Rachel Kunstadt, 31, Queer Jewish Musical Writer



The Jewish Week’s annual 36 Under 36 honors young leaders, entrepreneurs and change-makers who are making a difference in the life of Jewish New York. For the full list of this year’s “36ers,” click here.

What do you do?

I am the director of adult Jewish learning at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, where I oversee adult Jewish education classes. Simultaneously, I run a small theater company, Quintessence of Dust, which produced a reading of the musical “Fun Home” in a funeral home. And I am writing an autobiographical musical called “Press Pause” about Lisa Schwartz, a 30-year-old writer quarantined alone in her Manhattan apartment during the COVID-19 pandemic who suffers flashbacks to her 16-year-old self, when she was housebound due to agoraphobia. In this memory musical, Lisa must recall why she became agoraphobic and how she overcame the toughest struggle of her life, which is the key to learning that she has the strength to move forward, not backwards.

How did the pandemic affect your work?

As a theater maker, I was very sad to see theater shut down, and most of my friends in the industry lost their jobs. I personally found the pandemic inspiring for my writing. It really inspired me to sit down and write my musical, and gave me the idea to use the pandemic as a framing device. I’ve wanted to write my story for years, and I had tried, but the writing took off last spring.

How does your Jewish identity influence your work?

My musical focuses on Lisa and her three main identities: her lesbian identity, her Jewish identity and her mental illness. For me, those three things have always been intertwined, also adding my theater passion to the mix. My Jewish identity is part of me and everything I do. It’s part of my queerness and my mental health journey and my theater work and everything I do. Even my tattoos are part of my Jewish identity. My non-Jewish girlfriend is part of my Jewish identity.

Was there a formative Jewish experience that influenced your life path?

I had a bat mitzvah when I was almost 13, and I didn’t go to my own party because I had a massive panic attack. I had a re-bat mitzvah in 2019 where I gathered with friends to read a new bat mitzvah parsha, give a d’var torah and celebrate in a way that felt meaningful to me. I immersed in the mikveh for the first time and I learned how I can truly own my Judaism.

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