‘Golem’ Considers Death, Associated Jewish Rituals

From left: Logan Gabrielle Schulman and Benjamin Behrend | Photos by Noah S. Thompson

At the Old City Jewish Arts Center, playwrights and theater artists Logan Gabrielle Schulman and Benjamin Behrend are trying something new: an art exhibition.

For Schulman and Behrend, who met as teachers at Congregation Rodeph Sholom before expanding their partnership, it’s a totally new experience, one born out of calamity.

“The exhibition basically came about because the pandemic screwed up everything else,” Behrend said.

“A Golem Sleeps and Wakes in the Mourning,” which opened on June 4, is a combination of new work and reconfigured set pieces from previous performances of Schulman and Behrend. The exhibit runs through July 2 and features images, objects, filmed performances and interactive spaces.

On June 25 and July 2, the pair will present live performances called “Time, Collapsed” — complete with live musical accompaniment, dance and puppetry — alongside public conversations with Aleida Garcia, founder of the National Homicide Justice Alliance; Roz Pichardo, founder of Save Our City Philly; and Benjamin Bass, who will perform in “Time, Collapsed” alongside Griffin Rowe.

“A Golem Sleeps and Wakes in the Mourning” covers many of the same themes that Schulman and Behrend explored in their virtual play, “Welcome to the Shiva House,” produced during last year’s Philadelphia Fringe Festival. In that performance, audiences were made to participate in a Zoom shiva, led by Schulman and Behrend, for a fictional character named Sam Bloom.

“Golem” grapples with death and Jewish death ritual in a similarly participatory way, inviting audiences to look into a mirror covered in lace and tool around with an overhead projector. Sometimes the similarities between the show and the exhibition are literal, rather than thematic: Viewers can watch clips of “Welcome to the Shiva House” while they flip through the program that accompanied it.

“This is basically a retrospective of our partnership over the past four years,” Behrend said.

The exhibition, which came about after Schulman and Behrend answered an open call from OCJAC, asks viewers to think about themes like death, abandonment, gun violence, the pandemic and our responsibilities to each other. The names of children killed by gun violence in 2021 are written on butcher paper, rolled into the shape of a megillah; images beckoning viewers in from off the street are displayed on obsolete television screens. The Golem is a frequent touchpoint for the artists, as well.

Schulman and Behrend have given audiences a lot to chew on in OCJAC’s cozy, brick-walled space.

Schulman, 26, studied religion and performance at the New College of Florida before receiving training as an actor at the Stella Adler Studio for Actor Training. Their work has been presented by the Chautauqua Institution, the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Arthur Ross Gallery and Vox Populi Gallery, among other institutions. In addition to their work as a theater artist, Schulman nurses a deep love for puppetry, which is represented in several portions of “A Golem Sleeps and Wakes in the Mourning.”

Behrend, 27, a Philadelphia native and graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, has worked with prominent Philadelphia theater companies like the Arden Theatre Co., InterAct Theatre, Theatre Exile and Act II Playhouse.

Schulman and Behrend’s collaboration began in earnest in the wake of the 2018 Tree of Life shootings in Pittsburgh. As each of them struggled to understand how Jews as individuals and as communities should grapple with what had happened, they looked to one another for ideas.

They wrote a complicated play called “Elegy for a Lamb: A Revival,” to which the No. 1 response was confusion. With those notes in mind, they reworked it into a new play called “Now at the End, Again,” which dealt directly with the Golem, shiva, gun violence and many of the themes they would explore together again.

Though much of “Golem” references previous theatrical work from Schulman and Behrend, the ideas they explore need not be given that context for viewers to get a sense for the questions that are being asked about death, mourning and community. Behrend hopes that audiences will walk away with a new critical eye toward “the way we express and exhibit grief, and how it succeeds and fails in our modern life.”

If viewers exited “A Golem Sleeps and Wakes in the Mourning” feeling that they’d been in a place that had allowed them to mourn properly, Schulman said, “I would consider it a huge success.”

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