Community play explores Jewish identity through humor

  • Susan Hollins and Jodi Falk of Greenfield rehearse “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother” in Falk’s home on Friday. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

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  • Susan Hollins and Jodi Falk of Greenfield rehearse “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother” in Falk’s home on Friday. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 1/11/2019 9:43:13 PM

On, off. On, off. It was a quarter to curtain time and they were still sorting out the stage lighting.

“What do you want, Susan? You’re the director.”

“Can you see now?” Susan Hollins replied.

“I can see, but I don’t know if everyone else can.”

“Is that better?”

“It’s better, but... This — yes.”

The five mothers continued to figure out the lighting on the stage (the bimah, or religious stage) and in the pews where the audience would sit before the inaugural community play at Temple Israel in Greenfield, where I got ready to watch a show I knew I’d have to call my mom about later.

After a few weeks of rehearsals for this reader’s theater rendition — and never once with the whole cast — the group of a couple dozen women and one man dressed in drag were set to perform “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother.”

The play was written by Jewish comedian Judy Gold in 2006 and uses semi-autobiographical humor and dozens of interviews from across the country to answer questions of what it means to identify with Judaism — exploring not only the intersection of being Jewish as a cultural identity and a religious doctrine, but also how we form our self-identity, one joke at a time.

Asking questions

The play begins with the lead character, played by Jodi Falk, offering a monologue on motherhood in the Jewish faith.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love my mother. I just don’t want to be her,” Falk reads. Standing next to her is Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener, who plays her mother.

In her role, Cohen-Kiener leaves a worried, hurried voicemail, because she hadn’t heard from her daughter and didn’t know where she was. She jumped to conclusions that she must be in peril.

I thought as I observed their performance: It’s a ring to Jewish guilt, often facilitated by the mother figure in the family; you’ve worried your mother to the point she thinks you’re dead! Look what you’ve done! If only you had called her back when she wanted you to call her then you’d never have left her in such a futz!

“What makes a Jewish mother different from a non-Jewish mother?” the first question of the 2002-scripted play looks to answer.

The theme remains consistent to the primary question, which picks away at not just jokes around guilt and cultural phenomena, defined by a thing or two, or three, of rugelach, but of questions more essential to the fabric of any culture: What defines our community and what does that mean to us?

It was these three weeks where members and non-members of both the synagogue and the Jewish community at-large gathered to rehearse this script saturated with stereotypes that are often an easy laugh within the community. The laughs, though, came secondary to the primary goal: community building.

A play with little barriers for participation, actors simply reading from a script before a mic under a spotlight, brought together people to talk about these written issues, but left them talking about the issues at the heart of the stories of their lives.

Inspiring reflections

On a recent day, a few weeks removed from the play in Greenfield and a few weeks prior to a second rendition of the performance at the Brattleboro Area Jewish Community on Sunday, Feb. 17, Cohen-Kiener explained what it meant to have a play like this in her synagogue.

There were universal themes that stuck with her. She remembered the woman in the group who played the role of a Holocaust survivor, who was born in a prison in Hungary and was born Jewish, but did not grow up with the religion. There was another woman who played the part of someone who survived the Holocaust, too — the former state representative out of Athol, Denise Andrews. When both of them spoke their parts, they walked off stage emotional, Cohen-Kiener said.

“That is what affects us about art,” she said. “It was affecting for the participants.”

The participants were a mix of people who identified with varying connections to Judaism, as well as people of other faiths. The stories, centered around motherhood, facilitated discussions among the actresses.

“Empathy is so important,” Cohen-Kiener said. “It’s almost the only tool you need to do problem-solving.”

She continued, “If we can find the humanness in another person’s storytelling, we’ve done some healing.”

The rabbi’s role as the Jewish mother, complete with all of the stereotypes, was one of comfort for her, channeling memories and movies from her past. Yet, people asked her, “Why are you perpetuating those stereotypes? We’re not all clinging and guilt-tripping.”

“But I think that’s clear from the play; I think the rest of the play is an answer to that question,” Cohen-Kiener said. “How we really are all beyond the stereotypes.”

