Jewschool: Handle With Care: A Jewish Play Born From An Interfaith Marriage

Originally published on Jewschool.

Handle With CareWhen I first skimmed the press release for Handle With Care, a play currently running off-Broadway in the theater that used to house Old Jews Telling Jokes, I thought I had the whole thing figured out in advance: a non-Jewish playwright married an Israeli actress and wrote a show for her. Simple, I thought. It must be a comedy exploring the hilarity of intermarriage, like an Abie’s Irish Rose for the Pew Report generation. I couldn’t have been more wrong. For although playwright Jason Odell Williams has written a play about love bridging disparate lives, it’s about a burgeoning love affair between an Israeli Jew and an American Jew, finding each other in the most unlikely of circumstances: their “meet cute” occurs when a delivery man loses the box containing the remains of Ayelet’s recently deceased grandmother, which he was supposed to be bringing to the airport for return to Israel. Josh, Ayelet’s love interest, is the delivery man’s only Jewish friend, so naturally he gets the call to help translate the situation to the distressed Israeli who speaks very little English.

The result is a charming romantic comedy that would be right at home on JCC stages anywhere in the country. That the play was written by someone who’s not himself Jewish (although he is part of a Jewish family) is surprising, so I was glad to have the opportunity to speak with both Williams and his wife (and star of the show) Charlotte Cohn about that play, their marriage, and working with one’s spouse. Continue reading

Jewschool: Where Hipster Brooklyn and Youth Group Nostalgia Meet

Originally published on Jewschool.com.

Sermon SlamA couple of weeks ago, an email came over the Jewschool contributors’ listserv asking if anyone wanted to cover a SermonSlam taking place in my neighborhood. As someone who has enjoyed other kinds of slams in the past (poetry, story, and grand – IHOP, not baseball), I jumped at the opportunity. I’m still something of a Brooklyn newbie, having lived here for less than a year. So I want to fully own that my preconceived notions of what a SermonSlam might be were entirely colored by an outsider’s stereotype of Brooklyn hipster culture. Now, to be fair, I have lived here almost a year—it will be a year this Shabbat—and so I have been around long enough to know that most of the stereotypes about Brooklyn hipster culture are true. And I should have been tipped off by the fact that the event was being held at Congregation Beth Elohim (known in the neighborhood as CBE), a very large Reform synagogue that often plays host to community events, many of which I have enjoyed this year.

You see what I’m getting at, right? What I had pictured as a cool, vaguely underground event, perhaps in a dark room with a stage and a bar, turning words of Torah into performance art, was in fact more like a youth group program for young adults, held in a large, well-lit synagogue social hall, with the performers relying a little more heavily on the “sermon” than the “slam.” The only drinks were of the cola variety, and the evening was padded with games straight from my synagogue youth director playbook like Jewish Geography 2.0, affably executed by hosts Ben Greenfield and Samantha Kuperberg, who themselves seemed to have arrived straight from a summer on the staff of Camp Ramah.

BUT! And this is a big BUT! (I like big BUTs and I cannot lie…) I’m pretty sure if you went in to the event with fewer or different preconceived notions, you would have been thrilled.  Continue reading

Jewschool: Making the Stars of David Sing

Originally published on Jewschool.com

Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish debuted in 2005 and has been a perennial bar mitzvah gift ever since. The book, which features interviews by Abigail Pogrebin with about five dozen celebrities about their Jewish identities, is now an off-Broadway musical. Pogrebin is no stranger to the musical stage; she chronicled her experience as an original cast member of the infamous Stephen Sondheim flop Merrily We Roll Along in her 2011 Kindle Single Showstopper. This morning I chatted with her about the experience of writing Stars of David, both book and musical, and how her evolving Jewish identity has shaped the project.

In the introduction to the book, she discusses that part of the impetus for the project was that Jewish identity had crept up on her. She was married to a Jewish man, had two children approaching the ages when they might want to know something about what being Jewish meant, and she realized that she didn’t have an answer to that question. “I wasn’t necessarily honest with myself about why I started the book in the sense that I didn’t know how at sea I was, in terms of my own Jewish identity, when I approached famous people,” Pogrebin said. “I think sometimes stories are generated by some subconscious impulse to understand something for yourself. And I don’t want to over-analyze my motivations in starting the book, but I would say that having these frank conversations with some of our highest achievers made me look much more candidly at myself, and I realized I hadn’t answered a lot of the questions I was asking, personally.”

