Jewish Theater in the 21st Century

By Hayley Finn

When I was asked to speak at the Association for Jewish Theatre conference, I thought: Jewish Theatre in the 21st Century, what a daunting subject for me to tackle.  I am humbled to stand before you and address this topic.

I am certain that each of us in this room would have a different sense of what Jewish Theatre is in the 21st century and perhaps even more to the point, what we would like it to become as we move forward through this century. Yesterday we had the chance to hear from Emily Mann about how she defines Jewish Theatre. Her definition was broad and inclusive – any play that is either written by a Jewish playwright or has Jewish themes. She made a point of saying she didn’t see Jewish Theatre as being written for a Jewish audience exclusively. I imagine other people in the room may have different definitions of Jewish Theatre. And one of the things I love about Jewish culture is that we are open and good at seeing an issue from all sides, so if we polled this room we could probably get several definitions of Jewish Theatre.  Our beliefs and desires stem from our history, aesthetic sensibilities and the communities in which we live. So I am mindful that my perspective is only one perspective based on my experience. And what is my experience?

I am speaking to you through the vantage point of someone who is a theatre practitioner, a director of primarily new work and the Associate Artistic Director of the Playwrights’ Center. As you might imagine, I read a substantial number of plays, and I am deeply invested in new work, new stories, so I will be speaking to you about some of the trends I’ve seen as of late.

But before I talk about plays, it might be helpful to get a sense of my background, how I grew up, since it impacts my perspective and my own impulses to create Jewish theatre.

I was born in New York City in the 1970’s. I was raised Jewish, although I came from an interfaith marriage. My dad is Irish Catholic and my mother is Jewish. When I was growing up two of my closest friends also had Jewish mothers and Irish fathers. I mention this because many people of my generation, and certainly those younger than I, come from interfaith marriages. In the last third of the 20th century, half the Jewish people in the US who married married outside of their faith. The face of Judaism has shifted in recent years, and this has impacted the Jewish-American narrative. It has changed the stories we tell, and perhaps also why we tell them. When we think of a Jewish person’s identity now, we must take into account that for many people their identity is rich with cultural influences.

Going back to my personal narrative, growing up in New York City, going to school at Brown University and returning to work in theatre in New York, I never thought of myself as a minority because I was Jewish. Maybe it’s because so many theatre people in New York are Jewish. Maybe it’s because New Yorkers have adapted Jewish culture and Yiddish words, so that everyone seems “a little Jewish.”

When I moved to Minneapolis 7 years ago, for the first time I did feel like a minority. It wasn’t because I was discriminated against; it was just that the Jewish culture wasn’t embedded in the fabric of the city in the way that it is in New York. When I used the word “schlep” or the expression “oy vey,” I stood out. Not every bakery sold challah, and when September rolled around I found myself wondering about how I would observe the High Holidays. It was at that time that I started to crave a connection with other Jewish people and with a sense of community – a community which for me came from a sense of shared history. In addition to reaching out to some temples, I approached Barbara Brooks at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, because I really wanted to direct plays with her company, and admired her mission to tell contemporary Jewish stories. I liked the theatre’s tag line, too - “Igniting your mind by touching your heart. (Even if you’re not Jewish).” I appreciated that sense of inclusion, perhaps because my father is Catholic, and perhaps because that sense of inclusion is a primary value for my generation – the generation that grew up watching Sesame Street. It’s also been a big part of Reform Judaism, which is my religious background.

Having lived and grown up in New York, I never thought about Jewish theatre and didn’t seek it out. However, I saw plays with Jewish themes that were produced at prominent, but not culturally specific theatres. I’ve begun to wonder if Jewish Theatre in the 21st century is more relevant outside of New York where people are in need of a sense of community? Is there more of a need for Jewish theatres in other communities because plays with Jewish themes aren’t being programmed at other theatres? Or,  is it that they are not being produced in ways that seem authentic? What motivates us to create Jewish theatre and what motivates audiences to go to Jewish theatres in the 21st century?

When I speak to my contemporaries who belong to temples or are thinking about joining a temple, it’s often because either they are looking for a sense of community, or they want their children to learn about Judaism – they want that history carried out through the generations. I know there is a resurgence of Orthodox Jews; however, speaking from my experience, most of the Jews I know see themselves as secular. They say things like “I’m Jewish but I’m not very religious.” Many of them even admit to me that they don’t believe in G-d. They identify with the culture of Judaism. They see Judaism as connecting them to their families, their history, and a sense of community.

When I consider Jewish Theatre in the 21st century, I consider what Jewish American playwrights are writing about. The themes that rise to the top are plays about family, particularly intergenerational plays, and plays that examine or celebrate history. I think it’s interesting that those themes parallel what many people identify as their connection to Judaism.

