The Currency of Belief: Fringe Show Confronts Prayer

“Currency of Belief.” Photo courtesy: Fringe Arts

In a few weeks, Jews worldwide will crowd synagogues to welcome the new year, shaking off tallit, dusty from closets, but still smelling just like Grandpa.

Recently in Philadelphia, a one-woman show at the Fringe Festival used the prayer shawl in a different way. The performer wound it around her head, swung with it on a trapeze, and threw it on the floor.

“The Currency of Belief: Trapeze and Spiritual Comedy” had a surprisingly small amount of trapeze, a little comedy, and a lot of spirituality. Not wholly bad or good, Noa Schnitzer’s solo show at Christ Church Neighborhood House was a strange 50-minute experience.

Rather than an orderly bedtime story, “The Currency of Belief” was a night of dreams, each blending oddly into one another. Schnitzer played multiple characters, from the stooping MC to a snail that could sense thoughts, in a series of disconnected dances, trapeze performances, and shadow puppetry. Interactive throughout, she encouraged the audience to raise their pinkies to show their bodies were warmed up, and to sing a prayer in parts with her.

Whether Schnitzer was midair or on the ground, every piece of the show concerned prayer – what it means to pray, how exactly one prays, and who is allowed to pray.

“Prayer is the currency of belief,” Schnitzer said in the performance, using the same words as in the title. “In prayer, we can give thanks for what is and plant seeds for who we want to be.”

External restrictions on prayer seemed to interest Schnitzer, creator of the work with director Deanna Fleysher. One example was the shadow puppetry, during which Schnitzer narrated the story of an illiterate shepherd. Instead of reading the prayers in synagogue, he decides to play a flute, which the congregation criticizes for its strangeness. But the rabbi calls the shepherd’s prayer the most honest of them all.

In addition to dealing with methods of prayer, “The Currency of Belief” briefly addressed gender roles in Jewish religious practice. Along with the symbolism of a woman using the tallit, a garment traditionally for males, the show also featured a prayer meant only for men to sing, but which Schnitzer taught to the audience.

In a Fringe Fest interview, Schnitzer said that even after she “stopped practicing” Orthodox tradition at the age of 18, old prayers popped into her head and wouldn’t leave. Her show was not so different.

It was not exactly the must-see of the Fringe’s many event opportunities. It was often hard to understand how scenes cohered or who her characters were. The slow-voiced MC only gained a name near the end of the show, when Schnitzer appeared to take her final bow, but really got into a multipersonality argument with the MC and herself. Yes, really.

However weird and mysterious, the tune of “The Currency of Belief” will stick in the mind. The trapeze work was beautiful, especially in the intense first episode, in which Schnitzer swaddled the tallit around her face and flipped herself blindly over a trapeze bar. It brought back some sort of primal awe at flight with her  twisting and slithering securely up in the air. Too bad it took 30 more minutes to see her up there again.

The frequent interactions with the tallit were fascinating. Schnitzer wrote in the program that it “was an object used by the other. It was not offered as part of my [Orthodox] practice.” Often in the show, her actions toward the traditional cloth were highly emotional, showing a mix of anger and longing. She kicked it, wrapped it around her head, and reached desperately for it from the trapeze after letting it go from about twenty feet high.

The show was unsettling and hard to understand. Much of the meaning gleaned from “The Currency of Belief” took hours to gather. But prayer isn’t always easy.


As The Matzo Ball Turns is Turning Out at the Fringe Festival

The Philadelphia Fringe Festival is back for another year of experimental performances around the city. Of the dozens of comedies, dramas and tragedies, one musical at the Independence Seaport Museum might affirm your belief in following your dreams — and working part-time at a deli.

Running Sept. 7-10, “As The Matzo Ball Turns” follows a Hollywood story onstage, but has plenty of twists and turns behind the scenes.

