Theater + Shabbat = ? : Is There Hope for Us Yet?

By: Eli Azizollahoff  |  December 18, 2019

By Eli Azizollahoff

As a child, I always wanted to be an author. I always loved show tunes and theater, and starred as Julius Caesar in my fifth-grade production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, but I never dreamed of performing on Broadway. This was due in part to my (let’s put it kindly and say) “limited” vocal skills, but more to do with the fact that even at ten years old, my dreams of acting and stardom were dashed by my prioritization of staying religious. Even at ten years old, I knew I could never perform on Broadway and uphold Shabbat, and so I never dreamed to perform on Broadway.

At twenty-one years old little has changed. Now I have directed, acted, and produced multiple productions. Now I have seen dozens of shows. Now I have been trained and tutored and explored the world of theater. Now I have fallen into a deeper love with Broadway than I ever would have thought as a child. Still, I don’t dream to act on the stage. Still, Shabbat is too important to me to even consider it. But, being an adult gives me an edge that ten-year-old me never had; the ability and capacity to think and look deeper and not take a simple “impossible” as an answer.

“There’s no way around it, it sucks and it’s not fair and it is what it is,” said Aviva Sokolow, an Orthodox Jew who is the face behind the viral Instagram account Humans of Broadway and part of the digital media team at Transport Group Theatre Company. “This is an industry where you are severely limited as a religious Jew, but at the same time it doesn’t mean you can’t be in it.”

Though accommodations for Jews in theater have risen, approaching a career without connections is a daunting task. There are historic actors who had the entertainment world acting on their will, based sheerly on their talent and name, like Dudu Fisher, when he performed in Les Misérables on Broadway. In 2018, there was the successful run of what is commonly known as “Yiddish Fiddler,” the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s production of Fiddler on the Roof performed entirely in Yiddish, produced by National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. This show was originally performed with a Shabbat-observant schedule, and had some Jewish actors, like Moshe Lobel, a Yeshiva University alumnus. Even once it moved off-Broadway and could no longer withhold shows on Friday and Saturday, it still allowed its Orthodox orchestra musicians to take the weekends off with stand-ins in their place.

Having spoken to Jews and non-Jews alike in the theater world, I have realized the different perspectives on being able to accommodate Shabbat while working in theater. When I sat down with the wardrobe master of a Broadway play as a freshman in college, I hoped that in some capacity, I would be able to work as a religious Jew in the world of theater. I will never shake the look of her face as it dropped, as I explained that I would never be able to work on Friday night or Saturday. Though I can’t recall her exact words, it was something to the ends of “well that’s unfortunate because it’s basically impossible to work in this industry and not work those days.”

It has seemingly become the mission of Jews who love theater to devise a way to make it work, despite the setbacks and the system working against them. In 2010, Jesse Freedman, Yoni Oppenheim, and Avi Soroka opened their own theater company, 24/6, with the distinct mission to make a space for Shabbat-observant professionals to be able to work in theater. Oppenheim described in an interview with The Forward, “I feel that in the past decade, there are more and more Sabbath observant theater artists coming up. This will be a place where they can develop work, in a schedule that enables them to work.”

Reuven Russell, actor, director, and faculty advisor to the Stern College Dramatics Society (SCDS), detailed a story when he was cast in the stage production of The Quarrel based off the film of the same title and the short story by Chaim Grade. This show was adapted to the stage in the Playwrights Theater in New Jersey, by David Brandis and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, some twenty years ago. The story follows two men who grew up in Eastern Europe  and learned together, but were separated during World War II only to meet again years later, when one is a rabbi and the other is not religious. 

Russell detailed how he showed up to the audition with his black hat, beard, tzitzit (four cornered garment with strings) and the special jacket he wears on Shabbat called a “kapata.” When he was offered the role of the rabbi, he told the director, “Like the character in the play you are asking me to play, I also observe the Jewish Sabbath in real life, so performing at your Friday night performances and Saturday matinees are gonna be a problem for me.” When the director explained that they couldn’t accommodate him and have an understudy play those shows, because it was such a small theater, he shook his hand and said it wasn’t the role for him. With “nothing to lose,” right before he left, Russell turned to them and said that if they could make it work, the show and the theater would be blessed, “as if I was some kind of prophet,” said Russell. 

Three days later they called him and told him they changed the show schedule to not run on Friday night or Saturday matinees and he was cast. The show was then extended an extra two weeks and was the highest grossing show at that theater’s box office at the time. Eight years later, Daryl Roth revived the show off-Broadway and it maintained the show schedule it had devised for this single Orthodox Jew who so badly wanted to play one of his own in a show written by a Jew, based on a short story by another Jew.

Russell also told me the advice Herman Wouk, Orthodox Jew and prolific writer, gave him when he was still in the Yale School of Drama. Russell had explained that he wanted to be like Steven Hill, an observant Jew and a renowned actor, but he didn’t know how to make it happen. In response, Wouk said, “Acting is a ‘mugs game.’ In other words, a wretched profession. But I realize [there are] those who must act, [I] understand that…the way you will be able to, as an observant Jew, is that your talent will be your poker chips.” “What does that mean?” Russell explained, “It means if you show people that you’re talented and you become in demand, then you’re gonna be able to dictate the terms of your own career, like Steven Hill eventually did.”

Still, nearly three years later, I can’t shake the face of my friend and mentor, Liorah Rubinstein, as she spoke about her last play with SCDS in her senior year of college. With sadness in her eyes, she remarked how that play, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, would probably be the last opportunity for her to act in her life.

A consolation is found in the words of Sarala Pool, a set designer for Broadway and theater across the country, as well as a Stern alumnus: “Yes, I think it is harder to find jobs in theater if you keep Shabbat, mostly because a lot of performances happen on the weekends, but it is possible to find jobs that don’t have a conflict or that will let you work around Shabbat.” Pool added, “I think ultimately a boss who doesn’t respect your religion isn’t someone you want to work for, and you should always be upfront about your needs and look for a job that will accommodate you. They are out there it’s just a smaller pool to look within.”

To me, this is taken in conjunction with remarks from Sokolow: “I really think it’s not fair because it’s never gonna change, people are always gonna wanna buy tickets on weekends, that’s when they have off, that’s when they can come.” She speaks as a new (Orthodox) member of the professional theater workforce: “The hours are the hours and they always have been and they always will be except for in specific cases. I’m not saying it is impossible to work in theater as a Jew because it really is not, but you are really restricted and that’s just the fact and I think it really sucks and I don’t think there’s a solution, I think there are workarounds. Like working behind the scenes or working part time or volunteering or whatever it is you can work in some sense, but you don’t get to have the whole thing, right? And I think that’s a sacrifice that you choose – well you don’t really choose it; you believe in it.”