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.
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Each song is a story that retraces my steps, makes me ask myself questions I’d only asked others, confirms that the answers are never one-dimensional. And I am acutely aware of all the random connections, which now don’t feel random at all.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as it turned out, had experienced, as a teenager in Brooklyn, the exact same exclusion from the mourner’s minyan that my mother had suffered as a teenager in Queens. Both their mothers died of cancer and were forbidden to say Kaddish because they were female. I wrote the Ginsburg lyric about that specific moment, and Tom Kitt, whose wife grew up with my close friend (another coincidence) in Scarsdale, N.Y., composed the song.

Which leads me to Aaron Sorkin, who also grew up in Scarsdale, and whose song — by Richard Maltby and David Shire (“Baby”) — touches on that unmistakable, as Sorkin puts it, Scarsdale-“sound-of-intelligence,” which he grew up hearing and which, he said, informs all his scripts.

My childhood family friend, Aaron Harnick, whom I used to ignore on play dates because his older sister was the one I came to play with, is now a producer who hatched the idea for a show; he read my book and thought the interviews could become songs.

He knew that the perfect A-list producer would be Daryl Roth, who has an intuitive feel for Jewish material. When Roth took on the project, it just so happened that her grandchildren were studying for their b’nai mitzvah and her grandson was being tutored by the same cantorial student tutoring my daughter — the power singer Sheera Ben-David, who has a cabaret act on the side.

Aaron Harnick’s uncle, Sheldon Harnick, agreed to write a song early on. And like so many people my age, “Fiddler” was the first show I ever saw. And Chava was my freshman-year role in college.

The plainest convergence wasn’t any one coincidence, but rather my long-standing passion for musical theater. I grew up as a show tune addict — a sap for the soaring refrain or that “tune you can hum,” to quote Stephen Sondheim. At age 16, I had the improbable good fortune to be cast in a Broadway show — a Sondheim musical called “Merrily We Roll Along,” directed by Harold Prince and co-starring Jason Alexander. Sadly, it closed after only two weeks. One lyric fragment has come rushing back to me as I’ve watched this recent adventure unfold: “How did you get here from there?”

Back in 2003, when I decided to ask prominent American Jews to tell me whether their Judaism mattered, I was basically unmoored myself. A twice-a-year synagogue-goer who lit Friday candles occasionally, I attended two annual Seders (plus the feminist edition) but didn’t really understand the origins of the Haggadah. When my first child, Benjamin, was carried to the bris pillow from his bassinet, I looked through tears at the yarmulke tilted on his tiny head and asked myself if I could possibly explain to him one day why I’d chosen to do this. I realized how little I knew, how ill equipped I was to pass on anything.

But then I started to study Torah to prepare myself for the interviews in my book and to compensate for the Jewish education I never received. This led me to choose to become an adult bat mitzvah, which led me to seek out more study (at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Mechon Hadar, Limmud NY), which led me to inherit the family Seder duties.

The final rung on the ladder was a casual visit to Central Synagogue for a friend’s daughter’s bat mitzvah. The compelling service made me make the impulsive decision to join. It turned into a fast immersion, which now lands me in the synagogue’s pews most Friday nights.

This is where I find myself today. And no, it doesn’t feel accidental.

I grew up loving musicals and was lucky enough to be in one. And now, my first book has become one.

I grew up half-in, half out Jewishly. I listened to famous Jews describe themselves the same way, and decided I wanted to go deeper myself.

I’m not the first to discover the complexity in this particular inheritance of ours, but I do think the whole megillah somehow lends itself to music.

So, call it unlikely, but “Stars of David” is now a musical. And I’m more Jewish. And I think it was bashert.

*Abigail Pogrebin is the author of “Stars of David,” “One and the Same” and “Showstopper.” She moderates an interview series at the JCC in Manhattan. *


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