Jewish Religious Observance in the American Theater
#JewPlay: What is the future of Jewish theater 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 theater practitioners from major regions of the country what Jewish theater means to them.
The sudden and collective intake of air was not only audible, but also palpable, as the audience of my classmates gasped when Lilly* embraced me in the improv scene. She had forgotten that she wasn't supposed to touch me. I wasn't going to say anything, as we were already in character in the middle of the scene, and I didn't want to ruin the scene or embarrass my classmate. But clearly for the rest of my class, there was a double drama playing itself out on stage—the drama of the scene, and the drama of a taboo inadvertently being broken.
My observance of the Jewish Sabbath and specific modesty laws might have seemed strange at first to my peers and teachers, but they accepted me during my four years at theater school. As a religiously observant theater artist, I had to find my way not only in negotiating the intricacies of Jewish law, but also in grappling with the apathy or even antagonism towards the theater and the arts in general found in Jewish tradition. As I dug deeper into the traditional Jewish views of theater, questioning it, I discovered a rich and complicated Jewish theater narrative that went back much further than the Yiddish theater. It was a unique opportunity to discover my theatrical ancestors and begin articulating my own aesthetic in a rigorous training program.
Sadly, the openness, acceptance, and accommodation I experienced at conservatory did not extend itself to the professional theater world and broader theater community that prides itself on its open mindedness and tolerance of difference. As a theater director and dramaturg, I have been told by collaborators, "Orthodox people expect the entire world to work around them" and have been advised to stop being Sabbath-observant if I plan to work in the theater. I have been told repeatedly over the years that “for an Orthodox Jew, you are pretty open minded,” as if that should be a compliment. Religiously observant actors have it even more challenging.
It often feels to me as if the theater community, even the Jewish theater community, does not have a space for religiously observant theater artists. At a moment in history in which religion and religious observance is playing such a central role in global and domestic affairs, the mainstream theater is not meaningfully engaging the issues, or artists, who can provide unique insights into the issues. As it struggles for audiences and for relevance in the larger cultural conversation, the broader theater scene often ignores the issues of the day and the artists who may grapple with them in the real world, be they religiously observant Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, etc. Furthermore, it completely concedes the debate over the interpretation and ownership of religious values at the exact moment when other voices need to be heard on the global stage.
One of my favorite quotes from Anne Bogart’s essay on Memory in A Director Prepares, gives me strength, courage, and energy to continue creating theater and being true to myself and my religious practice. Bogart describes a friend's frustration and revelation at Grotowski's workshop in Irvine, CA:
After extreme physical exhaustion, the other participants would access familiar patterns and codes from their respective indigenous backgrounds. This seemed to give them endless reservoirs of energy as they began to dance and move in ways that were unique to their particular cultures, in ancient modes deeply imbedded in their corporeal memories. But for Wendy, nothing happened. As an American, she could find no deeply ingrained cultural resources that would help her to get through the endless nights. After a great deal of frustration and fatigue, and much to her relief, at last she touched upon her Jewish roots and from that source she unearthed familiar codes of sound and movement deeply rooted in the Jewish culture. Her body remembered.
My hope for the Jewish theater in particular, and for the broader scene in general, is that artists dig deeper into their cultural traditions, and that producing theaters create a space for that. Ultimately the “American experience” will be reflected through a tapestry of specific cultural experiences, stories, and theatrical forms. It is there that our theater’s endless “reservoirs of energy” lies. The universal is found by delving into the specifics of a story, of a culture, of the individual human experience. The more culturally specific a play is, the greater chance of it touching on universal themes.
In the Jewish theater, in order to find that depth, I believe that Jewish literacy amongst Jewish artists needs to increase. In my personal experience, many theater artists today may have a graduate level knowledge of the theater and the talent to match, but their knowledge of and concern for their own ancient tradition is maybe on an elementary Sunday school level. It is a tradition with enormous depth and breadth, that has in the past inspired some of the greatest works of art, and it is theirs to claim as their own. We need to create forums for artists to tap into that knowledge on their own terms.
Jewish tradition itself can suggest a way forward. The Talmud is the written version of the Jewish oral tradition. Although it was prohibited to do so, rabbis broke the taboo and began writing down the conversations, arguments, laws, and folktales, in order to prevent the tradition from being lost completely. Its study includes the codified texts, as well as arguments and the millennia of commentary that surround it up to the present day. Though we understand the Talmud today as a massive corpus of texts, by definition an oral tradition is a performed tradition. Theater artists can engage in the study of Talmud and other Jewish texts, add their voices and innate understanding of performance, of human nature, and theater’s goal of empathy to it. From my experience, artists are deeply inspired by this engagement. Their work is revitalized by both the form and content of the Talmud. In turn, the unique perspective they bring to the study of Jewish texts, has a revitalizing force on the Jewish community. I have seen this first hand at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education’s Arts Fellowship, where I have consulted in the past. Drisha, which has been a pioneer in opening the doors of high level Jewish studies to women, offers female artists of all disciplines, a funded yearlong program in New York City.
While I am clear-eyed regarding the scheduling and fiscal realities of the theater, I do hope theaters one day open their doors to religiously observant theater artists. The rare precedence of casting a Sabbath observant actor exists. In the early 1990s, Cameron Mackintosh wanted Israeli cantor Dudu Fisher to play Jean Valjean in Les Miserables on Broadway and the West End, and he hired an understudy for the Friday night and Saturday matinee performances. Already today, theaters can involve religiously observant artists as consultants and even dramaturges on Jewish-themed shows.
As a response to the realities of the current state of the theater for religiously observant theater artists, I co-founded 24/6: A Jewish Theater Company with likeminded artists. 24/6 is a home for Sabbath-observant artists in New York which is committed to cultivating innovative theater grounded in a rigorous engagement with Jewish tradition. In addition to Sabbath observance, 24/6 is respectful of other religious observances of our members related to the laws of modesty, with each ensemble member deciding their own comfort and observance level. We have produced our own interpretations of the classics A Doll House and most recently Uncle Vanya, both filtered through the lens of Jewish holidays and rituals, in addition to new and devised works.
24/6 launched with a companywide learning of a section of The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, where he retells and interprets a famous Talmudic passage. Our first show was of the pieces that were created in response to the text. Jewish theaters can use that model of inviting a diverse group of artists in their community—and via video chat, from across the nation and the globe—for an in-depth Jewish study around an issue or a text as a catalyst to create work. They can include religiously observant artists in the conversation and the ensuing creative process. My hope for the future is to build on this foundation, and test out some of the ideas I began exploring a decade ago in the safety of theater school. How might the rigors of Jewish laws, rituals, and spiritual practice create their own particular aesthetics? One of freedom within structure. Universality found in the particular. I hope connecting to the “familiar codes of sound and movement deeply rooted in the Jewish culture” plays a part in revitalizing the American theater. I welcome theaters and theater artists in the broader theater landscape to partner with me and 24/6 in this exploration.
*name has been changed