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Playing the Shul

I’ve been doing theatre for 30 years. As it turns out, I’ve been Jewish a lot longer. Who knew?

I’m always a little late to the party. This is a recurring theme in my life. As the theatre I helped create and run celebrates three decades, I’ve had friends, colleagues, and audience ask me why my work has included more and more Jewish material over the last ten years. And, until recently, I hadn’t really had a clear answer.

Directing and acting in Paddy Chayefsky’s little known The Tenth Man, set in a small orthodox community in 1960's New York—a part of the world I grew up in and spent the most formative years of my life—brought up a lot of memories. I have directed and acted in many Jewish-centered plays, but none are steeped in the culture as richly as this. And it has been a delight.

I wasn’t raised to see myself as Jewish—or anything, for that matter—but a convergence of events proved to be the catalyst for a personal and artistic re-alignment that began when my father was diagnosed as having Dementia with Lewy Bodies (DLB). He was heartbreakingly lost a good deal of the time, and more tragically, lost a great deal of himself to the desolation of that disease.

The one thing he never lost, however, was his identity as a Jew. As his memories of my childhood and the details of our immediate family’s journey faded, his life growing up a Jew in Brooklyn, NY became more vivid. They became his anchor to reality. This was a revelation to me because he and my lapsed-Catholic mother made a pact to raise all their children without a shred of religion in our home until we were old enough to understand and make those choices for ourselves. Theirs was a Romeo & Juliet story. Two families that didn’t get along (and many who didn't approve) of the “mixed” romance in early 1960’s New Jersey.

In hindsight, I see how this effort to keep things from me in turn gave me the best seat in the house to understand the duality of that word: Jewish. In one hand prescribing a set of religious beliefs and in the other, describing a powerful cultural identity. I see that while my loving parents attempted to keep religion out of our home, it was impossible to scrub it clean of culture or, more accurately, the influence of cultural identity.

Never setting foot in church or temple, we became uninformed spectators to Easter and Passover or Christmas and Hanukkah. We had no context for any of this diversity. We merely acted as hungry beneficiaries of gifts and toys and treats. However, the language, humor, and sense of community seeped into me—like any budding artist—effortlessly, like water into a sponge.

The irony here, artistically, is that my taste in humor and art, cinema and storytelling, came via my lapsed-Catholic mother. Go figure. My dad and older brothers were busy watching the NY Mets, NY Giants, or NY Rangers while I was at my mother’s hip watching Steven Spielberg, Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, Carl (and Rob) Reiner, Billy Crystal, Rod Serling, and anything involving the incomparable Gene Wilder; or listening to Neil Diamond and Barry Manilow. These are the artists who shaped my world. Within their respective intellects emerged the humor and active interest in thought that my mother prized. I now recognize these themes as distinctly and delightfully Jewish. The irrepressible sparkle of subversion I see coursing through the veins of my own work.

Fast forward to the summer 2016, I hit the pause button on my acting career to help take care of my father. I am encouraged to apply for a job at the (now) JCRC office in the Jewish Community Center, to which I respond, “Well, I’m not really Jewish.” Still, I go, and much to my surprise, I get hired.

Then the world explodes. The 2016 election divides the country like nothing I’ve seen before, Charlottesville and “Jews will not replace us,” antisemitism surges, anti-immigrant violence resurfaces, and on and on. I also make new friends— new mishpocha. For the first time as an artist, I allow who I am to take the helm. I cease to let the work define me and think of how my unique voice influences what I stage. In 2018, I choose Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy because the lessons of the Shoah seem so utterly relevant to what’s happening at the border with ICE raids and children detainees. In 2020, I choose Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s God on Trial, going deeper into the themes of the Holocaust as the natural evolution of Miller’s work and my lifelong fascination with how faith intersects with identity.

But the further I explore the ideas that matter to me, the more deeply I see that I have become to know a part of myself as Jewish. Not what that means to other people (or even other Jews) but what that means to me. And this is the thesis (if you can find one here): the most refreshing aspect I have found within local Jewish culture is its willingness to embrace diversity. The idea that what makes Jews beautiful is not conformity to a single doctrine or set of beliefs, but quite the opposite.

Here I am, an atheist Jew directing a comedy about a group of Orthodox Jews, in the sanctuary of an old conservative synagogue and I could not have more support and encouragement from the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews, who have been helping put this play together. For someone who never set foot in temple, I couldn’t be more welcome here. I chose The Tenth Man because it is a celebration of Jewish culture and the humor that shaped me (and many others). As always, I hope non-Jews come to share, in laughter and love, the universality of all we have in common.

In an effort to be authentic—the hallmark of any good comedy—Yiddish expressions and Hebrew abound, and I find myself, miraculously, the occasional source. Every time another Yiddish expression surprisingly pops out of my mouth, I don’t know if it came from my bubbe or zayde (grandma and grandpa to me), my father, my mother, the neighborhood I grew up in, or Gene Wilder in the The Frisco Kid. What’s more important is the perspective that it doesn’t much matter. It’s in there. As a dear friend recently told me, it’s in my DNA. Literally. And all those beautiful strands add up to… me.


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