What Does It Mean When We Say ‘Jewish Theatre’?

Jason Karasev, Anna Khaja and Joel Polis in 'My Name Is Asher Lev'.

Jason Karasev, Anna Khaja and Joel Polis in ‘My Name Is Asher Lev’.

by David Witinsky

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

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.

All due respect to Yiddish, Anne, and your orthodontist, but as a theater maker 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 theater? What does that mean? Is that redundant (insert your “theater would be dead without the Jews” joke here). Is it just old fashioned (are we talking Yiddish theater?). It could be contentious (is it Israeli theater?). 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 theater 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 theater 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 theater community in which it would be made.

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

Like the theater, 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 theater, there is a constant concern over brain drain to more lucrative media like film and TV.

So What Do We Do Now?

David Winitsky

David Winitsky

Three years ago, I started a venture called the Jewish Plays Project, a development center for new Jewish theater. 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 theater 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 theater maker 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 Kettlerand Close to Home by Jonathan Gillis).

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 theater 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…


Joel Polis, Anna Khaja and Jason karasev in ‘My Name Is Asher Lev’

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 theater—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.

David Winitsky is the director of the Jewish Plays Project (www.jewishplaysproject.org), a development house for 21st Century Jewish theater based in NYC. David has directed or assisted on Broadway, off-Broadway, and regionally. Member: Lincoln Center Directors Lab and Emerging Artists Theatre. This post originally appeared on HowlRound.

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