Yoni Oppenheim

I connect deeply to Rabbi Sid Schwarz’s fourth proposition: Kedusha: Lives of Sacred Purpose. His proposition is: “In an age when we better understand the shortcomings of capitalism and the culture of consumerism, the Jewish community must offer a glimpse of kedusha, experiences that provide holiness, transcendent meaning, and a sense of purpose.”

Most theater artists catch the theater bug in their youth after either attending a production that profoundly moves them or participating in a show that provides both a sense of community and an experience of transcendent meaning or purpose. They might call it a “high”, but I would argue it is an experience of holiness. Theater has deep roots in ritual spanning all civilizations. Those who get bitten by the bug are willing to forgo a life of stability in other professions for one of uncertainty and risk, filled with transcendent experiences and a strong sense of purpose.

At NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts, a teacher said, “If you are here to be rich, transfer to the Stern School of Business.” As the Tony Award winning director Anna D. Shapiro counselled, “Don’t think of your work in the theater in terms of career. It is a vocation.” Choose work that has meaning to you, expresses your values, and provides meaning to others. Her words have guided my theater work and the choice I made to co-found 24/6: A Jewish Theater Company. Our mission is to serve as “a home for Sabbath observant artists in New York.”  24/6 is committed to cultivating innovative theater grounded in a rigorous engagement with Jewish tradition, believing that the performing arts play a critical role in the vitality of American Jewish life. I create work that I hope will help the audience find meaning and purpose.  24/6 provides, what is in essence, the first of its kind community through which, Shabbat observant artists can live their creative lives of sacred purpose and a forum to share it with others.

Tim Sanford, artistic director of Playwrights Horizons describes plays as “machines that create meaning.” Playwrights Horizons’ founder, Robert Moss, describes theater as “an empathy-making machine”. I believe that the Jewish community needs a healthy dose of empathy. Theater can create a safe space for conversation and also serve as a provocation, to engage in sensitive topics.

My 24/6 Purim-time adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll House used tropes of the Purim spiel and Megillat Esther as touch points for the audience to contend with the role of women in the modern Orthodox community and to re-examine the Purim story. Our Tu Bishvat/Jewish Arbor Day adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya amplified the character of Dr. Astrov prescient call to save the environment. By structuring our production around the Kabbalistic ritual of the Tu Bishvat Seder, we invited our audience to be inspired by the holiday’s call for renewal and tikkun, repair. We also hoped that the audience would  be moved to action by the words of one of Chekhov’s great dramatic creations, the environmentalist, Dr. Astrov.

As Rabbi Sid notes: “Jews will pay enormous sums of money for the highest caliber theater/symphony subscriptions…and find time to access experiences that provide value for their lives.” Historically, secular Jews have gathered at the theater, instead of the synagogue, to experience transcendent meaning. Secular Jewish theater artists replaced the parochet of the Aron Kodesh/Holy Ark with the curtain of the stage. Secular artists today generally don’t know what a parochet is so they don’t even know enough to reject it. But many are reclaiming their Jewish identity through the arts.

For millennia the tension between organized religion and the theater –often being banned by the Church—was because both aimed to provide experiences of meaning and sacred purpose for participants. We are now living in a moment where people acknowledge that the two can inform and engage one another, rather than be in conflict and competition. For the first time, Jewish artists lacking a grounding in Jewish tradition and education, don’t have Judaism as something to cast off, but rather as something to discover. But our arts community also enjoys the participation of those coming to Judaism and observance as adults (ba’alei teshuva) and they have a valuable contribution to make given their new life perspective.

The non-profit model may indeed be, as Rabbi Sid suggests, “a time bomb with serious consequences for the Jewish future.” Relying on the American marketplace may be right for a JDate-like initiative, but I wonder if it is the right fit for theater and arts initiatives beyond teen programs. Creating theater is a slow, process-heavy undertaking and it requires giving artists room to explore and fail before they succeed. Even in the market-driven realm of Broadway, most hits such as Hamilton, had their start in the non-profit theater.

I would suggest an additional theme to the four outlined by Rabbi Sid in his essay: the Arts and Creative Culture/Omanut v’Yetzirah. Over a decade ago, the now (sadly) defunct Foundation for Jewish Culture commissioned a study on the place of the culture in the Jewish community which revealed that for non-observant Jews, cultural events – be they theater, film, dance, or music – are the spaces where they Jewishly engage. In my own work at the FJC, I created a presentation on the Landscape of Jewish Theater in the USA, which identified a decline in Jewish theaters coupled with mainstream theaters producing Jewish plays. Since then, a number of compelling arts initiatives, 24/6 included, have taken hold. However, the Jewish community’s lack of continual support for these initiative causing them to shutter, is incredibly shortsighted. I hope they learn from past mistakes and rigorously re-engage in support for Jewish theater and the arts. It is a unique mode of creating meaningful community, providing audiences and artists with lasting Jewish experiences and frameworks to grapple with what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century.

Yoni Oppenheim is the Co-Founding Artistic Director of 24/6: A Jewish Theater Company. He is a New York based director, dramaturg, translator, and teaching artist.

 

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