Onstage, stories illuminate differences between sexes

What do men and women really think?

Getting to the bottom of that mystifying question is the intent behind “He Said … She Said,” an upcoming show at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto. Produced by Jewish Women’s Theatre, the intimate production features performers reading personal stories about family and relationships that offer both male and female points of view.

Graham Sibley and Kate Zentall act out “Love Note.” photo/jan burns

Contributed by playwrights, storytellers and television writers, the pieces tackle subjects ranging from first  love to infidelity to mourning. “Off to the Races” interweaves two stories told by a man and a woman describing their first date. “The Promise of Paradise” portrays how ritual helped writer Vicki Juditz, along with her daughter, recover from her husband’s death.

“We bring the art form of salon theater to people in their communities,” said Jewish Women’s Theatre co-founder and artistic director Ronda Spinak.

The Los Angeles–based company, which aims to upend traditional depictions of Jewish women, got its start in private homes, according to Spinak , presenting its first show in 2008 in a backyard with an audience of 10.

“Jewish women hosting salons is actually a very old tradition from the age of Enlightenment,” said Spinak. She points to famous examples in Europe, such as Ada Leverson, who hosted Oscar Wilde in Britain, and Geneviève Straus, who hosted Marcel Proust in France, as grand dames of the intellectual salon tradition.

Today, Jewish Women’s Theatre keeps salons alive by presenting moving, personal stories from Jewish women around themes including motherhood, forgiveness and relationships in the Inter-net age.

From the start, the company has attracted talented Jewish writers and actors, such as former “Saturday Night Live” writer Alan Zweibel and performer Laraine Newman.

Ronda Spinak

“We were lucky because we live in L.A., where there are a lot of Hollywood writers who don’t get to write their Jewish stories for Hollywood, and a lot of actors for TV who don’t get to do theater as much as they like,” said Spinak, a playwright and former writer for the children’s TV show “Rugrats.”

Jewish Women’s Theatre creates three shows a year, each on a different theme, and takes them to JCCs, synagogues, museums and people’s homes.

Each show is about an hour and consists of eight or nine pieces, which are a mix of original writings and poems, along with essays collected from books, blogs, newspaper articles and other sources.

 Once, a piece came from a story Spinak’s rabbi told during the Yom Kippur sermon; Spinak got permission to write it up and use it in a play. The writers and actors usually are women, though an exception is being made for “He Said … She Said.” The actors speak mostly from memory but hold binders that contain their lines. “The binders disappear; people don’t even see them anymore. We are focused on the word,” Spinak said.

Now that Jewish Women’s Theatre has a full library of shows from previous seasons, it regularly reprises them for special events. Before the High Holy Days, Jewish venues like to book the show about forgiveness; around Mother’s Day, the company will perform “Oh, Mother!” at a half-dozen different events. Last year, the company did more than 50 shows, Spinak said.

The JCC in Palo Alto will host Jewish Women’s Theatre three times this year; after “He Said … She Said” on Feb. 2, the company will perform “Uncuffed,” a Passover-themed show about people breaking the chains that bind them, on March 31, and “Reckoning with Dad” on June 1, just in time for Father’s Day.

“He Said … She Said,” 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 2 at Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. $20-$30.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a J. parenting columnist and former staff writer. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two sons.