe something in our past is complicated but it still can be experienced and celebrated.” 

“It will make people think about their own secrets and the impact of learning those secrets and the impact of not telling them,” Spinak said. “If you’ve kept a secret, there’s usually a reason for it. Is telling it going to destroy? Bring closer? Inspiring people, making people think, provoking new thoughts, provoking change is really important. Having an audience leave talking about a piece and sharing secrets of their own begins dialogue about ideas that the Jewish people of America are wrestling with.”

“Family Secrets” runs through Jan. 29. Visit jewishwomenstheatre.org or call (310) 315-1400 for venues and dates.