Ask Naomi Newman what it’s like to hit the big 9-0, and she gives a straight answer. “It feels similar to 89,” she says dryly. “The experience is quite ordinary.”
“Ordinary” is not a term normally associated with Naomi Newman. As an actor, director, playwright and especially as a co-founder of the pioneering Traveling Jewish Theater, she secured a spot in the Bay Area pantheon of performance art. So when her 90th birthday loomed last Dec. 24, her family, friends and colleagues couldn’t pass up the opportunity to throw a party.
It was a Zoomunion for the ages — “joyous and affirming and beautiful” according to the birthday gal. “It was like I needed to be in touch with everyone in my life.” The festivities included kind words from colleagues past and present, and plenty of music, even a reworking of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” with the name changed to Naomi.
Participants/admirers included San Francisco Jewish Film Festival co-founders Janis Plotkin and Deborah Kaufman, her former TJT colleague Aaron Davidman of “Wrestling Jerusalem” fame, Yiddish dance maven Bruce Bierman and playwright-juggler Sara Felder. They all “spoke about how [TJT’s] work shaped their lives and their work,” Newman said. “It was stunning. I didn’t realize that. They talked about coming into the theater as if they found a home for their soul.”
If this sounds like it was a premature memorial service, forget about that. This was a celebration of a life still in the thick of it.
After more than 60 years on the stage, the Mill Valley resident continues to act, though the pandemic means she’s doing it virtually.
Her latest role is as Reb Eli in an upcoming production of Yiddish writer Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance.” The script turns the original setting (Poland at the beginning of the 20th century) into New York’s Lower East Side circa 1930. Presented by the Yiddish Theatre Ensemble and supported by KlezCalifornia, the videotaped play can be seen online from March 20 to 23; tickets won’t go on sale until Feb. 15, but details are available here.
Newman, whose acting credits on IMDb include three episodes in the late 1960s on the original “Star Trek,” also co-leads and sings in monthly online services at Chochmat HaLev, a Renewal synagogue in Berkeley.
“It takes a lot of work and, to some degree, stress,” she says of her schedule, “but it keeps me sane. I’d go nuts if all I did was sit home or take a walk. I have to stay engaged with my heart, mind and soul.”
Newman was born and raised in Detroit, the daughter of Eastern European immigrants who highly valued the mamaloshen (mother tongue). “My parents were not the immigrants who wanted us not to understand Yiddish,” she says. “They spoke it to us, read the poetry to us. My father kept performing Yiddish poetry and short stories for Yiddish cultural groups. When other Jews went to synagogue, we went to the Yiddish theater.”
That sparked a lifelong love of theater. Her path went from high school drama to opera training in New York and Rome and then to Los Angeles in the late 1960s for serious study with acting teacher Jeff Corey (whose list of students includes Jack Nicholson, Anthony Perkins and Jane Fonda).
It was there that she met a fellow student, Corey Fischer. In 1978, together with Albert Greenberg, they founded A Traveling Jewish Theatre, an amalgam of music, puppetry and improv as an approach to contemporary Jewish storytelling for the stage.
What started in L.A. ended up with a permanent home in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood, though as their original name implied, TJT did travel the world — as many as 60 cities — with its original works, from “The Last Yiddish Poet” to “Heart of the World,” which explored intermarriage. Newman starred in many, but the theater’s adaptation of Israeli writer David Grossman’s novel “See Under: Love,” which she directed, is her favorite.
“That gave me a bigger canvas than I normally worked with,” she recalls. “The staging really was fabulous, with great puppets, and the various levels at which the stories were being told.”
After 33 years, financial pressures finally forced TJT (by then renamed the Jewish Theatre, San Francisco) to close in 2012. “We were an original,” she says with pride. “We created new forms of understanding the multiplicity of experience in ways anyone, Jewish or not, could connect to.”
Fischer died last June from complications from a brain hemorrhage. One doesn’t make it to 90 without experiencing devastating loss. But Newman doesn’t dwell on that. She and her life partner, percussionist Barbara Borden, live in Mill Valley, and take in the nearby wooded beauty with daily strolls. Her daughters, Maya Newman and Jane Henriksen, stay in regular touch, even if only online these days. And meanwhile, the actor prepares.
“As I live my life, I feel so alive, so connected, so in love with life, and with the people I know and the people I don’t know,” she says. “I still feel like a beginner.”