Jozef Rothstein (played by Sebastian Paff) embodies the “aspiring” in aspiring actor. He dips his spoon into the chicken soup of Hollywood and just can’t seem to get a taste, especially with the ominous Hollywood Machine blocking his path. While he’s fighting for his shot at the screen, he works at a well-known Los Angeles deli and logs hours at an acting studio with his pal Mary (played by Joanna Ferbrache).

“We see the struggle of falling in love, trying to find his purpose, and I think it really speaks to everyone,” said Sara Viteri, producer and co-director. “No matter what career path you’re choosing, I think we’re all trying to find our place in the sun.”

[Read more…]

“Curvy Widow”: An Off-Broadway Toast to New Beginnings

Actress Nancy Opel (left) and playwright Bobby Goldman (right). Photo: Matthew Murphy.

“It’s all about self-reliance and not depending on anyone else,” said playwright Bobby Goldman, of her new Off-Broadway musical comedy, Curvy Widow, now playing at the Westside Theatre in New York City. An autobiographical memoir adapted for the stage by Goldman, “Curvy Widow” is an 85-minute show that peeks inside the life of a new widow as she throws herself into the internet dating scene. It is a raw and honest portrait of a feisty woman who has to reinvent herself after the loss of her husband of 30 years. [Read more…]

From Barrack to Broadway

David Treatman (left) and Alan Koolik (right), Columbia University students and theater producers in New York City.

David Treatman, a 2016 graduate of the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy,  and and his business partner, Alan Koolik, are two of the youngest producers on the New York theater scene. They are students at Columbia University: Treatman, a sophomore, and Koolik, a junior. [Read more…]

What Kinds of Jewish Jokes Are Okay to Laugh At?

Two old guys sharing a New York apartment panic about their rent going up and host a show centered around comedians and a tuna sandwich inside a deli. Ever read a sentence more Jewish? Oh, Hello, a Broadway show featuring this plot, just made it to Netflix. Watching it from a Jewish lens, I struggled between discomfort and uncontrollable laughter. [Read more…]

Independence Day Is an Occasion to Celebrate American Jewish Heroes

Haym Salomon Stamp. Photo: USPS.

Haym Salomon Stamp. Photo: USPS.

How many Jewish heroes of the Revolutionary War (or earlier) can you identify? You probably know that Haym Salomon was a key figure in financing the Revolution. Did you know that Francis Salvador was the first Jew to die in the American Revolution, on August 1, 1776, following the signing of the Declaration of Independence? You might know that Philadelphian Rebecca Gratz founded the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society and other relief organizations. Did you know that her family was prominent among revolutionaries here? We also have colonial recipes. [Read more…]

“Wonder Woman” — Controversy and Accolades

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. Photo: Vox.

The Lasso of Truth (Wonder Woman’s weapon that transforms people into obedient truth tellers) says that DC Films’ “Wonder Woman,” directed by Patty Jenkins, is set to became one of the highest-grossing female-directed movies ever — even in the face of controversy.

The lead actress, Gal Gadot, is Israeli, which was cited as the reason for the film being banned in Lebanon. As is typical with some of Israel’s neighboring countries, Lebanon officially bans products from Israel. Although, according to Al Jazeera, “the principle of boycott is inconsistently enforced.” Previous movies in which Gadot played less central roles were shown in Lebanon. Last year’s release of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” which also starred Gadot, was not banned, despite an effort by the Lebanese Ministry of Economy and Trade and the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement.

Up until opening day, there was controversy over whether or not “Wonder Woman” would be shown in Lebanon.  The ban was announced days before the film was to premiere, despite Grand Cinemas saying eight hours earlier that it would not be banned and promoting it five days earlier. Yet multiple theaters still planned to show it. There was a protest on social media. Gal Gadot was criticized not only for being an Israeli, but also for serving in the IDF for two years and offering vocal support for the IDF on Facebook. According to The Washington Post, the movie was banned just two hours before the first showing was scheduled to begin. There has not been an official clarifying statement on this discrepancy. It is possible that because of Gadot’s leading role in “Wonder Woman,” there may have been  greater pressure to ban the movie. Variety reported that in addition to Lebanon, the movie was also cancelled in the relatively liberal countries of Algeria and Tunisia. The movie is being shown in Egypt, Morocco and the Arab Emirates.

