fbpx Jewish Theater | HowlRound Theatre Commons

Jewish Theater

Every Good Question Deserves Another Question

#JewPlay: What is the future of Jewish theatre in the United States? In this series, co-curators David Winitsky, Artistic Director of New York’s Jewish Plays Project and Guy Ben-Aharon, Producing Artistic Director of Boston’s Israeli Stage, asked Jewish theatre practitioners from major regions of the country what Jewish theatre means to them.

Okay, thought experiment. I’ll say a phrase, you give me the first image that pops into your mind. Ready? Go: Jewish theatre.

I’m gonna hazard a guess that one of three things came to mind: a) a grainy black and white of the Yiddish King Lear on 2nd Avenue, b) either Diary of Anne Frank or Fiddler on the Roof or c) your orthodontist in Little Shop at the local JCC.

Is it just old fashioned (are we talking Yiddish theatre?). It could be contentious (is it Israeli theatre?). Maybe it's just Broadway (but maybe that’s reductive)?

A family on stage
Tevye, his wife Golde, and thier daughters in the 2015 Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof. Photo by John Marcus. 

All due respect to Yiddish, Anne, and your orthodontist, but as a theatremaker in the twenty-first century, I’m not exactly turned on by any of those images. (I’ll cop to a huge soft spot for Fiddler, but it's still not thrilling—just kind of sweet.)

Because really, Jewish theatre? What does that mean? Is that redundant (insert your “theatre would be dead without the Jews” joke here). Is it just old fashioned (are we talking Yiddish theatre?). It could be contentious (is it Israeli theatre?). Maybe it's just Broadway (but maybe that’s reductive)?

But I’ve got to tell you, I’ve spent the last ten years thinking about it, and the last three actively pursuing it, and I think what it could mean—what it should mean—is vital, exciting, cutting-edge art that speaks to us now.

The tools are there:

  • A millennia-old tradition of argument and dialogue. (A good place for theatre to start.)
  • A gorgeous mass of mysticism and magic. I’m talking dybbuks and spirits and archangels and flaming swords. This stuff is made for the stage.
  • A love of the intellectual and the idealistic stretching from the minutae of every day life to the grandest notions of human justice, goodness, and righteousness.
  • A deep attachment to text. We love our texts.
  • A cultural history filled with great stories.
  • A bit of tragedy. Can’t make theatre without that.
  • Funny. Definitely got some funny.

I would submit that right now, we’re not quite using all these great tools. We’re a bit stuck on two subjects (dysfunctional families with ogre-like mothers and the Holocaust), one style (realism), and a growing disconnect between the artists who want to make this work, and the theatre community in which it would be made.

So, how did we get here, and how can we make it better?

A Brief, Annotated History of Jewish Theatre
(I won’t be offended if you want to skip right to the recommendations.)

For a people with a long history, Jews have been doing theatre for a relatively short period of time.

Pre–1800s: Not much. You got your Purim plays (a holiday in the spring with a lot of storytelling and drinking), and that’s about it. Not to say there aren’t Jews onstage, but they are mostly Jewish characters created by other folks (see Shakespeare, W. and The Merchant of Venice, et al).

At this point, Jewish stories, like almost all of Jewish life, are bound by religion.

1865–1900: The Haskalah (“Enlightment”) comes to Eastern European and Russian Jewry. They leave the shtetls and create a new, upwardly mobile, urban community, complete with an artistic class. The first Jewish dramatists (Abraham Goldfadn, Solomon Ettinger) start writing in Yiddish.

Interestingly, like some culturally-specific movements later in the United States, much of the work is political, dealing with a recently oppressed ethnic minority struggling to gain equality and become enfranchised.

1900–1930: The Golden Age of Yiddish Arts and Letters. In Poland, the classic Yiddish dramatists (Pinski, Asch, Ansky, Hershbein, Singer, etc.); in Russia, the avant-garde theorists (Meyerhold, Granovsky, Chagall, Mikheols). In New York, the vibrant 2nd Avenue Yiddish theatre starts transferring its stars to Broadway. This is really the start of Jewish theatre in the United States.

Jewish drama joins the emerging realist and modernist dramatic movements sweeping Europe. “The fate of the Jews” is no longer the only topic. Philosophy, western life, sex, money, intermarriage—the whole megillah.

