Many people have used the past couple of years as a time for self-reflection and often dramatic career shifts. For Noah Schoenberg, that shift came when he took his first online writing course in January 2020.
Now, at 28, he’s showcasing his first play, written two years earlier.
The Bala Cynwyd native became a bar mitzvah at Congregation Beth Am Israel, where he also attended Hebrew school. His family later attended Adath Israel on the Main Line in Merion Station.
Schoenberg had a very different idea of his future when he set out to college, completing his undergraduate studies at Macalester College in applied math and neuroscience.
Schoenberg always had an interest in writing but, after some time at home watching classic films with his grandmother, he came to a realization.
“I just couldn’t stop thinking about film and writing in general,” he said.
He began his journey with a writing class called “Gotham,” which led to several other online writing courses where Schoenberg’s creativity flourished.
“Once I started writing, my interest and capacity were clear to me,” Schoenberg said.
The play “Lev of Leningrad” is a comedy-drama inspired by the story of Lev and Marina Furman, Jewish refuseniks and Soviet-Jewish activists whose journey eventually led them to Philadelphia. The term refusenik typically refers to Soviet Jews denied permission to emigrate from the Soviet Union, typically to Israel.
Schoenberg was introduced to the Furmans’ story by his longtime friend, Michal Furman, the younger daughter of Lev Furman and an Israeli-American officer in the Philadelphia Police Department. He was inspired to begin writing after a Shabbat dinner at the Furmans’ home when Marina Furman asked Schoenberg if he would like to take a shot at telling their story.
Lev Furman, originally an engineer, is now a hospice rabbi in Philadelphia. Schoenberg has looked up to him for a long time.
“I consider him to be the greatest guy that I know,” Schoenberg said. “They are inspiring for a lot of reasons and, in their own right, a sort of classic American immigrant story.”
While Schoenberg appreciates both films and plays, he decided it was more practical to tell the Furmans’ story as a play. He reasoned that building any sort of historical world, especially for film, is a costly endeavor.
The decision on whether to write the story for film or as a play was ultimately based on how well Schoenberg thought Lev Furman’s story could best impact the audience. While film has the advantage of zooming in on an object or a letter, flashbacks, which are central to Schoenberg’s storytelling, are better suited to the stage, he said.
“Lev as a character is so engaging and dynamic, I thought a live performance would really bring the audience in,” Schoenberg said.
“Lev of Leningrad” follows the Furmans’ story from Soviet Russia to Israel to Philadelphia, where Lev Furman is faced with a changing world full of diverse people and their stories.
The play will feature live music performed by Cantor Jacob Agar, who Schoenberg met at Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park. Agar is an opera singer and composer who has committed to doing the music for the play, according to Schoenberg.
The play debuted at the Fulton Theater in Lancaster during its inaugural Stories of Diversity festival in 2021. “Lev of Leningrad” was selected as one of three finalists and received a staged reading. Between the rehearsals that week and the performance, Schoenberg became convinced that his dramatic career change was the right decision.
“There’s nothing like it. I’ve never had more fun than in those rehearsals,” he said.
Schoenberg has advice for young people considering switching to a career in creativity.
“Living at home (with his family) allowed me to save up a nest egg of money. [You need to] live as cheaply and efficiently as you can for a year or two before you make the jump. You will have to sacrifice your time so you can write at your best — I’m a morning writer. Be ruthless in protecting that time; you need to be at your freshest and best to even have any chance at doing this. Put yourself in a position to succeed,” Schoenberg said.
Schoenberg isn’t done telling Jewish stories, though. An upcoming project will tell the story of his grandmother, who was raised in Bucharest, Romania.
A staged reading of “Lev of Leningrad” will take place on June 29 at 7 p.m. at InterAct Theatre in Philadelphia. Tickets are pay-what-you-wish. All proceeds will be donated to Sunflower of Peace, an organization dedicated to helping Ukrainians affected by the Russian military invasion.