Slowly but surely, the play is moving out of the friendly confines of Temple Israel. It’ll travel to Brattleboro, Vt., and may be headed to Orange and other towns.

It’s a byproduct that the director of this impromptu reader’s theater group and Greenfield resident Susan Hollins had wanted, but didn’t realize may happen. At the moment, she’s excited simply about what the play’s done for the local community.

“If we don’t do more to talk about the experience and try to build community, understanding how hate impacts lives and where it comes from — so for me, part of the whole effort is making the community a better place for everybody,” Hollins said.

The question of community and how one’s experiences shape it has been a resonating theme, especially when it comes to questions of people’s mothers.

“That’s why this play was so interesting,” Hollins said, “people talking about their experiences growing up.”

Hollins and the play’s lead, performed by Greenfield resident Jodi Falk, were hesitant at first with the script that examines the stereotypes of the Jewish mother. Would it perpetuate stereotypes?

“When I first read the play, I actually was a little hesitant,” Falk said, thinking she “only could do it with discussion and context.”

She said she didn’t want to be a part of the cycle of playing upon her own culture for the laughs as a way to be accepted, a means of assimilation. But then, the participants started acting out the script and people started swapping stories relating to one mother, while others related to a different mother.

“It’s grappling with, struggling with the actual stereotypes, which have roots and some truth,” Falk said. “That’s why the discussions are so rich.”

What helped with the whole process was the type of play they chose — a reader’s play. Participants simply performed a dramatic reading of their part from a script they held with them. Many had not acted before or not for many years.

“People were really drawn to tell the story,” Falk said. “I want to be the play. I want to relive these stories and tell them.”

Questions that the stories in the play raised are still difficult to answer, because they’re complex, generational queries. Falk and Hollins, like Cohen-Kiener, have continued to work through these identity questions, raised by the ordinary gathering of people living in the area reading from a script.

“I’m older,” Hollins said, “but I want to make the world a better place for my children and grandchildren. I think approaching it through the arts is a great way.”

Still playing

Though the actresses read from their script, it did not distract from the purpose of the play. In a way, the relaxedness of the presentation provided easier access to the content, helping to break down any barriers the formality of theater might bring with it.

Reading off of scripts acted as a constant, but subtle, reminder of the presence of the fourth-wall. This was especially effective for someone like myself, sitting in the crowd, Jewish, and asking the same questions that were being answered on stage to myself, internally.

There were topics like naming your children after your dead relatives, your favorite woman in the Bible, your favorite Jewish mother joke — (with the rabbi, in character, offering, ‘What’s the difference between a Jewish mother and a vulture? A vulture doesn’t wait to eat your heart out,’ eliciting hysteria from the dozens in the audience) — how kosher are you and, again, heavier topics like experience with anti-semitism.

Afterward, the actresses encouraged guests to go downstairs and grab a nosh. They said you had to try the rugelach. While I was there, I think at least three mothers asked me if I had eaten and whether I ate enough.

Some people spoke to me about their generation’s and their parents’ generation’s experiences with anti-semitism, wondering how relevant that was to me. It’s different, but it’s the same, I tried to say. I can’t scroll on my Facebook feed these days without seeing a friend post an article about another community that had a swastika drawn over their walls or cemeteries. Recently, one friend posted how it had happened at her college, too.

When speaking with the rabbi, one mother asked me what parts of the play had stuck out to me.

I flipped through my notebook, finding pieces of the chocolate cake I had eaten cemented onto it. I paused, recalling the bit on ‘How often do you speak with your mother?’

“Before the play started, I texted my mom since I hadn’t replied back to her last message yet. I knew if I didn’t, the guilt would only escalate through the play.”

“25 Questions for a Jewish Mother” will be performed next at the Brattleboro Area Jewish Community, 151 Greenleaf St. in Brattleboro, Vt., on Sunday, Feb. 17, at 3 p.m. The show is free to attend.

Staff reporter Joshua Solomon has worked at the Greenfield Recorder since 2017. He covers all things Greenfield. He can be reached at: jsolomon@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 264.


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