1930s–1940s: Jewish theatre artists become some of the most influential in American history. You know the list: Kaufman, Hammerstein, Rodgers, Gershwin, Marx, Brice, etc.

At the same time, though, explicitly Jewish content goes away. The influence of Yiddish drama structures, the humor, the breadth, the pathos are there, and some Jewish characters are around, but the plays these folks are making are much more about America than Jews.

1950s–1960s: Post World War II things change, but they also stay the same. The list of Jewish American dramatic greats definitely continues to grow: Adler, Miller, Sondheim, Harnick, and on and on. (I’m definitely switching to an American narrative here. At this point, there aren’t any Jews left in most of Europe, and Israeli drama hasn’t really started.)

But we do start to put some Jewish things back onstage—mostly in an effort to reclaim the history that has just been so traumatically ripped away. We reach a height with Fiddler on the Roof and The Diary of Anne Frank, two towering pieces that try to reclaim what was lost.

1970s–80s: By now, American Jews are fully assimilated, upper-middle class and on their way to wealthy. Jewish theatre artists are still a major force, but they make their bones completely away from their Jewish identity.

Jewish intellectuals are moving fast away from ancient, tribal, religious affiliations. Vanguard artists look instead to global, multicultural, humanistic concerns. (Judith Malina, Julian Beck, Richard Schechner, etc.)

Combine this with the general shift away from religious life in America and a growing sense of unease on the left side of American politics with the contentious situation in Israel/Palestine, and we get a generation of artists who in many cases refuse to be labeled “a Jewish artist.”

I would argue that this point is where a drop-off in Jewish theatre starts. Not because we need theatre by us for us (FJBJ?). I truly believe that matrilineal descent is neither necessary or important. (Of course, my mother was Catholic, so I have a bit of an axe to grind on this count.)

It’s more a matter of specificity. The value of any culturally-specific theatre is the way it uses it’s unique point of view to illuminate the human condition. Whether it’s August Wilson’s African American Hill district, Harvey Fierstein’s gay New York, or Nilo Cruz’s Ybor City, it’s the gritty details that made these new worlds relevant to a broad audience.

As Jewish artists—and in some ways American Jews overall—distance themselves form core parts of their cultural inheritance, we start to get a Jewish theatre that is too general, too devoted to the easy joke, the pat historical record, or the cultural stereotype to stir the kind of emotions we want our audience to feel.

NB: Except for Neil Simon. Even though today he is often used as a punchline for jokes about shlocky theatre, I’d argue that his Brighton Beach trilogy is on par with Miller in its searching investigation of American ideas, ideals, and history through a very Jewish lens.

1990s: A curious time. Tony Kushner, Wendy Wasserstein, Donald Margulies, David Mamet, and others inherit the Jewish voice on the stage. Their theatre is always powerful and often Jew-ish, but can traffic in a “specifically Jewish sense of anxiety and guilt,” rather than a deep engagement with Jewish ideas. (That great phrase is from Jeremy Stoller, but in his defense, he was not talking about these writers when he said it.)

During this period, culturally-specific Jewish theatres and producers are dropping like flies. American Jewish Theater and Jewish Rep in NYC both go out of business; companies in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles, and elsewhere are born and die in rapid succession. An odd fact emerges in a study by Jewish cultural agencies: Jews prefer to see Jewish content in non-Jewish venues, and non-Jewish content in Jewish venues. Go figure.

2000s: Away from the theatre, waves of young Jews are involved in the ongoing reinvention of Jewish life from the inside. Worship services continue to change, women and the LBGTQ community gain traction, as do “Jews in ALL Hues.” JDub brings Matisyahu to the masses. Social justice movements around the environment, hunger relief, and eradication of poverty and political activism become a growing focus of Jewish life. It’s pretty cool.

And there are artists following the trend. Jennifer Maisel’s The Last Seder looks directly at the magic that might still exist in our assimilated, multi-culti families. Motti Lerner’s hard-hitting stories from Israel (Pangs of the Messiah, Hard Love) come to America. Aaron Posner’s brilliant adaptations of Chaim Potok's The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev bring the question of modernity versus tradition alive.