Continue reading

Jewschool: Bad Jews, Great Performances

Originally published on Jewschool.com

Tracee Chimo, Michael Zegen and Molly Ranson in Bad Jews. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Tracee Chimo, Michael Zegen and Molly Ranson in Bad Jews. Photo by Joan Marcus.

As the organized Jewish community debates the changing nature of Jewish identity in America uncovered by the recent Pew study, theatergoers in New York are engaging in a similar debate spurred on by Bad Jews, a new play by Josh Harmon being presented off-Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre Company, following a developmental production last fall at the Roundabout Underground Black Box.

On its surface, Bad Jews is a dark comedy about cousins reuniting at their grandfather’s shiva, butting heads about who should inherit a chai necklace their beloved Poppy had managed to hold on to through his time in a concentration camp. But Bad Jews is really a play of ideas, offering one hundred minutes of debate about what Jewish identity means for the grandchildren of survivors and contemporary twenty-something American Jews. Representing the “religion matters most” camp is Daphna (Tracee Chimo), a strident senior at Vassar who hopes to marry the Israeli soldier she slept with on Birthright, make aliyah, and attend rabbinical school. Taking the opposing view is Liam (Michael Zegen), her elder cousin who has little to no interest in Judaism or Jewishness, but feels a deep familial connection to what the chai necklace represents. Liam’s younger brother Jonah (Philip Ettinger) just wants to be left out of the argument. The ensuing battle, which is further intensified by the presence of Liam’s perky, privileged, non-Jewish girlfriend Melody (Molly Ranson), will either fascinate or exhaust you, depending on how many times you’ve had this conversation yourself. Continue reading

Jewschool: Soul Doctor brings Carlebach to Broadway

Originally published on Jewschool.com

[Soul Doctor show logo]Have you ever had the experience of introducing your high school friends to your new friends from college? That’s the best way to describe how I felt watching Soul Doctor, the new Broadway musical based on the life and music of Shlomo Carlebach. Throughout the show, staged in 3/4 thrust at the intimate Circle in the Square, I couldn’t keep myself from looking across the theater at the faces of my Catholic friends and wanting to explain, or apologize, or forget they were there so I could give myself over to the music and ecstatically clap along with the rest of the mostly-religious, Jewish audience (based on the number of kippot and wigs in evidence).

Because here’s the thing: if you’re reading Jewschool, you, like me, probably love Carlebach’s music. You might not even realize how much of it you love — I kept finding myself surprised at melodies employed in the show. How could one man have possibly written so many of the melodies that have underscored every Jewish experience of my life, from the synagogue to the campfire? And even when saddled with second-rate English lyrics and a hopelessly inert story, when sung by a terrific cast of Broadway babies (led by Eric Anderson as Carlebach himself and newcomer Amber Iman making a splash as Nina Simone) backed by a fantastic band under the baton of Seth Farber, the music wins out, and I found myself unconsciously tapping my feet even as I rolled my eyes. Continue reading

Jewschool: On Exile and Peoplehood

Originally published on Jewschool.com

Two and a half months ago, I moved from Boston to New York.

I had lived in Boston for 33 of my 35 years, but I had always wanted to live in New York, and the time was right. When speaking with friends after the move, the refrain was the same. “I don’t miss it. I was ready to go.” I’ve missed my friends but not my city.

And then bombs went off at the Boston marathon.

It’s hard to overstate the role of the marathon in the life of the city. The state takes a holiday. (The entire state, not just the city, as Boston does on St. Patrick’s Evacuation Day.) People flood into the city from around the world. And rather than run the other way, as Bostonians tend to do when confronted with tourists, instead we line the entire route of the marathon so we can cheer: for our friends, for our visitors, and for our city.

