by Lisa Rosenbaum
Not long ago, JWT’s Artistic Director Ronda Spinak and Founding Board Member Rabbi Lynne Kern flew to Cincinnati to research women in the rabbinate at the American Jewish Archives. While they were there, the director of the archives gave them a book of first-person stories about American Jewish women, from the 1700’s to the 1970’s. At about 1000 pages and weighing a couple of pounds, it was no lightweight in any sense, but the stories it contained were simply fascinating.
Who knew Jews were fretting about intermarriage back in 1743? Well, read the letter Abigail Franks of New York wrote to her son. Her pain and confusion at her daughter’s secret marriage to Oliver DeLancey (decidedly not of Delancey Street on the Lower East Side of New York!) is palpable. There are stories of pioneer women struggling to define their Judaism, first-hand accounts of women organizing garment workers, suffragettes, social workers, poets, politicians, musicians, writers and yes, a couple of real Vilde Chayas (Wild Women!).
None of this fit the mission of the JWT salons – telling the stories of contemporary Jewish women. But Ronda couldn’t stop thinking about the American Jewish women’s history book and what their lives said about the full sweep of the American Jewish experience. No one has dramatized their stories. We’ve never heard of most of them. She kept reading story after story, wondering what to do.
Then along came a connection to Tsilah Burman, Executive Director of the Breed Street Shul Project in Boyle Heights, and a subsequent visit to the shul in Boyle Heights. Tsilah wanted to know if JWT might be interested in using the newly renovated smaller shul at the back of the site for a theatrical production. Ronda thought immediately of the book and realized it was a perfect match; the oldest synagogue west of the Mississippi and a production about Jewish women in American history. She brought it up at a board meeting and asked if anyone was interested in producing. Arlene Sarner, Suzanna Kaplan and I raised our hands like over-eager school kids. We decided to do a “one-off” show (one that stands on its own and is not part of next year’s season) at the Breed Street Shul this fall.
Now the real work begins; figuring out how to wrestle this gigantic body of information into a meaningful, entertaining production. The four of us have been spending some serious time around Ronda’s kitchen table discussing possible approaches. Just slogging through the material is taking time, but we’re beginning to see some patterns emerging about the kinds of contributions these women made. There are voices from the eighteenth century that sound fresh and relevant today, and voices from the mid-twentieth century that sound woefully dated.
I’ll be keeping you posted on our progress. There’s a lot more to be said about the Breed Street Shul itself, but I’ll save that for another day!
In the meantime, mark your calendars. We’ve set the performance date for November 4, 2012!
The Moment You Knew, our third and final show of the season, is just a couple of weeks away (May 28-31.) Tuesday night is already sold out so if you haven’t yet bought your tickets, click the “Buy Tickets” button on this page!
This is going to be an especially innovative theatrical evening, not only because of the provocative title, but because the show is a collage of responses from professional and non-professional writers. Also woven in are audience members’ submissions about: the moment you knew what it meant to be Jewish?
Come with your own “moments you knew” in mind and join the discussion afterwards for what will surely be a particularly illuminating Q & A!
Saffron and Rosewater Update
Last bit of news… The American Jewish Committee invited JWT to present excerpts of Saffron and Rosewater to a select group of Consuls General at a private home on May 18. This will be the culmination of a day-long program about LA’s Persian Jewish community! And a lovely acknowledgement of our work.