Jewish Theater Receives a Revitalization

The Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas represents a new blooming of Jewish theater.

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Productions in the New York’s first Jewish theater festival–which runs from May 20 to June 14–are eclectic, including a puppet show, comedies, a midrashic interpretation and an adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s story The Jewbird. The 15 staged works and three readings in the festival come from Atlanta, Los Angeles, Kalamazoo, Philadelphia, Toronto, and Israel.

A Jewish theater festival of this scale has been long overdue. In 1980, at Marymount College in Manhattan a much smaller festival inspired the creation of the Association for Jewish Theater (AJT), an international network for the enhancement of Jewish culture through the theater arts, and a co-sponsor of this year’s event.

Since 1980 a few large companies in New York City–including American Jewish Theater and Jewish Repertory Theater–showed several mainstream Jewish plays. In the intermediate years, some people have felt, “there was a feeling there was no need for a Jewish festival,” speculates Edward Einhorn, artistic director of this year’s festival

Even today, with fewer Jewish theaters than there were in 1980, there are those who “aren’t excited” about a festival in Manhattan, Einhorn notes. “They say, ‘There’s so much Jewish theater, why do we need a festival?’ Maybe some people are afraid to be characterized as doing ‘Jewish theater.’ They don’t want to be ghettoized.”

But Kayla Gordon, executive director of AJT, represents a more enthusiastic constituency: “It has always been our dream to do a Jewish theater festival in a large city.”

Some of the plays in the festival are “more Jewish” than others. Doctors Jane and Alexander, written and directed by Einhorn, is, he explains, “not Jewish in certain ways.” The documentary play explores the life of the writer’s grandfather, co-discoverer of the Rh Factor in blood, through interviews with his mother, a psychologist who had a stroke.

“They are a Jewish family, though not a religious one,” Einhorn says. “But what makes the play ‘Jewish’ is that their interests–science, the arts, psychology–are ‘typical’ Jewish interests. I’m interested in what connects Jews to these interests.”

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Barbara Trainin Blank is a freelance writer and editor.

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