A Blossoming Jewish Arts and Culture Scene This Spring

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A breakdown of the Jewish artists, writers and musicians that will account for some of this spring’s most anticipated events.

Spring is almost here and flowers aren’t the only things about to bloom. Philadelphia’s vibrant arts and culture scene (the city was chosen by Travel and Leisure magazine as the No.1 city in America for culture in 2011, after all) is about to kick into high gear. With a lineup that’s bursting at the seams with options, it’s no surprise that Jewish artists, writers and musicians account for some of this spring’s most anticipated events.

Making Book


For literary fans, there are a number of major authors coming to town. The Free Library of Philadelphia, always the go-to place for the hottest authors, has a spectacular lineup that includes Barney Frank, the gay former U.S. congressman from Massachusetts, who will discuss his book, Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage (March 23); legendary composer Philip Glass, talking about his book, Words Without Music (April 7); and the artist/writer Bruce Eric Kaplan, who will dish from his new memoir, I Was a Child (April 16). They’re so hot that they’re already sold out in the main auditorium, although simulcast overflow tickets are still available. Also on the lineup is Sandy Tolan and his book, Children of the Stone (May 6), the true story of a Palestinian musician from a refugee camp and the Israeli artist who helps him make a career.

If you’re into fiction, don’t miss a local appearance (May 12) by author Gary Shteyngart at the National Museum of American Jewish History, presented in part with the Feinstein Center of American Jewish History. Shteyngart will be talking about his very funny new memoir Little Failure, which covers his family’s emigration from Russia to New York in prose that’s both hilarious and heartbreaking. Also appearing at the museum is wunderkind author Dara Horn (The World to Come; All Other Nights) who will talk about the life of seminal figure and thinker Solomon Schechter on March 16, in a program presented by the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies.

Marquee Names

Moving from the page to the stage, Philly will be home to several plays with Jewish themes this spring. InterAct Theatre will host the world premiere of Seth Rozin’s (author of Two Jews Walk into a War) The Three Christs of Manhattan, a new absurdist comedy about an atheist Jewish psychiatrist who is visited by three men who each thinks that he’s the son of God. Rozin’s play, on stage from May 29 to June 21, should have you laughing out loud as you ponder some big philosophical questions about life and religion.

For something equally lighthearted, don’t miss a local appearance by musical theater funny man Seth Rudetsky (host of SiriusFM’s “On Broadway” talk show) and his one-man show, Deconstructing Broadway (March 8 at The Gershman Y), which takes audiences into the wildly funny world of Broadway divas like Patti LuPone and Barbra Streisand.

For fans of great musical theater, Philly audiences will have the rare opportunity to catch a concert production of A New Brain by Tony Award-winning gay Jewish composer/lyricist William Finn on March 28 and 29 by 11th Hour Theatre Company. Finn’s deeply moving, gorgeously tuneful — and funny — show about a man diagnosed with a brain tumor features a delightful cast of neurotically Jewish characters.

Meanwhile, at People’s Light and Theater in Malvern, you can find Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical play Biloxi Blues (April 29 to May 24) about a young Jewish man’s coming of age at a boot camp during World War II.

And for fans of public radio game shows and legal thrillers, Salon Ariel will stage the play, Denial, written by Peter Sagal of NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. It is a drama about a Jewish First Am­endment lawyer who takes on the case of a Holocaust denier.

Seder Traditions

Springtime also means Passover and, while we typically think of this as a religious holiday, two Philadelphia institutions have put their own arts and culture spins on the iconic holiday. First, The Gershman Y continues their now annual Philadelphia Seder on March 15, featuring award-winning comedian Joel Chasnoff and acclaimed Yiddish Gospel singer Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell. The event will also feature delicious food from around the world and a trio of jazz musicians.  

Meanwhile, the National Museum of American Jewish History will play host to their third annual Freedom Seder on March 25, which takes its inspiration from the original 1969 Freedom Seder, where hundreds of people of all backgrounds gathered to explore and celebrate freedom in the context of the civil rights movement. The evening, which will feature a kosher dinner, will be full of moving stories and engaging, meaningful discussions about civil rights today.

Getting a Leg up

For lovers of dance and movement, there’s no absence of that in town. The Pennsylvania Ballet salutes the Jewish golden boy of dance, Jerome Robbins, in a program devoted entirely to his work (May 7 to 10), including Fancy Free, which inspired the musical On the Town (currently playing on Broadway), and The Concert. The evening will also include the company premiere of Robbins’ In G Major, which features music by Ravel. Known for bridging the worlds of modern dance, classical ballet and Broadway, Robbins was a master of choreography and this tribute should delight all dance fans. If you’re searching for an evening of dance with a truly local connection, look no further than the latest work by Koresh Dance Company with Aftershock, a world premiere on March 26 and 27 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. The new piece by artistic director Roni Koresh is inspired by Koresh’s emigration from Israel in the 1980s and his coming to terms with the culture shock of moving to Am­erica. Raw, po­wer­ful and athletic, Aftershock highlights the tension of cultures crashing against one another.

Making a Note

Down the block at the Kimmel Center, one of Robbins’ collaborators, Leonard Bernstein, also gets some first-class attention from the Philadelphia Orchestra with a production of Mass. Originally commissioned to open the Kennedy Center in 1971 and featuring lyrics by Jewish Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz of Wicked fame, Mass is one of Bernstein’s greatest works, but not really known or regularly performed. It’s a huge artistic undertaking that requires a full orchestra, multiple soloists, a lead singer, two choruses including a children’s chorus, dancers and a marching band. Although the work takes its form from the Catholic tradition, when seen through Bernstein’s Jewish eyes, it becomes a melodic and stirring musical questioning of the breakdown of faith and religion in our society.

Digging into some deeper issues around Jews and music, Temple University’s Feinstein Center for American Jewish History wraps up a year of its “Sounds Jewish” series of explorations into Jewish culture and music with a free symposium on March 26 at Temple University. The day of talks and panel discussions features a lineup of some of the Jewish world’s top musicians, including Basya Schecter (Pha­raoh’s Daughter) and Galeet Dardashti, and will be followed by a live concert of Jewish music at the Gershman Y that evening.

Classical music isn’t the only option this spring. Two Jewish pop superstars also make their return to the City of Brotherly Love. Neil Diamond comes to the Wells Fargo Center on March 15. Expect songs like “Sweet Caroline” (… bum bum bum), “Coming to America” and songs from his brand-new album, Melody Road. Then, jumping ahead to June 16, Bette Midler also makes an appearance at the Wells Fargo Center with a tour of her new album, It’s the Girls!, which celebrates the music of girl groups including the Shangri-Las and the Andrews Sisters. The new album is fun and sassy, and Midler is always an engaging performer who, after years of headlining in Vegas, really knows how to entertain her adoring fans.

A Screen Sweep

Finally, for cineastes, there are two options this spring. The Israeli Film Festival (which is also featured in this issue) returns for a three-week engagement on March 7. And the Gershman Y’s CineMondays returns to venues all over town. From a documentary on Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer to Mr. Kaplan, an Uruguayan feature film about a Polish Holocaust survivor turned “Nazi hunter,” there’s something to entertain everyone in this series, which plays Mondays March 23 to May 4.
 

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