But at the same time, the organized, institutional parts of the Jewish world take a definite shift to the right. The drivers of the global Jewish community are wealthy donors, many of whom are very conservative, socially and politically. Unswerving support of Israel becomes the litmus test of many Jewish leaders (and virtually all politicians). Jews might still vote Democrat, but it’s been awhile since we were all of the leftie-liberal, worker’s rights, bleeding heart set. In this environment, support for the questing, challenging artist starts to dry up.

2014: Which brings us to today (roughly).

Today, Jewish life and the Jewish conversation are alive with ideas that are resonant with theatre life and theatre conversations—open dialogue, social and civic justice, international collaboration, and new modes of creating sacred space and time for an overstimulated population.

Like the theatre, these amazing ideas live in the context of a world of shrinking resources, right-drifting politics, and a disconnect with a mass audience. In the Jewish world, there’s a lot of handwringing over intermarriage and dwindling numbers; in the theatre, there is a constant concern over brain drain to more lucrative media like film and TV.

So What Do We Do Now?
Three years ago, I started a venture called the Jewish Plays Project, a development center for new Jewish theatre. In that time, I and my colleagues have read and reviewed 512 new Jewish plays from 450 writers in twenty-six states and eight countries over. That’s a huge outpouring of ideas and energy.

Based on that work, here are a few ideas, and a few plays that I’ve worked on that are great examples. (Producers or Artistic Directors who want to look at any of these plays—contact me ASAP.)

1. Embrace the mystical in our ancient texts
Yes, it’s dense. Sure, much of it might be in Hebrew. But it’s like a gold mine if we get into it. These are not your Hebrew school lessons. These are subversive, radical, sexy, dark stories full of complex motives and results. The stories in our texts are the stuff of theatrical gold, if we can go and get them.

We need to take a page from Wilson, Lorca, and Rivera and bring the magic and the spiritual onto our stage. Hasidic folktales, are hallucinogenic, trippy tours through the subconscious of a highly ordered society. This stuff should be catnip for dramatists. (See He Who Laughs by Ian Cohen, Estelle Singerman by David Rush, and Modern Prophet by Sam Graber).  

2. Invite Everyone
The best part of all of this is that you don’t have to be a Jew to get into any of it. In today’s world, we all have access to culture from all over the world. Some of the best Jewish theatre is being created by people who are not religious or cultural Jews (The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez comes right to mind). I always make sure we have a good group of non-Jewish playwrights in the work the JPP develops—often their insights are among the most profound. The non-Jewish directors, actors, designers, et al who interact with the JPP’s work often learn more and have their horizons expanded more than I do. (Check out Lauren Yee’s The Hatmaker’s Wife, Lenelle Moises’ The Many Faces of Nia, and Cory Hinkle, Victoria Stewart, and Jeremy Wilhem’s Clandestino)

3. Let’s talk about Israel
Ah, Israel. Palestine. Israel? Let’s just say the Middle East. Not only is it one of the most contentious, complicated, vexing questions in the Jewish world, it has instant import for the global community, too. And in its very short history, it has amazing stories of tragedy and triumph and moral questioning.

I know it’s tough. It can be tiring. But it’s so enmeshed in deep questions: faith and modernity, socialism and capitalism, war and peace (literally), nationality versus ethnicity, law versus history! What theatremaker worth her salt wouldn’t want to get into that?

And if there is a future there that does not involve some kind of mass tragedy, I truly believe it is up to us—up to the artists and the thinkers and the creators—to envision it. What does this part of the world look like in fifty years? (Further reading: Six by Zohar Tirosh-Polk, Goodnight, Mrs. Bernstein by Lauren Kettler, and Close to Home by Jonathan Gillis).

The JPP does not develop plays about the history of the World War II period or its immediate aftermath, not because its not important, but because it’s already been done.

4. Leave anti-Semitism
Jews today are, by and large, a free and prosperous people with more power and influence than ever. That’s a huge difference between Jewish culturally-specific work and other cultural groups. Our goal in Jewish theatre is not to liberate or empower Jews—that happens in other ways. Our goal should be to liberate and empower everyone through the best of Jewish culture.

(Don’t get me wrong. Anti-Semitism is certainly alive and well in our world, but its not a central factor in the way most of us live (particularly in America). And preparing for potential future anti-Semitism means we are living from a place of fear, and that’s not where great art lives.)