Intergenerational stories are on the rise in theatres in general, and I have seen an even greater number with Jewish characters at the center of the story. In Adam Kraar’s The Karpovsky Variations, Julia (the main character) takes a journey through memory to find a connection to her father. She’s searching for her identity and tries to piece together her family narrative in order to discover herself. Her mother (who is absent from the play and her life) is not Jewish and she has a difficult time connecting with her father who has abandoned not only the religion but also the culture of Judaism. She conjures up memories of her Grandma Rose and imagines the clarinet her grandma heard in the streets of Krakow. She looks to her uncles and memories of her father, and she starts to piece together her history, a history that had for many years eluded her. In so doing, she finds a more complete sense of her identity.

In the last play I directed, Handle With Care, a young Israeli woman, Ayelet, visits the U.S. with her grandmother. Through a series of events (the most significant being her grandmother dies) she meets a man, Josh, who is half Jewish/ half Catholic. Josh jokes about celebrating Hanamas, a mash-up of Christmas and Hannukah, with his family, and he can barely remember a line or two of Hebrew from his Bar Mitzvah. Through the play the couple come together romantically when Ayelet prepares an impromptu Shabbos meal. She evokes the memory of her grandmother and explains that her grandmother loved Shabbat because it’s about bringing people together and about family. Josh and Ayelet connect literally and perhaps spiritually because of the grandmother, and in addition to falling in love with Ayelet, Josh learns to appreciate the Shabbat rituals, and discovers that he really likes what Shabbat represents.

Anther play I’ve recently read is about a family that comes together around the ritual of the Seder. In Lila Rose Kaplan’s play We All Fall Down, a secular Jewish family meet up for Passover. It’s a holiday that they haven’t  celebrated for a long time. In fact, they are more consistent in their celebration of Christmas than Passover. The matriarch of the family insists on calling Passover “Jewish Easter.” The person at the table who knows the most about Passover, and the one who can speak Hebrew, is an African American friend who recently converted to Judaism. Through the course of the play you discover that the father is suffering from Alzheimer’s and his wife thinks that performing this ritual (the Passover Seder) will help her husband remember his childhood and his mother, and hopefully, bring him closer to remembering his identity.

These intergenerational plays are exploring our connection to Judaism through our families. In these plays, the characters are searching for and exploring their identity. Yesterday we talked about how Jewish identity has in the past been (at times) associated with victimology.  However, in these plays, Jewish identity is not being viewed in relationship to an oppressor. Rather the characters are trying to find their Jewish identity and they are looking back to their families, to abandoned practices to find it. The struggle to “be Jewish” is not an EXTERNAL struggle. It’s an INTERNAL struggle.

Another category of play that I see a fair amount of  scripts about are history plays -- stories that deal with historical events or people. These plays often celebrate the life of a famous Jewish person. These stories connect us with our family in a larger sense – these are our people, look what they’ve accomplished.  Golda’s Balcony about Golda Meir, Woman Before A Glass about Peggy Guggenheim, Photograph 51 about Rosalind Franklin. Notice I’m listing all these plays about famous Jewish women, which may also be a trend in 21st century Jewish plays, shining some light on Jewish women’s accomplishments. Or it may be that these plays stand out to me, so I notice them. Regardless, these plays give us a sense of connection to our history, and perhaps to the accomplishments of Jewish people through time. Yesterday, when we were discussing the prominent role Jews played in the Civil Rights Movement, Emily said, “that’s something to be proud of.” We do feel proud and want to acknowledge our family members who have done remarkable things.

We also have plays about historical events that are not as celebratory. They connect us with moments in our past that are important to remember or to learn about. The Twenty-Seventh Man, based on Nathan Englander’s book and which premiered at the Public Theatre this year, tells the story of the Jewish writers that were killed during the Stalin regime.  It’s a poignant play that sheds light on an event in history that I knew little about.

And of course we have plays that deal with the Holocaust. I want to spend a moment talking a little bit about the Holocaust. We talked a bit about Holocaust plays yesterday, and there  was a strong feeling in the room that we need to remember the Holocaust but we need to be careful not to present it through the lens of victimology. I am seeing a different approach to how the Holocaust is represented in plays by a younger generation, and I think that has to do with the fact the people writing them have a different relationship to the Holocaust.

I’ll take my mother as an example. She was fortunately born in 1942 in the US, and therefore, was not directly affected, but had many friends who were survivors and later in life ended up teaching Holocaust literature. She has told me that when she was a child and made her way into her adult life, she would contemplate which of her Christian friends would save her if there was another Holocaust. She said that she has talked with many of her Jewish friends about her ruminations, and they also confess that they have had the similar thoughts. I must admit that this isn’t something that I think about, and although deeply moved and horrified by the Holocaust, I have a different relationship to it than my mother’s generation has.