I work in a relatively small office, and three of us have moved to NY from Boston in the last three years. So when one of the others interrupted a meeting I was having to say, “Have you heard about Boston?” I had no expectation that those words would bring bad news.

Nothing is worse than being the direct victim of violence. But being far away from those you love, not knowing what’s going on, and seeing only a stream of “I’m okay!” and “here’s what we think is happening” and especially “here are the ways we can all help” flood my Twitter and Facebook feeds does a number on you.

Last night, I was looking at Twitter on my way home and saw a friend in Boston had shared a picture from Brooklyn of BAM lit up with messages of support for Boston. In a moment of synchronicity, I happened to be getting out of a cab in front of BAM at that moment, so I walked around the building to see the display for myself. There was a small crowd of people taking pictures and offering comfort to each other.

A blogger with some handheld video device approached me and asked if I would be interviewed on camera. I figure bloggers should help each other out, so I agreed. He asked how I was feeling on that day, and I shared that I was a recent Boston transplant so the day was difficult, but thank God as far as I knew everyone in my life was safe. He then started down the path of comparing what happened to daily life in Syria. I cut him off and said something about how I knew that today alone in Iran the fatalities outnumbered anything in Boston, and that people all over the world were suffering, and it was important for us to remember that too. And then I got myself out of the conversation because I didn’t want to become a pawn in some kind of project of comparative suffering.

Over the course of the last two months, I’ve been participating in the Shalom Hartman Institute’s iEngage program, which offers a text-based approach to discussing the State of Israel through the perspective of Jewish values. (I now work for the Institute, so in this course, I am both participating and learning about one of our own programs.) Rather than dealing with fact sheets or calls to activism, iEngage challenges us to grapple with ideas like “what are the Jewish values around power and powerlessness,” and “what does a Jewish conception of democracy look like,” and “what exactly is Jewish peoplehood?” We study texts ancient and modern, guided by the Institute’s scholars and in chevruta with our colleagues.

The particular cohort for my iEngage group is Jewish social justice professionals, with a mix of folks from the lefty spectrum, including staff members from New Israel Fund, T’ruah, Keshet, Jewish Community Relations Councils, etc. In our discussions of Jewish peoplehood, some of the participants bristled at the concept, feeling like it was ancient chauvinism morphed into some kind of Zionist guilt-trip. For me, a sense of Jewish peoplehood has always been more about a deep-felt connection to people around the world and throughout history, most of whom I’ve never met and many of whom I’m sure I wouldn’t like very much if I did. The idea that we look out for our own first (but not only) and worry about those with whom we share a connection more than those from whom we are disconnected has never felt chauvinistic to me. It feels human.

And until yesterday, I never realized how much I feel that same connection to the people of my home town. And when the (certainly well-intentioned but misguided) blogger outside of BAM implied that my concern for my fellow Bostonians was somehow misplaced in light of suffering in the rest of the world, it came together for me, and I got angry. I am capable of complex thought and multilayered emotion. I can grieve for Boston without belittling Syria, Iran, or anywhere else in the world where people suffer. I can be a member of the Jewish people while also being a citizen of the world. I can be a New Yorker and be a Bostonian. And how dare anyone imply otherwise.

Jewesses With Attitude: Jackie Hoffman Doesn’t Care If You Find The Feminist Message

Originally posted on Jewesses With Attitude.

HoffmanThroughout March, Baruch College Performing Arts Center has been presenting a series of Jewish comediennes in partnership with the Jewish Women’s Archive and Baruch’s Jewish Studies Center called “Solo in the City: Jewish Women, Jewish Stars”. With a mix of well-known names and up-and-comers in the lineup, the series defies the temptation to draw generalizations about funny Jewesses.

Jackie Hoffman, beloved in theatrical circles for her take-no-prisoners approach to musical comedy (sample lyric: “fuck you for asking me to do a show for free! / fuck you and your benefit for charity”), is at once an ideal and a challenging performer for such a series. Undeniably funny and with a deep understanding of Judaism (she’s the black sheep of an Orthodox family), she knows she can draw a typical Jewish audience in with songs criticizing Jewish Buddhists (“Inner peace and joy are overrated / come back to the fold of the most-hated”) and pushy mothers on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. But when her paean to Shavuot includes lines like “Ten Commandments God gave to us so that we won’t sin again / Ten Commandments I break every day by eating pork and Christian men,” you know this isn’t your typical JCC fare.  Continue reading

JewishBoston.com: Farewell from JewishBoston.com’s Managing Editor

Originally posted on JewishBoston.com.