And yes, I include the Holocaust in this idea. The JPP does not develop plays about the history of the World War II period or its immediate aftermath, not because its not important, but because it’s already been done. The body of Holocaust dramatic literature is significant and of high quality. The more remain stuck in that moment, the harder it is to…

5. Be in the now
Jewish life is ancient. That’s what’s cool about it. But in its best aspects, it does not concentrate on that long history. Jewish ideas—and the best Jewish theatre—are about how we live today. How this mass of life lessons, gained through hard-fought experience, can teach us to live now. (Plays I Love: Let Me Go by Jonathan Caren, a People by Lauren Feldman, Esther’s Moustache by Laurel Ollstein.)

Whether we embrace text, religion, magic, history, or philosophy, there is something for all of us that can help us be better humans today.





Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark
Thoughts from the curators

A series of articles by Jewish theatre practitioners on what Jewish theatre means to them.

#JewPlay: What is the Future of Jewish Theatre?


Add Comment

The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

Newest First

Does no one here remember Traveling Jewish Theatre, 1978-2012? I was one of the co-founders, along with Naomi Newman and Albert Greenberg. Naomi and I continued to be active members of the company until it closed. We were joined in the nineties by Aaron Davidman, who became AD in 2002 through the closing in 2012. He just opened a wonderful new solo play "Wrestling Jerusalem" that he wrote (Directed by Michael John Garcés, AD of Cornerstone in LA) at San Francisco's Intersection for the Arts.

TJT's mission was "to create and present original works of theatre drawn from the inexhaustible well of Jewish culture, history and imagination..." in our 34 years of continual production and touring, I believe we helped redefine what most thought "Jewish Theatre" was. We created and produced a couple dozen original, collaboratively created theatre pieces and toured them throughout the U.S, Europe, Israel and Australia. Our work was written about in TDR, Moment (defunct), Yoga Journal (!) American Theatre and elsewhere. We collaborated, over the years, with Joe Chaikin, Martha Boesing, Word for Word, The Eureka Theatre, David Dower, Joan Schirle (Dell'Arte) Roadside Theatre among many others. Ironically, our most difficult audiences were ones that were mono-culturally Jewish, who tended to see our work as either "Not Jewish Enough" or "Too Jewish." While we certainly did explore Yiddish, mainly through its modern (and forgotten) poetry, and the Holocaust, we did not see ourselves as archivists or preservationists. We were interested in cultural transformation, as Jews, as Americans and as Theatre Makers. When I hear people trying to define "Jewish Theatre" or codify, limit or prescribe the subjects it should take up or avoid, I get very nervous.

The amnesia that is endemic to theatre discussion baffles and saddens me. The question of what Jewish Theatre is, was, could/should be is as old as the very first attempts at making a self-consciously Jewish theatre which, arguably, happened in Jassy, Rumania, in the 1880's with the first performances of theatrical events in the Yiddish language. The Yiddish theatre itself in its insanely brief history, was never a heterogeneous movement, rather, it was a richly chaotic mix of popular entertainment, "high art,"
agit-prop and experimentation. Though TJT had no interest in reviving anything, the stories of the Yiddish theatre-makers and their American heirs like the Group Theater informed the context in which we worked as did sources like Jewish mysticism, the Middle-East, Medieval Spanish-Jewish culture and more. The point is, there are as many "Jewish Theatres" as there are Jews who want to partake of it. It has no single answer, any more than the question of "Who is a Jew?" It all depends. Who's asking? Who's answering?

Wow, Corey! What an honor to have you weigh in on the discussion here!

I consciously left out TJT from this brief history in the hopes of tracing the parts of the story that got away from the radical, expressive, rich tradition that you, Naomi and Albert so beautifully embodied. (I would add Judith Malina and the Living Theatre and Ari Roth at Theater J to this list as well).

Cherry picking? Absolutely, but I stand by the larger point, that the field as a whole - along with the Jewish community writ large - got more concerned with the past, more stuck on labels of what constitutes Jewishness, and generally more conservative. (To the point now that i often argue that the organized Jewish world in the US is now a pretty right-wing place).

What I'm trying to say is that there SHOULD be as many Jewish Theaters as there are people who want to ask and answer and partake, but I'm not totally convinced that there are right now.