Let’s take a moment to examine how the Holocaust is reflected in plays written by a younger generation. Many writers mention the Holocaust in their plays, though it’s not the main part of the story. A character may have been a survivor, and that can be an element of the story, but it is not ultimately what the story is about.

And when the Holocaust is tackled more head on, it is less frequent that the plays are based on memoirs of survivors.  Rather, you are seeing plays about Americans and how the Holocaust affected their identity. I recently directed Compulsion or the House Behind by Rinne Groff at MJTC. That play examines a character based on the author Meyer Levin. It shows how he wanted the story of Anne Frank to be told from a Jewish perspective and his frustration with the stage adaptation, which he believed was not authentic. The play also examines how the Holocaust gave him a persecution complex even though he was not in Europe at the time, and didn’t directly experience it. Although the Holocaust motivates some of the action in the play, Compulsion is not actually a story about the Holocaust.

And then there is the play by the young writer Joshua Harmon called Bad Jews, which received critical acclaim this past year. The play tells the story of how when the grandfather (who was a survivor) dies, his grandchildren fight over his chai. One granddaughter feels she has claim to it because she is the most religious, one grandson thinks that as the oldest male grandson, he should have it.

They all want to be connected to him. The one grandson who remains quiet through the fight reveals at the end of the play that he has gotten a tattoo of his grandfather’s number. So I would say that plays that  deal less with the Holocaust directly and more with its aftermath and the reverberations generationally are the type of Holocaust plays we’re seeing in the 21st century.

To bring it back to my own personal journey, I directed a play that was a very different take on a traditional Holocaust play. The play was based on an original cabaret written and performed in Terezin. The cabaret was called Laugh With Us. The adaptation, written by Kira Obolensky, is titled Why We Laugh. Using the source material, survivor interviews, and imagination, the piece examines how the prisoners of Terezin were able to laugh at the absurdity of their situation. In fact they made jokes about wearing the Yellow Star. The play illuminates how Jewish people have used humor as a survival technique, and how bringing people together to laugh and tell stories can be empowering. The angle of looking at the humor that was going on during the Holocaust is again not what you would call your traditional Holocaust play experience.

To step back from Jewish theatre specifically for a moment, and look at the direction of theatre more macroscopically, there have been trends as of late toward devised theatre – theatre created by an ensemble. Some of the leading artists in this field are Jewish, though I haven’t seen the work have particularly Jewish content. On a national level, there is also a trend toward more participatory theatre. People want to engage with the story, and not just in a traditional “talk-back” setting – they want to be involved in the experience.

Much of what is happening that is new and exciting is immersive theatre, participatory theatre, theatre that appears as an event – something not to be missed. I am sure many of you have heard about or seen Sleep No More, which has been running in NYC for over a year. The theatre company Punchdrunk has set Macbeth in an abandoned hotel. As an audience member, you wander through the hotel and are invited to open desk drawers, peek behind closed doors, and follow the story of Macbeth when you stumble upon it or seek it out. This type of immersive, participatory theatre is sparking up all over the country.

I’m not saying that Jewish theatre will head in this direction, but it’s interesting that even in the Holocaust museum in DC, aspects of this type of interactivity are taking place. When you enter the Holocaust museum you are given an identity card of a person who lived in Europe during the Holocaust. The impetus is to help personalize the experience for the viewer, but in doing so, it, in a way, casts you as a character, providing you with a personalized entry point to the experience.

As Jews, we’re used to participating in the narrative. Every year we gather around for the Passover Seder and engage in the ritual of community story telling, so I can see that we would have something to offer in this aesthetic movement.

I also want to point out that Jewish people have always been on the forefront of creating new forms of art, new movements pushing the boundaries. We believe in asking questions, in never sticking to one answer.  Our culture is based on thinking. That is one of the reasons that I feel very optimistic about Jewish Theatre in the 21st century. Who knows what stories will emerge and what forms theatre will take? It’s up to us to decide what the future of Jewish Theatre will look like. And as we move forward, it’s up to the next generations of artists.

Some of the leaders of 21st century Jewish Theatre are yet to be born. Who knows what exciting and dynamic work awaits us.

Hayley Finn is the Associate Artistic Director, Playwrights' Center, and a freelance director.  For MJTC, she has directed Handle With Care, Compulsion or the House Behind, The Last Word, and The Gospel According to Jerry.  This season she will direct The History of Invulnerability.