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.