Aaron is a remarkable artist (I love "Wrestling Jerusalem" and hope it gets an East Coast run so I can see it), but I'm wondering why there wasn't a veritable throng of younger artists ready to take up the mantle of TJT, "to create and present original works of theatre drawn from the inexhaustible well of Jewish culture, history and imagination..." as well as the audiences, donors and community support necessary to make it work?

Where are we as a field and a people that we let a cover come over that well, even for a moment?

But I do hope we can continue to discuss this - one of my dreams has been to do a retrospective festival of all of your work over the years. Let's talk!

Thanks so much for this, David. And yes to Judith M and Ari Roth! I understand and share the wondering over the lack of a "throng of younger artists" to take up the TJT legacy. As is the case with most things Jewish, "It's complicated." But, let me take a moment to give a shout out to one of the few younger artists (even younger than Aaron) who *is* indeed taking it up – Ariel Luckey will soon premiere a piece at La Peña in Oakland called "Amnesia" (more or less a solo, but with a very accomplished band backing him up). It's about immigration from the dual POVs of his great-great-grandfathers nineteenth century journey from Belarus to the US and of today's immigrants from Mexico. The pivot point between the two threads is Arizona, where his great-great-Grandfather wound up settling. I've been giving him some dramaturgical help and sharing a lot of old touring stories. More about Ariel and "Amnesia" at http://www.arielluckey.com.

Ariel is a remarkable young actor/rapper/dancer steeped in the multiple cultures of Oakland CA where he lives. He's part of a cohort of young Jewish guys I've run into who are all expressing their Judismo in various ways, though Ariel is the only one I know doing it in theatre. (Others are storyteller writer Josh Healey, novelist Adam Mansbach – who left Oakland for NYC I believe - and singer Berel Alexander, currently appearing in the Berkely Jewish Music Festival's production of Itzik Manger's "Megillah Lider" which is a loving piece of cultural preservation, but breaks no new ground).

I want to find out more and possibly write about these young Oakland dudelehs. I'll keep you posted,

Very cool, Corey. (And very nice of you to give such a great shout out).

Does it seem to you like in some ways the cutting edge of Jewish performance has moved out of the theater and into "edgier" forms like spoken word, new music, fiction and film? This would certainly be in keeping with the forward-thinking nature of Jewish culture, but it would be a shame if we left the theater behind, especially when there are so many exciting forms of theater emerging today.

Look forward to hearing more from the Bay area!

Indeed, for some reason and with definite exceptions, theatre is slow to respond to the more vital currents afoot in the surrounding culture. These days especially, the young and restless innovators don't seem particularly interested in theatre as it's usually defined. As you pointed out, so much exciting Jewish expression in recent years has come from the musicians like Zorn and the Klezmatics. I know that Frank London has some interest in theatre. In any case, I'm glad this discussion is happening.

One factor in our decision to close TJT in '12 was the notion that, possibly, there was no longer the compelling need for a Jewish theatre company that there had been in the 70s and 80s. Since writers like Kushner have emerged and more Jewish theatre makers (like David Herskovitz?) are able to do explicitly Jewish works in "mainstream" venues, perhaps the needs are different. Years before the Foundation for Jewish Culture closed, it had stopped supporting any sort of Jewish theatre activity. For its last decade or so that flagship of Jewish cultural philanthropy  supported Jewish film, music, literature (maybe dance?) and scholarship. No theatre at all. Back in the 80s it had made Jewish theatre a priority, supporting many productions. The fact that one of the only Jewish cultural institutions that EVER significantly supported Jewish theatre pulled away must be a clue to how theatre is valued -- at least by the Jewish  cultural leadership, if not by the putative "Jewish community." As Rebbe Franz Kafka once said, "My people, my people – if only I had one!"

I think about that issue a lot, Corey - do we need Jewish theaters? Which is separate from do we need Jewish theater. There are lots of places where Jewish theater can happen - just as there are lots of places that Latino or Black or Asian or LGBTQ or Arab theater can happen.

I guess my hope with the JPP is that it can become a center for the making of the theater- not necessarily the "put it up and run it for four-to-six weeks" making, but the thinking, the analyzing, the deep engagement with a community and a set of ideas that makes the theater destined for those kind of producing houses better.

And to do that, we need to be able to attract those innovators back into the theater.

