We have our editorial ideas meeting every Wednesday at 3 and, at one such meeting in November 2022, the T editor at large Kurt Soller shared an argument: that it’s the stage, rather than the screen or even the pages of a novel, where Jewish life in the United States has found its most vivid and nuanced expression — and why is that?
Anyone who’s even an occasional theatergoer will recognize the truth of that thesis. So much of what we consider canonical American theater — “Death of a Salesman,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “West Side Story” and “Angels in America,” to name a few — has been written, performed or directed by Jewish people (and sometimes all three, not to mention composed by, designed by, costumed by and produced by). The robust relationship between Jews and the American theater, writes Jesse Green, The New York Times’s chief theater critic, began in the late 19th century with Yiddish theater: “a keepsake of home, and yet also a means of acculturation for the 2.5 million Jews who arrived in the United States between 1881 and 1924. The tradition of popular drama (and especially comedy) was one of the few forms of cultural expression they could bring with them on boats besides their recipes and religion. And if in the old country the Yiddish theater looked mostly inward, addressing its own communities, in the new country, especially in New York, where most Jews settled, it began to move outward.”
On the Covers
Kurt’s pitch had also been motivated by a desire to address the rising tide of antisemitic hate crimes, in both this country and abroad, and to explore how theater was responding to it. Antisemitism is one of the most widespread and enduring forms of bigotry, a sickness as old as Western civilization, and for American Jews in theater, Green writes, fear has led to a “sometimes self-imposed (and sometimes viciously enforced) invisibility of Jewishness … the result of a fear of offense or habit of disguise that evolved as a kind of protection for Jews both onstage and off.” The question for many Jewish Americans (in theater and in general), Green says, is whether there was some golden mean of assimilation that they should have, could have, achieved — something that would have kept them safe but also present.
But along with these topics, Green’s essay is also about the singular joy of seeing and making theater. I’ve always said that I’d rather see a mediocre play than a good movie because part of the thrill of theater is knowing that we’re participating in one of the oldest art forms in history. The audience, the actors and the crew are in collaboration: They’re creating an artificial world, and we’re allowing ourselves to be seduced by it. In an age in which everything can be tweaked, edited, redone or enhanced, a theatrical performance simply exists — its imperfections are inseparable from its visceral power. It’s perhaps why theater invites from us a heightened sense of what the great American, and Jewish, playwright Tony Kushner calls “empathic imagination”; the actor onstage may not be old or British or white or male, but we believe them to be, say, King Lear. We may not be old or British or white or male, either, but we see in the character something we understand or pity or dread. If the primary triumph of art is that it allows us to see into another’s life, its second is that it reminds us that the universality of the human experience is found within the specifics of that other life … but also exists beyond and above them.
It’s a good lesson to remember as we navigate our current era, and it in fact seems worth revisiting the entirety of what Kushner said in our 2021 profile of him. “I have a profound disagreement,” he told The Times’s critic A.O. Scott, “with anyone who says that a person imagining another kind of person, another culture, is an act of violence or supremacism or appropriation. I absolutely believe that one of the great pleasures of art, and one of the great reasons that we have it, is to be able to witness leaps of empathic imagination.” Empathic imagination: Let us all have more of it — without it, we are doomed.
Covers: On-set styling by Delphine Danhier. On-set hair by Tamas Tuzes. On-set makeup by Linda Gradin. Set design by Christine Jones