How Terry Sue Became Tovah


By Masha Leon

Published August 01, 2003, issue of August 01, 2003.
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Trim and elegant in an ecru suit, Tovah Feldshuh mounted the Center for Jewish History’s auditorium stage for the July 14 American Jewish Historical Society-sponsored “dialogue” with Rabbi William Berkowitz. A veteran of more than 500 celebrity interviews over the past 51 years, the rabbi managed a few commentaries during “intermissions” in what evolved into a Feldshuh bravura “one-woman” show.

Feldshuh raised the curtain by introducing the audience to an off-stage cast that included her “litigator” father, Sidney, “who believed in me”; her no-nonsense, hard-of-hearing mother, Lillian (“Lilly”), whom she mocked: “I’m going to see you in the ‘Virginia Monologues’ — I can’t say that word”; her adoring husband, Andrew Harris Levy, aka JWA “Jew Without an Accent,” and her Hebrew teacher Malcolm Thomson, “a rabbi who became a stockbroker at Sanford Bernstein.”

“My boyfriend did not like my name, Terry Sue… or my nickname Midge … so I told him [that] in Hebrew school I was called Tovah. He liked that. It took a righteous Christian to give me my name,” she said. While performing in Minnesota, Feldshuh discovered that Tovah is a Scandinavian name. “I was a landsman…. There was no sense of the Semite related to my name…. I come to New York and Israel falls on my head!… [With the name Tovah], I had to fight to be Katharine Hepburn.”

Feldshuh stopped mid-sentence, saying, “The kettle is boiling!” She demanded that a “darling” in the darkened auditorium turn off her “whistling hearing aid.”

“The Jewish roles have been the hallmark of my career,” Feldshuh said, citing “Yentl,” “Holocaust,” “Kissing Jessica Stein” and “Golda’s Balcony.” “I will not audition for Broadway… Jewish roles,” she said. “You will offer me the role or not.” Then, with eyes narrowed, she confided, “I’ve never been cast in a Neil Simon play. Now that’s a pisser, I tell you.”

Feldshuh immersed herself in Boro Park life in preparation for her title role in the 1976 Broadway production of “Yentl,” based on the Isaac Bashevis Singer story. “I spent Shabbes at [my teacher’s] house with his 8,000 children, wore his wife’s sheytl, dressed as a yeshiva bokher. He snuck me into the yeshiva… but I wore gloves, so God forbid I did not touch.”

Asked to bare her breasts when she reveals herself as a woman in Act II of “Yentl,” Feldshuh refused. The powers that be threatened to jettison her. “So Isaac says to me: ‘Tovah, why won’t you show your breasts?’ So I tell him, ‘To you, Mr. Singer, I will. To 1,000 people in the theater, I won’t!’” She didn’t, and she kept the role.

Berkowitz, who had been Singer’s rabbi and officiated at his funeral, amplified: “[Singer] received death threats from members of the Orthodox community because of the play and moved out of his apartment. Only I had his phone number.” He then imparted a tidbit about Singer’s headstone at Cedar Park cemetery. “Alma, his widow… a very stubborn woman… did not check with me. And that’s why the headstone reads: ‘I.B. Singer, Noble Prize Winner!’”

Throughout the evening, Feldshuh justifiably touted “Golda’s Balcony,” which reopens on Broadway October 4. Her portrayal as Golda Meir won her across-the-board raves as well as the 2003 Lucille Lortel “Best Actress” Award and the 2003 Drama Desk Award for best solo performance. Go see!

* * *

At the Sunday “One People — One World” gala opening of Hadassah’s 89th National Convention held July 13 through July 16 at the New York Hilton, the 2,300 national and international delegates in the hotel ballroom were lauded as “practical dreamers who show the world how an army of courageous women [and more than 300,000 members worldwide] can dream of a better world and make it happen.” That evening, Rona Ramon, wife of Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut who died in the February explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia, was presented with the Henrietta Szold Award, named for Hadassah’s founder.

Keynote speaker Irwin Cotler, a member of the Canadian Parliament representing Mount Royal in suburban Montreal, decried “the unwillingness of the Palestinian leadership to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state.” Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, noted Israel’s “determination to do its utmost toward implementing the ‘road map.’”

Islam was very much a convention issue. At the “Is Islam Becoming Our Business?” panel discussion, Matthew Levitt, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former FBI intelligence analyst, noted: “I have no problem with Islam or Islamic charitable giving, but the radical bend [of Islam] has gained tremendous momentum…. [According to Islamic law] Muslims must give to charity… and [unscrupulous] people are taking advantage of honorable citizens.”

Who would be more apt to entertain at the closing banquet than Tovah Feldshuh? After performing an excerpt from “Golda’s Balcony,” she told the following good-for-the-immune-system joke: “Why are married women fatter than single women? Because single women come home and look in the fridge, then go to bed. Married women come home, look in bed and go to the fridge.”

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