(Or - and this is a dirty little secret I sometimes think about - maybe we need to leave the "theater" all together, and look at performance writ large and arts for social change and civic practice, and not worry about scripted narrative drama at all. The problem is, I'm kinda addicted to scripted narrative drama.)

Hi David,

Awesome article! I love Jewish Plays Project and I think so many of your points are awesome, including: "Our goal should be to liberate and empower everyone through the best of Jewish culture."
I just have one question: 1. It seems like this wonderfully concise and thorough history of Jewish theater may actually be a history of Ashkenazi theater? Since American Jewish spaces so often center Ashkenazi culture and experience without naming it, further marginalizing Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, I think it could be productive to identify this bias here. And/or include awesome Sephardic dramatists writing in Ladino &Judeo-Spanish in the Turkey, the Balkans, Greece and the US. Check out more info here: http://jwa.org/encyclopedia.... I don't know much yet but it seems like there's tons of potential historical and cultural learning opportunities around these theater traditions.

Thanks, MJ! The JPP love you too!

Great point - this history does look primarily at the Ashkenazi side of the coin, and there are great riches to be had in the Sephardic and Mizrahi traditions.

Even more broadly, Jews are - and never have been - a monolithic lot. From the rapper Drake (yep - Jewish!) to my kids favorite basketball player Amare Stoudemire (yep - a Jew!) to this great Asian Jewish kid (https://www.youtube.com/wat..., there many faces in the Jewish world today. This is why David Adjimi and Matthew Lopez and JPP's 2014 Top 10 writer Lenelle Moise are so vital to the continued conversation.

It's why your play "Murmur Rock" is so fascinating (you hear that people - MJ has a great play that someone should produce, very soon! Contact me for more details!)

With all the great comments to my piece, I think we can see that there are diverse and interesting points of view being brought forth. We're just sometimes hesitant to go ahead and put a label on the whole endeavor and embrace it as Jewish Theater, and then even more hesitant to align ourselves as a Jewish Theater Artist.

There's reasons for that, but I think we get farther and open more doors for more people if we put the Jewish up front, own it, and use it to make us better artists and better people.

Easy, right?

As a Jewish playwright who has written many plays of Jewish interest, I find your recommendations to be spot on. additionally, I have also seen a real hunger among Jewish theater-goers for Jewish plays that speak to them. Thank you for this!

This is a fascinating piece, and reflects much of where the overall Jewish community is right now in wrestling with itself. I find the recommendations refreshing, and would even go further in terms of incorporating mysticism and ritual into our theater practice. The Greeks did it, the church did it, there's is definitely room for us to do and through that start a new narrative. I too have a soft spot for Fiddler and Neil Simon and the like, but really have no desire to see these things regurgitated on stage in a way that was meant for our parents' and grandparents' generations. And yes we MUST talk about the Middle East and engage in all its complexity. And most of all, we must tell good stories from the point of view of the specific that can be embraced on a universal level.

Certainly within the Christian tradition, Passion plays are still performed seasonally in some communities, and I imagine that some modern equivalent (or even adaptation) of the mystery plays is still being performed today-- though most likely within the world of specific churches and religious communities as opposed to the professional theaters.

Certainly, within the Catholic tradition, mystery plays have been a very fruitful inspiration for such figures as Dario Fo.

Thanks for this piece. As a Jewish artist, regardless of whether I connect with this or some notion of Jewish Theatre, there are important omissions from the cultural/ artistic history above. I'd recommend this lecture by the brilliant Mel Gordon called Jewish Theater through the Eyes of Marc Chagall: http://www.youtube.com/watc.... One of the key components in the history of Jewish culture and performance is the folk culture. The Badchem, who was the comedian, jester, roaster, of the Schtetls was the antecedent for Groucho Marx, Lenny Bruce, Andy Kauffman, etc. Traditions of folk music and dance deeply performative, expressive, and vital to the evolution of theatre in Jewish culture. Jumping ahead, missing from above some Polish jewish artists: Tadeusz Kantor, visual artist, sculptor, turned one of the greatest theatre directors of the 20th Century. Ludwik Flaszen, Grotowski's dramaturg and closest collaborator. The work of Bruno Schulz whose magic realism writing has inspired some of the century's most interesting theatre. There's a long long list. John Zorn had an exhibition floating around Europe for a while called Radical Jewish Culture. It was in part celebrating his record label of that same name which spotlit Jewish (and not) avant garde music, but also the heretical voices in Jewish culture throughout the 20th century. The voices of heresy according not only to the main stream, the market place, the common place of culture at large, but also outsider voices in Jewish culture. Voices, aesthetics, and antics that share some traits which are deeply Jewish but defy all other conventions and expectations. The question of Jewish Theatre historically, for me, has been limiting and alienating and at times unartistic. I would agree with the sentiment to reexamine it but I lean more toward turning things (at the very least) upside down in the spirit of some of those Jewish artists.

