Like many other avid Jewish theatergoers, I was deeply saddened — though not utterly surprised — to learn that TJT, the Jewish Theatre, San Francisco, was announcing it is folding at the end of the upcoming 35th season.
Saddened because Jewish theater has always been my true passion, and because I have several fond memories from TJT. Yet unsurprised, as TJT’s fidgeting for quite a few years now was no secret, and the end seemed inevitable. But I was also furious to see TJT’s devoted Executive Director Sara Schwartz Geller pose the question, in the San Francisco Chronicle, “whether there is still a need for a specifically Jewish theater in the Bay Area.”
Is there need in the Bay Area for a theater that reflects (and struggles with) Jewish experience? If there is room for Jewish films, music and fine arts, why should theater be excluded?
For seven years now, the new JCC San Francisco has been a vibrant cultural center in the city, and hopefully, the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto is taking a similar path. We just bade farewell to Peter Stein, who upgraded the S.F. Jewish Film Festival and helped establish it as a leading film festival among the many in the Bay Area (furthermore, two additional Jewish film festivals thrive in the East Bay and Silicon Valley). Three years ago, the once–small scale Jewish Museum San Francisco turned into the state-of-the-art Contemporary Jewish Museum — a world-class destination.
While struggling, like all the arts often do, Jewish theaters can and do flourish, such as the Jewish Theater of New York, Theater J. in Washington, D.C., and many others. Since its birth in 1876, Jewish theater has become one of the most cherished cultural institutions in the Jewish world. Israel has held, for decades, a world record in theater attendance. It’s long been established that we, the People of the Book, have become the People of the Playbill.
Why should the local Jewish cultural scene be that different? Are we too assimilated? Too sophisticated? Too blasé?
A little over a century after the birth of Jewish theater, the Traveling Jewish Theatre was founded in 1978, and four years later moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Sadly, even though it eventually found its own cozy space on Florida Street, and eventually departed from the “traveling” bit of its title, and then bid (a partial) farewell to its founders, it never truly settled down and wholeheartedly matured. Instead of becoming wise, TJT seemed to have wizened. Eternal rebels risk turning into artistic Fidel Castros.
In his decade or so as artistic director, Aaron Davidman indeed made ambitious attempts to take TJT into the new era. We have fond memories of “See under: Love,” collaborations with “Word for Word,” “The Dybbuk,” “Death of a Salesman,” “Stateless,” “Fabrik” and, recently, “Lost in Yonkers.”
Yet, apparently, Davidman, Schwartz Geller and founders Naomi Newman and Corey Fischer never felt genuinely comfortable with the idea of conforming. Is it because conforming means professionalizing, giving up eternal rebellion for the sake of collaboration, and letting go of one’s adolescence for responsible adulthood?
What if the New Jewish Theater (an imaginary venture I’ll call TNJT) were to fortify, rather than rebel against, its collaboration and affiliation with existing Jewish cultural institutions — such as the JCCSF and its Kanbar Hall (or the CJM (with its less theater-adept performance space)?
What if TNJT were to bravely and nobly fold its flashy, non-aligned banner in return for reassuring backing and patronage from an existing Jewish cultural institution like the JCCSF? Such an institution can also provide professional management and marketing, production tools, space and services, artistic context and a much-needed audience. Theater J. in Washington, D.C., thrives — while still revolting and playing the enfant terrible — under the auspices of the DCJCC.
And what if TNJT were to incorporate in its repertoire plays from the ever so creative Israeli theater? (Beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, TJT has failed to produce a single play by an Israeli playwright in its 34 seasons.) Or more classics from the English language? (Never fear established drama!) And Yiddish theater (beyond “the Dybbuk”)? Some, God-forbid, audience-pleasing pieces? And more visiting productions?
I’m guessing, based on the past and the interview with Schwartz Geller that I read, that the current TJT considers itself a mismatch for such a conventional vision.
This should not mean that we, both arts and culture professionals and enthusiasts in the Bay Area Jewish community, should let go of our own dream. Let’s bring the curtain up on a fresh, revitalized Jewish theater.
Donny Inbar is the associate director for arts and culture at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Israel Center. He is a theater professional and holds a Ph.D. in Jewish theater.