Playwright Joseph Stein, who died at age 98 on Oct. 24 in Manhattan, was an original member of Minyan of the Stars. The organization encouraged show business personalities to celebrate Jewish holidays and traditions.
One of the first gatherings took place at Stein’s home on Park Avenue. It was Chanukah 1990. Lou Jacobi looked around and exclaimed, “We have show people here, even a scout from MGM. MGM—My Gantze Mishpocha [my whole family]!”
His mishpocha included Topol, Elie Wiesel, Theodore Bikel, Marvin Hamlisch, Zalman Mlotek, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Sylvia Miles, Marilyn Michaels and her mother Freidele Oysher.
Folksinger Oscar Brand raised his guitar and sang in Yiddish and English. He was followed by Bruce Adler and Jacobi who sang their versions of “Oy Chanukah, Oy Chanukah.”
Stein won a Tony Award for best author of a musical for “Fiddler on the Roof,” which opened in 1965 and lasted six years, breaking Broadway records at the time. The show earned nine Tonys.
In a 1991 interview Stein said he got the idea for a Tevye show from his father who lived with his son the last year of his life. His father, Charles, who designed women’s pocketbooks for Saks and other major stores, used to tell stories about life in Poland before emigrating to America.
Stein wrote the book, Sheldon Harnick did the lyrics and Jerry Bock the music. But they had a heck of a time trying to get it produced. “The Jewish producers considered it too Jewish,” Stein said. One asked, “What do we do when we run out of Hadassah benefits?”
Fred Coe, a Southern Baptist producer, said he loved it but couldn’t raise the money. Along came the Jewish Hal Prince and the rest is history.
While Stein succeeded in capturing shtetl life on stage, his wife, Elisa Loti, wasn’t as lucky with a Jewish production.
She was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, where her father was president of the local Zionist organization and mother was president of WIZO. Elisa came to New York and taught at a kindergarten at Beth Jacob Synagogue on the Upper West Side before turning to acting and directing.
When Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Teibele and the Demon” opened on Broadway in 1981, Elisa wanted in.
“I auditioned 10 times” she told me. “Finally I was rejected. Eve Friedman, the author, said I didn’t look Jewish.” That’s showbiz.
Two years later Elisa had better luck on her own. She directed and starred in one of her husband’s hit shows, “Enter Laughing,” in a revival off-Broadway.
“I’d bring a shopping bag full of food for the actors,” she said. “I want to see my actors eat. I’m a Jewish mama—or bag lady.”
Tim Boxer is editor of 15MinutesMagazine.com.