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Can Theater And Jewish Observance Co-Exist?

When I graduated from NYU’s Dramatic Writing Program in 1988, I applied for jobs at all of the Jewish theaters in the country. I did so because I figured that a Jewish theater would honor both my commitment to theater and my commitment to lead a halachik lifestyle.

I was wrong.

While there were several people who did appreciate my halachik observance, there were many more who felt angry and offended that I was putting observance over theater. One person jokingly quipped, “You probably would have gotten more respect if you worked for a Catholic theater.

Is there a place in theater for religiously observant Jews? I’m not sure. I have heard horror stories about people who were treated terribly for asserting their commitment to leading a religious life. When Steven Hill (Z”l) quit Mission: Impossible because they filmed on Shabbos, he was applauded by religious Jews but vilified by irreligious Jews, including many he considered friends.

I am not alone in my observations. Yoni Oppenheim is a director, dramaturg, translator and teaching artist. He is also the artistic director of 24/6: A Jewish Theater company.  Yoni observes, “Rarely are there opportunities for Shabbat observant artists in the mainstream theater. I have looked elsewhere to create art. For example, hearing about house bound seniors, 24/6: A Jewish Theater Company commissioned a diverse group of 16 playwrights to write short uplifting plays which we perform over the telephone. More than entertainment, they make seniors feel less isolated and bring them into conversation and community with other seniors, volunteers and with artists. This reinforces for me the importance of the theater and the arts within the Jewish community.”

In my own theater experience, if I wish to perform in a play, I often have to self-produce to insure that both rehearsals and performances do not conflict with Shabbat or a holiday.  Yoni also points out that in a business filled with Jews, concessions to those of us who are observant are noticeably absent. “For years I and other Shabbat-observant theater artists have advocated for rehearsal schedules that are flexible around Shabbat, and for casting understudies for Shabbat observant performers. We were told time and again that it was impossible. The recent We See You, White American Theater document that emerged from the theater’s reckoning with racial justice, specifically calls for theaters to implement a five-day work week. Understudies and swings are now seen as an essential part of the theater, because performers may test positive for Covid at a moment’s notice. The events of the last two years have challenged the received wisdom that mainstream theater cannot accommodate Shabbat observant artists.”

Will things change and will theater become more accepting of those of us who wish to create art and follow Jewish law? I don’t know. But my hope is that by putting the struggle out there and letting more people know about it, change will someday come.

About the Author
Rabbi Dan Wolpe is the rabbi of the Flushing Fresh Meadows Jewish Center, a noted educator, and a produced and published playwright. In addition to having served as a rabbi for 25 years, Wolpe has had plays of his produced in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Orlando, Philadelphia, Jerusalem, Latham and Westhampton Beach,. Wolpe is a proud member of both the Rabbinical Assembly and the Dramatist's Guild.
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