Thanks, Mark! I totally agree - its the heretical and the questioning that make this field valuable (and anyone who brings Kantor into the discussion immediately gets love from me). And you are right - I definitely am calling for a return to a kind of Jewish culture that takes the gloves off - in its form and theory, in its content, and in its politics - and takes the spirit of Jewish inquiry deeper into our contemporary culture. The artists you cite were overturning the past and forging something new and vital - and yet still rooted in a Jewish cultural and ideological literacy. Zorn has kept that spirit alive, as have Alicia Svigals and Frank London and Kushner and even the Coen brothers. Let's have more of that!

David, this is a great overview, though in keeping with the theme, I have a couple of tiny factual quibbles:

You group Tony Kushner amongst playwrights who 'traffic in a “specifically Jewish sense of anxiety and guilt,” rather than a deep engagement with Jewish ideas.' I don't think that is fair since many of his works are deeply and obviously engaged with Jewish ideas ranging from ritual practice, to texts, to mystic traditions, to more modernist thinkers like Walter Benjamin. The other writers in his generational cohort may not be deeply engaged in Jewish ideas, but Kushner most certainly is (though to be fair, those are not the only ideas with which he is deeply engaged-- he is probably the most intellectually engaged thinker in American theater.)

You also identify women as gaining traction within the Jewish community as a 21st century phenomenon. Yes, the struggle for gender equality in Judaism is incomplete-- but there have been women serving as rabbis and hazzans since the 1970s (Though technically, the first known ordination of a woman was that of Rabbi Regina Jonas in 1935 in Berlin.) We are now at a point in American Jewry where there is near gender parity in enrollment and graduation at non-Orthodox rabbinical and cantorial seminaries. It's far less common in Israel, home of the largest Jewish community in the world, but within American Jewry, the second largest such community (and where religious practice is more openly diverse) female clergy have been a common sight for decades in all but the Orthodox movement (and there is even a tiny bit of traction there.)

Quibble away, Ian!

I agree about Kushner - I lumped him in a simplistic way in order to advance a point (plus my article is already WAAAY over the HowlRound rules for length!). He is undoubtedly one of the great Jewish playwrights of all time, and deeply invested in Jewish ideas and inquiry in all his work. He is such a towering literary figure that I figured I could get away with a little short hand (and one could argue that the "specifically Jewish sense of anxiety and guilt" is very present in his work, but he uses it to fuel a craving for social and human justice.)

Totally true that women have been gaining ground in the clergy for some time. What's exciting is that the fruits of that longterm work are being seen in women creating much of the most exciting cultural work these days. I can't speak to what other ADs are seeing, but from the JPP's standpoint, anyone who says that men just write better plays is cra-cra.

And thanks for calling out Rabbi Jonas! My friend and LABA Fellow colleague Clémence Boulouque has a piece about this fascinating woman going up this weekend (http://www.labajournal.com/.... Come check it out!

Thanks for an excellent discussion, David. As one of the readers of this year's plays (Chicago) for the JPP, I found this broadened my understanding of the direction you see for new Jewish theater. As an editor, I have one small quibble: please give credit to Chaim Potok for "The Chosen" and "My Name is Asher Lev." They were not written by Singer. Though my reader participation has ended, I plan on following the progress of the JPP and look forward to seeing amazing results.

Singer’s The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev
Singer’s The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev

Subscribe to HowlRound

Sign up for our daily, weekly, or quarterly emails so you never miss the latest theatre conversations.

Sign me up

Supporting HowlRound

We fundraise to keep all our programs free and open and to pay our contributors. Thank you to all who make our work possible!

Donate today