It was the summer of 2000, and my wife and I had decided to move out of New York, where we had both been born and raised, to launch our academic careers at Dickinson College in central Pennsylvania. Her friend, Dan Schifrin, was The Jewish Week’s theater critic, and he had announced his departure. Having done some writing about theater, I applied for the job, was hired and launched a weekly column on plays of Jewish interest, covering everything from Off-Off Broadway one-person shows about Jewish identity to “Fiddler on the Roof” revivals on Broadway. Although I was able to see only a handful of these plays during my occasional visits to the city, I enjoyed doing phone interviews with playwrights, directors and actors.
Over time, in addition to continuing to pen theatrical reviews and features, I branched out to writing about food, and ultimately to contributing a monthly culture column that embraced dance, music, art, architecture, literature, film and TV. Inspired by changing trends in Jewish life that my family and I experienced while living first in Harrisburg and then in Baltimore, my columns suggested that pop culture is just as worthy of contextualization and analysis as canonical literature; an episode of “Seinfeld” can be taken apart with the same intellectual tools as a scene from Shakespeare.
Now, as I take my final bow from freelance writing, I look back with nostalgia on the last two decades of Jewish theater in New York. When I started covering this beat, Jewish playwrights like Arthur Miller, Wendy Wasserstein and Jon Robin Baitz wrote regularly on Jewish themes, and the English-language Jewish repertory theaters (Jewish Repertory Theater and American Jewish Theater) were still active; Miller and Wasserstein died in 2005 and 2006, respectively, and nowadays, it is the city’s two Yiddish companies, the Folksbiene and New Yiddish Rep, that, quite unexpectedly, given the decline of Yiddish outside of the chasidic community, carry on the legacy of Jewish repertory theater. Over the years, there have also been frequent revivals of works by Clifford Odets, Neil Simon and Herb Gardner. Beloved performers like Ron Rifkin, Judd Hirsch, Linda Lavin and Tovah Feldshuh have bolstered their careers by playing Jewish roles.
Further, there seemed to be an endless number of budding dramatists, mostly Jews but some non-Jews as well, who explored Jewish themes, especially those dealing with Israel (for example, Melanie Zoey Weinstein’s “Sex and the Holy Land” in 2009) or the Holocaust (such as Jesse Eisenberg’s “The Revisionist” in 2013). Freed from unthinking obedience to old pieties, they often took an irreverent approach to serious topics in Jewish life.
Some of their works, like Jon Marans’ 1996 “Old Wicked Songs,” had gone on to become staged throughout the country in regional theaters; Joshua Harmon’s “Bad Jews” and Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced” have enjoyed similar success in the last few years. And the city’s major nonprofit companies, such as the Manhattan Theatre Club, had such heavily Jewish subscriber bases that going to a new Jewish play in Midtown often felt like being in a theater on the Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century. Jewish producers and directors were so visible that the song in “Monty Python’s Spamalot” entitled “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway (If You Don’t Have Any Jews)” seemed right on the money; given the recent rise of anti-Semitism, that song is perhaps less amusing today.
The New York Times, The New Yorker, New York magazine and other major publications often did not cover the Jewish angles of these plays particularly well, or in great depth. They also tended to perpetuate an artificial distinction between Jewish religion and culture, as if worship in synagogue negates an interest in secular Jewish expression.
It was thus a great pleasure to work with managing editor Rob Goldblum and culture editor Sandee Brawarsky (whose Text/Context series was a particularly incisive probing of this boundary) to keep arts at the forefront of the paper’s coverage, in ways that inspire Jewish periodicals throughout the country. And it has been very meaningful to me to play a modest role in the cultural life of the city that I love so much, and that remains in many ways, along with Jerusalem, my spiritual home.
What the city needs now is a Hebrew-language theater company. While the Gesher Theatre in Tel Aviv does occasionally bring plays here, such as last season’s magical production of “The Dybbuk” at John Jay College, we do not have an ongoing stream of plays in the language that an increasing number of New Yorkers speak, and that remains so central to both Jewish religion and culture.
I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to The Jewish Week for maintaining its dedication to the arts, nurturing my talents and enabling me to reach this moment of making my exit after such a fulfilling career of writing about Jewish culture.
Ted Merwin, who signs off with this column, covered theater and culture for the paper for 20 years.