Gal Gadot’s picture of her and her daughter, posted to her Facebook page with comments supporting IDF. Photo:

Besides the Lebanon ban, “Wonder Woman” faced backlash when in October the main character was appointed U.N. honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls, with Gadot there to represent Wonder Woman. An issue arose when U.N. staffers voiced their concerns about the appointment, saying that it would be better to select a real person rather than a fictional character to the honorary position. The staffers also took umbrage with Wonder Woman’s sexualized image, saying that she was not a good role model for women and girls. Besides a protest at the appointment ceremony by dozens of U.N. staffers, a petition was also circulated, which has garnered almost 45,000 signatures.

Beyond the controversy surrounding it, the film itself was actually quite good. Compared to the more recent movies DC has put out, “Wonder Woman” was seen critically as the best among them, scoring an 8.1 on IMDB and a 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Conversely, it seems that so far “Wonder Woman” is set to perform below the other recent DC movies at the box office, pulling in a little over $466 million worldwide, whereas “Batman v Superman”, which got a 6.7 on IMDB and a 27 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, raked in over $870 million worldwide.

Rankings and box office earnings aside, “Wonder Woman” delivers a satisfying story. While the overall structure of the movie follows a similar formula to other superhero movies made by both Marvel and DC over the past decade, the execution of the movie makes the overall experience fun and interesting. For example, the characterization of Wonder Woman and her love interest, Steve Trevor (played by Chris Pine), helps to sell their romance and makes for a more engaging story.

The story structure is very similar to that of “Superman,” with a fish-out-of-water character trying to understand our strange rituals and customs. But unlike Superman, who grows up in our world, Wonder Woman does not get that luxury. She has to grapple with our rules, without any chance to get acclimated, which makes the story more interesting.

Unlike some of the bland and focus-tested DC movies that preceded it, “Wonder Woman” has more direction and purpose. While the plot is not overly complicated, it is unique enough to make it stand above the rest. What may also give this movie a fresh take is the female duo of director and lead, something that superhero movies have not seen since “Tank Girl” in 1995. With a steady stream of similar movies coming out, a mix-up in actors and directors is most welcome.

Film Chat: “The Wedding Plan”

Promoted during the Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia, the film The Wedding Plan finally opened for American audiences, after having received three Ophir Awards, or Israeli Oscars. In Hebrew with English subtitles, the film was written and directed by Rama Burshtein, an Orthodox Israeli, and the creator of the award-winning 2012 film Fill the Void.

In “The Wedding Plan,” protagonist Michal is a 32-year-old religiously observant woman, who runs a mobile petting zoo. Excitedly planning for her upcoming wedding, she is shocked when her fiancé reluctantly admits that he doesn’t love her. Nevertheless, she decides to move forward with her wedding preparations, trusting that if God wants her to be married, He will find a husband for her. The wedding is scheduled for the last night of Hanukkah, leaving exactly one month for a new groom to materialize. Her family is doubtful, and even her rabbi wonders what will happen to Michal’s faith if she doesn’t find a groom under the chuppah.

An American director would have made this film into a romantic comedy, but Burshtein aimed for something deeper, more poignant. Her debut film, “Fill the Void,” is about a religious woman who must make a decision about whether or not to marry her late sister’s husband. Burshtein writes and directs stories set in the religious Jewish world, but which illuminate human emotions common to us all.

Film Chat With Michael Solomonov

The film In Search of Israeli Cuisine, featuring Chef Michael Solomonov, is being screened from March 31 to April 6 at the Ritz 5 in Philadelphia. In light of this special screening, we offer the following review of the film, written by Philadelphia Jewish Voice contributor Hannah Lee. This review was originally posted on Lee’s blog, A Cultural Mix, in March 2016, and also includes an overview of the post-film discussion. [Read more…]