How 'Stars of David' Made Leap From Page to Stage

Author Recounts Her Book's Musical Adventure

Merrily She Rolls Along: For Abigail Pogrebin, the musical is the culmination of a lifelong obsession.
Lorin Klaris
Merrily She Rolls Along: For Abigail Pogrebin, the musical is the culmination of a lifelong obsession.

By Abigail Pogrebin

Published November 22, 2013, issue of November 29, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

I’m hesitant to admit that I believe in the concept of bashert, the notion that something was inevitable or orchestrated.

But I also think it’s no accident that I’ve landed at this entirely unexpected juncture, where my childhood obsession with theater has joined my adult profession as a writer and fueled the Jewish exploration that has come to matter more to me than I would have ever predicted.

Somehow, an off-Broadway musical has materialized from “Stars of David,” a book I wrote 10 years ago about Jewish identity. When I interviewed 62 public figures about their connection to — or detachment from — their birthright, it obviously never occurred to me that these conversations would someday take musical shape, written by some of my childhood theater heroes: Sheldon Harnick, Marvin Hamlisch and my newer favorites — Jeanine Tesori and Duncan Sheik.

But these days, instead of staring at my laptop, I’ve been sitting in a small theater called the DR2, watching four talented actors sing the stories of the “celebrities” I spoke to years ago — Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Leonard Nimoy, Joan Rivers and others.

Director Gordon Greenberg is crafting what he’s dubbed “The Jewish ‘Working’” — referring to the 1978 musical based on Studs Terkel’s interviews with members of the American workforce. Each song in “Stars of David” is based on a specific interview from my book, composed by a separate songwriter or songwriting team. Sheik and Steven Sater, of Tony-winning “Spring Awakening” fame, wrote the song for Kenneth Cole’s chapter. Amanda Green (recently nominated for “Hands on a Hard Body”) contributed the songs for Joan Rivers and Fran Drescher. Alan and Marilyn Bergman (“Yentl”) adapted their own chapter. The portraits that make up the show are those that have survived the workshop process after three years of trial and error.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I see myself in every lyric — in the leitmotifs of Jewish inconsistency, pride, responsibility and even self-parody. I normally consider myself a fairly detached reporter when it comes to researching a story. But I haven’t felt the least bit detached from these songs or from the testimonies that gave rise to them. The original interviews triggered a Jewish alertness back when I started the book, in 2003, and continued to tug as I traveled to speak at Jewish community centers, synagogues and federations around the country. Now that this dialogue is continuing musically, the examination feels more visceral than when it was just on the page. As each new song was delivered electronically to my email box in an mp3 file (or in those memorable instances when the composer played the song live for me and the producers), the words triggered a different Jewish memory or association.

Tony Kushner’s song likens Judaism to a “house so big,” which has a “room for you in it somewhere, if you want.” That encapsulates what I’ve learned about the tradition: You can meet it wherever you are, at whatever stage of your life.

Joan Rivers’s description of the rare simplicity she feels in synagogue every Yom Kippur, as contrasted with her manic daily life, echoes my gratitude for how the High Holy Days force me to get off the hamster wheel.

Gloria Steinem was a center of gravity at the feminist Seder I attended growing up, and her song in the show reminds me of how that ritual — co-created by my mother, Letty Cottin Pogrebin in 1976 — changed my view of tradition. I’ll never forget watching all the women go around the table, washing each other’s hands and naming their foremothers.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.