About three and a half years ago, I got an email from Bonnie Rosenbaum, the Director of Communications at Keshet, where I sit on the board. CJP was holding a meeting for area organizations to come learn about a new project they were developing called JewishBoston.com. Could I attend on Keshet’s behalf?

I had no idea how that meeting would change my life. Patty Jacobson and Liz Polay-Wettengel, the co-founders of JewishBoston.com, presented their vision of how this website could change our community. They outlined a tool to level the playing field for synagogues and other organizations to get their information out to the public, a portal that would lower the barriers to entry to the Jewish community. They shared a dream of making the Jewish community a little bit friendlier and a lot easier to join.

At the end of the meeting, I ran up to both of them, introduced myself, and asked how I could get involved. At that time, there wasn’t a committee I could join, but they took my information and promised to keep in touch.

created at: 2013-01-29

A few months later, they reached out to me for help. They were looking to hire an editor, and they knew I had great contacts in the Jewish blogosphere. Did I know anyone who wanted the job? Of course I did—me. The only problem was that I wasn’t looking for a job. So I tried really hard—really hard—to find someone else for the job. Because I needed the temptation to go away. But time passed and the job remained open, and I realized I needed to throw my hat into the ring.

I became editor of JewishBoston.com on June 7, 2010, the day after I graduated with two masters degrees from Hebrew College and presided over my fifth Prozdor graduation. My first day on the job, I didn’t even come into the office. In a twist of fate, I had to staff the JewishBoston.com table at a CJP conference for Jewish Educators, putting me in the position of demonstrating my new job to my old colleagues.

In the intervening years, JewishBoston.com has grown and evolved in exciting ways. In my early days with the project, Patty would get aggravated when she’d periodically ask me my favorite thing about working on JewishBoston.com and I’d tell her it was the team of people we comprised. “I want your favorite thing to be the impact we’re having!” she’d protest. The truth is, I can have it both ways.

I’ve been blessed to be part of an incredible team here, from my start with Patty and Liz, to the team I’m leaving behind with our web developer Alex, community manager Kali, project manager Zachary, our fantastic columnists, committed volunteers, and extended CJP colleagues — in particular, the team behind The Network, and CJP’s Associate Vice President of Stategy Implementation, Karyn Cohen, who oversees our work on JewishBoston.com as part of CJP’s broader commitment to Jewish connection and engagement. I couldn’t dream of a more invested, capable, and creative group of people, and it’s been a joy to work with them.

And what an impact we’ve had! From the hundreds of people holding their first-ever Passover seders thanks to Seder in a Box to the thousands of people world-wide reciting words I wrote at their seders with our Haggadah, the people across greater Boston who’ve tried out an event or organization they wouldn’t have known about without JewishBoston.com and my colleagues at other Jewish organizations who’ve made significant strides in their own abilities to reach new audiences… I kvell.

So the decision to move on from JewishBoston.com—and from Jewish Boston as a whole, as I pack up my life and start anew with an apartment in Brooklyn and a position at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America—was not an easy one. I love JewishBoston.com and the Jewish communities I’ve been a part of in the greater Boston area. But I am confident that I leave you in good hands, and that both work and family will bring me back here regularly. Keep in touch. You can always find me on Twitter. And despite what it says at the top of the page, if your wandering brings you my way, make sure you look me up.

All my best,

David

Keshet: Keep On Coming Out

Originally published on Keshet’s Blog on MyJewishLearning.com.

