Last Tuesday, in a competition reminiscent of “American Idol,” the audience at the Jewish Playwriting Contest crowned an emerging play using mobile technology. After watching 20-minute stage readings of three works, “Treif” by Lindsay Joelle beat “Redder Blood” by Helen Murray Pafumi and “Match” by Jennifer Maisel.
These plays were brought to Boston under the sponsorship of the Boston-based Jewish Arts Collaborative (JAC), in partnership with the Jewish Plays Project (JPP). The organization’s director and former PresenTense fellow David Winitsky founded JPP five years ago with the goal “to make Jewish theater young, exciting, sexy and vibrant.”
Winitsky’s plan was to take Jewish theater out of Jewish Community Centers and see it performed in places like the Lyric Stage Company or Huntington Theatre Company. He had specific ideas about what Jewish contemporary theater should be and how it could attract contemporary Jewish audiences. He also had stringent requirements about what he would produce. Winitsky would not consider plays about the Holocaust, nor any work derived from the Yiddish cannon. Musicals were also out of his purview. “This is a contemporary moment in a free and prosperous community that asks different things of us,” he told his audience at the Lyric Stage.
To that end, Joelle’s winning play explores the world of Hasidism and its relationship to secular culture. Shmuely and Zalmy, devout Hasidim, drive a mitzvah mobile in Manhattan, and along the way they encounter Jonathan, a non-Jew who is poised to convert to Judaism. Shmuely, the worldlier of the two, is inclined to allow Jonathan to experiment with wrapping tefillin. Zalmy is appalled by his friend’s laxness when it comes to Jewish law. But as Joelle points out: “I think the strength of this play is the deep bond of friendship between the two men, which makes them instantly recognizable, even though they’re members of an insular religious community. Now, more than ever, we need plays that attest to our shared humanity; that affirm that one can be deeply religious and committed to rebuilding the world instead of destroying it.”
Pafumi’s play is loosely based on her parents’ tense marriage. She notes: “I grew up in an interfaith home where both parents were practicing, and it was always something I struggled to write about. Especially how each faith impacted my parents and my feelings of self-worth.” Pafumi describes her main character, Sadie, as a doubter who may also be a prophet. Sadie seems to have a direct line to God, who, as it turns out, is a woman. But her relationship to the Divine is fraught. “Even though you never talk to me, it still feels like a conversation, doesn’t it?” she asks. Like Pafumi’s parents, the father in “Redder Blood” is a convert to Islam, and the mother is a practicing Jew.
Maisel describes “Match,” a play about altruism and faith in the context of organ donation, as encompassing “the underpinnings of Jewish life.” The focus is on two men—Leo, who is barely Jewish, and Ben, who is an aspiring Jew. Both of them need a kidney. While contemplating his dying words, Ben says he wants to say the Sh’ma, Judaism’s central prayer: “I’ve been researching, and just how cool is the Sh’ma, dude? A prayer that tells you exactly what’s supposed to be on your lips when you die. It’s profound, and best of all you don’t have to think about what to say.”
Given the diversity of the plays presented last Tuesday, Sara Brookner, JAC’s director of engagement, asserts that the conversation around modern Jewish theater is evolving. “You’re never seeing one of the plays as just a play by a Jewish playwright—there’s always a kernel in there.” Pafumi agrees that what she finds most exciting about the current state of Jewish theater is that “it has become so powerful in its scope that we now see plays that might have once been considered niche becoming mainstream.” Maisel adds: “What excites me is that anything goes now. We’re moving away from what was stereotypically considered Jewish into a new view. Judaism doesn’t have the same face it used to have—and what moves me the most is seeing our current world reflected on stage.”
By its own description, JPP says it “is reinventing Jewish theater for the 21st century by connecting next-generation artists to Jewish ideas and advocating for cutting-edge work to be produced on mainstream stages.” That’s a bold claim, but it’s backed up by some impressive statistics. In the five years it has been in existence, JPP has vetted 913 plays from 650 writers in 29 states and eight countries. It has placed 15 plays on stages in Tel Aviv, London, New York and other American cities.
Brookner, who comes to JAC with an impressive background in theater—she has an MFA in dramaturgy from Harvard University—notes that what “I love about reading these plays is that it makes me think about Jewish topics in such myriad ways.” The process of choosing three plays out of 10 reflects a creative energy and commitment to Jewish theater. This year Boston’s panel consisted of 18 readers who came together to give what Brookner describes as “incredible feedback in a discussion moderated by [Winitsky].”
In the end, what excites Brookner the most is that the Jewish Playwriting Contest is discovering “people who are rooted in their theater identity, but also excited to explore their Jewish identity. It’s cultivating Jewish theater playwrights, artists and directors.”