There may be only a handful left today, but less than a century ago, there were tens of thousands of Jewish Communists in New York who decried the gap between rich and poor in the city. Now comes Billy Yalowitz’s “East Towards Home,” a 90-minute play that uses dance, live music and animation to connect the Yiddish-speaking, left-wing Jews of New York to the music of Woody Guthrie, whose folk tunes gave voice to the parched people of the Dust Bowl during the Depression.
Directed by David Schechter, the play begins performances this week at the Theater for the New City with Eleanor Reissa, the former artistic director of the Folksbiene, featured in the cast.
Choreographed by Michael Raine, “East Towards Home” is the tale of a young man in his 20s (David Kremenitzer), a “red-diaper baby” who, rebelling against his Communist upbringing, undertakes to retrace the journeys of Guthrie and become “more surely American.” Meanwhile, Guthrie (Brian Gunter) ironically heads to New York, where he collaborates with Sylvie (Reissa), an avant-garde Jewish choreographer who believes in overthrowing a “tottering” capitalist system through dance. The play draws parallels between Tom Joad, the protagonist of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” and Tevye, the patriarch in “Fiddler on the Roof,” noting that each is ultimately driven from his land.
Yalowitz, who teaches at Temple University in Philadelphia, was born into a working-class Jewish family in 1959, three years after the revelations about Stalin’s massacres — disclosures that sent shock waves through Communist, socialist, and anarchist Jewish groups. “The community was reeling; they were having a crisis of faith,” he said.
While earning a master’s degree in modern dance from Temple in the mid-1990s, Yalowitz discovered that Guthrie had worked with pioneering Jewish dancer Sophie Maslow, and that the singer found his “deepest, most embracing home” among Jews — that indeed, as Yalowitz put it, “New York was his most creative place.”
During a 2011 residency at the Museum for American Jewish History, Yalowitz was struck by how many Jews in their 20s and 30s have what he called a “proclivity for social justice but a lack of knowledge of the historical roots of class struggle.” The broader Jewish community, he said, has a stake in recovering this colorful chapter of its history, which he calls a “part of our tradition that is just as important as the Torah is for religious Jews.”
“East Towards Home” runs at the Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave., through Sunday, Feb. 2. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m. For tickets, $15, call the box office at (212) 254-1109 or visit www.theaterforthenewcity.net.