In honor of National Coming Out Day, we bring you the coming out musings of David Levy, long-time Keshet member and board member, who explains why he doesn’t think the coming out process is ever over… and why that’s not a bad thing.

creative-commons-paul-lowry-300x200

Creative Commons/Paul Lowry

Coming out is such a profound aspect of the LGBT experience for many of us that it’s taken on a special place within queer culture. When I was growing up, coming out stories dominated gay fiction and cinema. Swapping our own stories of coming out is a frequent characteristic of gay dating. But there are two questions that come up in these contexts that always aggravate me:

“How old were you when you came out?” and,

“Don’t you wish we lived in a time when no one had to come out?”  Continue reading

JewishBoston.com: Don’t Wait to See RAGTIME at the Strand Theatre

Originally posted on JewishBoston.com.

Don’t tell your grandmother, but it’s time to head back to the old country of Dorchester to catch the Fiddlehead Theatre Company’s excellent new production of Ragtime: The Musical now playing at The Strand Theatre. The City of Boston is investing in reinvigorating this storied old theater as a center for arts and culture in the city, particularly for the communities of Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan.

Adam Shapiro as Tateh and Julia Deluzio as his daughter; photo by Matt McKee Photography

Ragtime is a particularly poignant show for the occasion, offering an epic story from the turn of the previous century, just prior to the opening of the Strand itself. With its focus on a segregated society of WASPs, African-Americans, and Jewish immigrants in New Rochelle, N.Y. — and what happens when those groups interact with each other — Ragtime could be the story of the history of Dorchester itself. But the musical, based on the novel by E. L. Doctorow, spins a tale of social evolution and personal assimilation, societal injustice and individual kindness, which explains why this production is sponsored by the ACLU. In the hands of playwright Terrance McNally, lyricist Lynn Ahrens, and composer Stephen Flaherty, though, Ragtime never feels preachy or didactic. It’s simply a great evening of theater.

You know you’re in for something special from the opening number, which skillfully introduces not only 15 characters, but also the social dynamics at play among the three groups, made vivid through Anne McAlexander’s choreography and Jennifer Tremblay’s costumes. Meg Fofonoff’s direction keeps the story moving at a pace that belies the show’s three-hour length, and with a couple of brief exceptions in the second act, keeps the various plotlines clear. The 16-piece orchestra under the baton of Matt Stern is thrilling.

If I’m hesitant to single out any of the performers, it’s only because of the excellence across the board. Damian Norfleet’s rich baritone makes it easy to see why anyone would fall in love with his Coalhouse Walker Jr., making his eventual downfall all the more upsetting. Adam Shapiro as Tateh perfectly balances the pain of a single father repeatedly thwarted in his attempts to find a better life for this daughter with a comedic touch that keeps things from becoming too heavy. Shonna Cirone as Mother presents an incredible transformation over the course of the show, from a buttoned-up housewife at first to a powerhouse matriarch by the time she delivers the final anthem, “Back to Before.”

“Back to Before” may be Mother’s final anthem, but it’s not Ragtime’s, and therein lies one of the few problems with the show. The score, while beautifully reminiscent of the best Americana music, is overstuffed with anthems, from “Wheels of a Dream” to “‘Til We Reach That Day” to “Make Them Hear You.” While each song is worthy, all that declaration of purpose gets exhausting. Still, each carries an important message that resonates today, whether it’s about the pursuit of justice, the direction of progress, or the power of the American Dream. This is a show that will leave you not only humming the songs; you’ll also be discussing their messages. At least you will once you wipe the tears away.

On second thought, Ragtime may be the perfect reason to grab your grandparents and bring them back to the part of town they likely haven’t visited since their families fled to the suburbs in the fifties. Have them show you where they used to live and which churches used to be synagogues, and then after the show, talk about the issues raised by the performance and what we can do about them today.

RAGTIME runs at Dorchester’s historic Strand Theater, 543 Columbia Road in Boston, through October 7, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. and Thursday, October 4, at 7:30 p.m. Ticket prices: $45-Orchestra, $39-Mezzanine, $35-Balcony, $32-Seniors and Children, $25-Students. For tickets or more information, please call 866-811-4111 or visit www.fiddleheadtheatre.com. For more information and group sales (10 or more), please call Show of The Month at 617-338-1111.

Photo of Adam Shapiro as Tateh and Julia Deluzio as his daughter by Matt McKee Photography.