Theater Chat: Stars of David

— by Hannah Lee

I love listening to authors and artists talk about the creative process, so I’d looked forward to a lunch-and-talk program on Wednesday at the Gershman Y about Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish, which premiered at the Suzanne Roberts Theater on October 17th. Hurricane Sandy kept Abigail Pogrebin, its creator, from attending, but Warren Hoffman, Senior Director of Programming, ably undertook the role of interviewer for two notable Jews: Sharon Pinkenson, Executive Director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, and Ivy Barsky, the new Director and CEO of the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH). Then we went across the street and watched an afternoon show.

More after the jump.
Under Pinkenson’s guidance, the Greater Philadelphia Film Office brought the city revenues of $3.5 billion dollars, up from $2.1 million dollars from local movie production (statistics from interview in Philly Style Magazine). Her staff of six consists of only one other Jew, but all of her employees are taught to speak Yiddish, “starting with the ‘fa’ words,” farpatshket (messed up, sloppy), fartshadet (surprised, stunned), and fartutst (confused). The majority of her childhood was spent in Levittown, so she was comfortable with a heterogenous population and she loved arguing with the Rabbi. As a single mother, she was welcomed by Rodelph Shalom, who allowed her to pay on a sliding scale and she recalls with pride the day she was able to pay dues in full. Married for 27 years to her second husband, Joe Weiss, chairman of Electronic Ink, and the grandmother of three, she beguiled Weiss to attend Rodelph Shalom, where “the Shema is optional.”

Barsky grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where every one of her neighbors voted for George McGovern, who nevertheless lost the presidential election in 1972 to Richard Nixon. Her family was not observant, but she became “a professional Jew” through the meanderings of her career– from graduate studies in Art History at the University of Pennsylvania to almost 15 years as deputy director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan. This background gives her an important perspective on the museum’s mission, as an educational institution for those without a strong Jewish foundation.

A summa cum laude graduate of Yale University and the daughter of Letty Cottin Pogrebin (the co-founder of Ms. Magazine), Pogrebin published her book, Stars of David, in 2005 (by Doubleday) in which she turned own confusion about her identity as a Jew into an ad-hoc sociological study, reaching out to prominent Jews. The musical production has a small cast of five– Nancy Balbirer as Narrator; Alex Brightman, Joanna Glushak, Brad Oscar, and Donna Vivino– who channel the spirit of a cross-section of influential Jews from Kenneth Cole to Norman Lear to Gloria Steinman.

My two favorite numbers were both by Vivino, in which she sang of the alienation felt by “Ruth Bader Ginsburg” in being excluded from the minyan for reciting Kaddish after the death of her mother (the day before her graduation from high school) and the way “Fran Drescher” dealt with enduring ethnic stereotyping in her acting career. Other numbers were not as effective as when “Edgar Bronfman,” prompted by his 5-year-old granddaughter’s question, “Who is God,” committed himself to the study of Talmud. An uplifting liberal message is offered by “Tony Kushner” who noted being Jewish (and being persecuted for it) was good practice for being gay and that the Jewish people have a big enough house with a room for everyone.

With our township schools closed from the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, I brought along my teen daughter along and we were both surprised that she enjoyed herself! Stars of David will play through November 18th; tickets may be ordered through The Philadelphia Theatre Company.