“Let my name be remembered with laughter,” said Sholem Aleichem, the man whose tales became the basis for a little musical called “Fiddler on the Roof.” On Sunday, a worldwide celebration of the writings of Aleichem, who died in 1916, was performed — virtually of course.
The event may prove a comforting salve for millions who share Aleichem’s religious roots, and perhaps even for those who don’t. (After all, did anyone not weepily relate when Tevye sang “Sunrise, Sunset”?) Many viewers of all faiths have streamed “Unorthodox,” endlessly rerun Larry and Jerry’s sitcom kvetching, gone to a nearby stage to see Joshua Harmon’s “Bad Jews” (which in 2015 was one of the most produced plays of the year) and anxiously await Mrs. Maisel’s return.
Modern-day Aleichems, like Harmon, work hard to find the humor behind a troubled history. And they are not having a great spring. Daniel Okrent, who has written scholarly books (on subjects like Prohibition and eugenics) and served as the public editor of the New York Times, has co-written, with Peter Gethers, “Old Jews Telling Jokes.” It was about to open a six-week run at the Colony Theater in Los Angeles when the coronavirus struck. “The only comfort I take for the postponement is that when we’re finally past this horrible crisis, the world will need Jewish humor as much as ever,” Okrent said. “After all, Jews have been using it to deal with catastrophes for centuries.”
Wendy Kout also manages to mix laughter and loss in “We Are the Levinsons,” which was in rehearsal at the New Jewish Theatre in St. Louis before theaters shut down. Michelle Kholos Brooks does the same with “Hitler’s Tasters,” which had just started a run at the Electric Lodge Theatre in Venice. Brooks has a pretty good role model, in her father-in-law Mel Brooks, who famously made the Fuhrer seem funny.
The entire live theater community is suffering during the pandemic and its aftermath. And while there have been countless plays over the years dealing with other religions (“Doubt,” Agnes of God,” “The Book of Mormon”), there are an active number of companies that only perform Jewish-themed material. They are finding it challenging to smile — let alone laugh — at this moment. “How do we stay relevant when we are not functioning?” asked Adam Immerwahr, who runs Theatre J in Washington, D.C. (So far, by offering classes and streaming.) “How do I keep my (650) subscribers engaged and committed when physically separate?” echoed Barbara Brooks, of the Minnesota Jewish Theatre. (She offers online conversations with past artists.)
Ronda Spinak, head of the Jewish Women’s Theatre in West Los Angeles (which produced the hit “Not That Jewish”), is considering performing shows outside, since her venue is connected to a parking lot. Drive-in movies are returning, so why not drive-in theater? In fact, Spinak’s idea is to remove automobiles and put some social-distanced chairs out there instead. All the companies are cautiously planning future seasons, thinking small casts and low tech.
Meanwhile, the artists whose work often fills those stages are hardly hibernating. Monica Piper, former Emmy winner and the star-writer of “Not That Jewish,” is working on the Nickelodeon reboot of “Rugrats.” Wendy Kout is busy writing “Jacob the Baker” with Noah benShea, based on his best-selling books. Michelle Brooks is working on “War Words,” about soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Will her religion seep in? “Judaism is not a factor, per se,” she said, “but it seeks to understand the impulse of people to identify and demonize ‘the other.’ Trying to work out that problem, of course, goes to the very core of being Jewish.”
And The Jewish Women’s Theatre is now offering its supporters a platform to tell their own stories: including those who have chosen to convert. (Old Jews, bad Jews, not-so Jews. So why not new Jews?) Stories, after all, are what Sholem Aleichem left behind.