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Jewish theater hits its stride

WASHINGTON, March 16 (JTA) — In the 21st century, Jewish theater creativity is flourishing. “There was a time when every Jewish play was either about Yankele or the Holocaust,” Deborah Baer Mozes says. Not any more. The founder and artistic director of Philadelphia’s independent Jewish theater, Theater Ariel, Mozes has witnessed tremendous growth in the past two decades on the Jewish theater circuit. This growth was made clear at an international conference on Jewish theater last week in Washington that brought together 130 people associated with Jewish theater. “Making Jewish theater allows us to tap into the most personal of identity issues,” says Ari Roth, artistic director of Theater J, in residence at the District of Columbia JCC. “We are doing sacred and humane works.” These include a plethora of creative endeavors like the San Francisco Traveling Jewish Theater’s biblical midrash, “God’s Donkey,” or the politically charged and emotionally visceral works of a number of new Israeli playwrights that unflinchingly face down the tough politics that encroach on daily Israeli life. Jewish theater has found its niche. There’s Evelyn Orbach of the suburban Detroit-based Jewish Ensemble Theater who explained that she selects plays that “speak to our issues in society, plays about community and humanity from a Jewish perspective.” Kathleen Sitzer, who directs the New Jewish Theatre based at the JCC of St. Louis, Mo., presents four full productions annually and seeks plays that “reflect the Jewish experience and promote multicultural understanding and tolerance.” But there are still problems. Even with a 75-year history and a subscriber base of 700 patrons, Sitzer still struggles to create an artistically and financially viable product within a JCC setting, where resources are scarce and theaters are generally expected to earn their keep. “The challenge is that we are not the primary focus in an agency whose focus is the whole community,” she says. Mira Hirsch, artistic director of Atlanta’s JCC-based Jewish Theatre of the South, struggles to attract audiences to her professional productions. “There’s a misperception in the Jewish community that we’re doing community theater. That is simply not the case. This is a professional theater,” she says. William Hoffinger’s Jewish Theatre of Grand Rapids, Mich., remains an amateur community theater that performs for an audience that he estimates is 90 percent non-Jewish. With support and interest from local church-based organizations and the nearby community college, his troupe manages to present plays with Jewish content that, he says, grapple with Jewish questions. Among those Jewish questions, Amichai Lau-Lavie goes straight to the revered sources, the Torah and the Talmud. “My mission is to revive the oldest Jewish theater in existence, the Kriat Hatorah — the calling out of the Torah, not the reading,” exclaims the New York-based Jewish educator, referring to the weekly Torah service familiar in every synagogue. Too many synagogues, he argues, make the Shabbat experience boring: “As a storyteller, I unabashedly bring art, entertainment, showbiz into the synagogue and blur the line because the religion is obviously in dire need of a face lift. There’s a great opportunity here to take Torah out of the synagogue and bring the stage into the synagogue.” His four-year old organization, Storahtelling, which began as a program at New York’s Upper West Side B’nai Jeshurun, is now embarking on tours to Jewish organizations around the country as Lau-Lavie strives to reinvigorate traditional Jewish religious services. Choreographer and MacArthur “genius” grantee Liz Lerman, too, searches for ways to erase the hierarchy between stage and spirituality. When she heard a rabbi complain that he was tired of Jewish artists wallowing in shtetl-based Eastern European images, the dancer knew exactly where to channel her creative efforts. Her Takoma Park, Md.-based Dance Exchange tours the world bringing collaborative projects to communities with a participatory bent. “Our identity cannot be forged only in response to the horrible things that have happened to us,” says Lerman, whose most recent Jewish works include a multi-city tour of her well-acclaimed “Hallelujah Project.” All of the varieties were on display at the recent international conference on Jewish theater March 8-12, which took place under the auspices of the Association for Jewish Theatre, Washington’s Theater J and the Center Company of the Northern Virginia JCC. At the conference, Jewish playwrights contributed staged readings of more than 40 new Jewish works spanning topics as diverse as whether an intermarried couple should circumcise their new born son to a visceral new English translation of the Yiddish play “Motke the Thief” to a compelling drama about S. Ansky, the creator of, perhaps, the most famous Jewish play ever written, the 1914 Russian production of “The Dybbuk.” Technology, too, now plays a hand in Jewish theater with the initiation of a Web site that will catalogue both new Jewish plays and productions and historic ones in an ongoing project supported by the Jewish Agency for Israel and a board of international theater scholars. The conference attracted artistic directors from San Francisco and Schenectady, N.Y.; performers and directors from London and Austria; actors from Vancouver; agents from New York and Los Angeles; JCC theater and cultural arts directors from MetroWest, N.J., and St. Louis; and, most notably, a delegation of 14 playwrights, directors and producers from Israel. The crux of the programming examined the state of the art of Jewish theater, pinpointing whether and how the still-young Jewish theatrical tradition can grow further. These theater people with an interest in creating work for Jewish and secular audiences wrestled with the “how to” questions: • how to collaborate; • how to find the right balance of serious and light plays; • how to develop audiences under the tight constraints of a JCC cultural arts system; • how to survive in tough political and economic times; • how to bridge the cultural divide between Diaspora and Israeli Jewry; and • how to make art with a specifically Jewish point of view. It seems that in the dozen years since a significantly smaller gathering of 30 Jewish theater professionals met in the suburbs of Washington to question of “how Jewish” Jewish theater should be, the Jewish question no longer causes a stir. But the question of collaboration between Israeli and American Jewish theater is still a problem. “There isn’t much appreciation for American Jewish theater in Israel and most American Jewish theater people don’t know much about Israeli theater,” Tel Aviv-based playwright Motti Lerner says. “Both sides are mistaken.” “Theater is a pulpit of powerful means,” Mozes of Philadelphia’s Theater Ariel says. “We are at a crossroads,” she notes in terms of whether and where the two bimahs, the two pulpits, of the stage and of the synagogue, should meet. “The dimensions of what Jewish theaters are doing is much more vast,” vaster in form and in content, she notes, than even a decade ago. “Jewish theater globally is finally finding its voice.”Lisa Traiger, a Rockville, Md.-based writer, frequently covers the performing arts.