Teenagers plays tickling Jews

Fifteen-year-old Debbie Heimowitz lay in bed, frowning as she tried to work out an idea for a play. She had been asked to write something about the history of her congregation, a small synagogue in Castro Valley called Shir Ami, and the challenge was to make it fun and interesting. Otherwise the cast of kids would get bored, and so would the audience. Who'd want to listen to a recital of dates and facts?

It seemed an almost impossible task, but as Heimowitz was dozing off, the answer came to her. She would tell the story of the congregation through a quiz show, pitting two Jewish families against one another. The plot started to fall into place. When she woke the next morning and heard the siren of a fire truck, she added a new element. There would be the threat of a fire in the middle of the show, providing a dash of dramatic tension.

At an age when most adolescents are just beginning to think about careers, Heimowitz is already a veteran of stage and screen. The first play she wrote for her synagogue, "The Wizard of Oy," was staged in May. Two years ago, at 13, she was an extra in the movie "Homeward Bound 2." And she regularly performs in a group called Genesis Project, which, through music and dialogue, teaches junior high students about the dangers of gender discrimination and sexual assault.

"The Wizard of Oy" put a Jewish spin on the popular story, making Dorothy a bat mitzvah student who needs to reach OyVayVille to question a mighty rabbi. She travels, naturally enough, on the Aleph Bet Road, with a little help from her friends, including a Tin Dreidel Salesman.

"Jewpardy," which will be performed Sunday, March 23 at Shir Ami, is the latest creative offering from this talented teen. It tells the story of the Schwartzes and the Kvetchovitches, who have been preparing diligently to appear on a Jewish quiz show. When they reach the station, both families are bursting to show their knowledge about Jewish culture and history. Instead they're given questions about a little-known Castro Valley Reform synagogue, Shir Ami.

"They do the best they can with the questions," Heimowitz says, "but they don't know the answers, and they get frustrated." Eventually, the Kvetchovitches get so kvetchy that one of their kids yells, "Fire!" — creating a distraction while the others run around and look at the answers.

Heimowitz is all for fair play, and so the Kvetchovitches' cheating ways are ultimately uncovered. Order is then restored as three founding members of Shir Ami arrive to set the record straight.

Heimowitz, who is directing the show with her friend Shaina Gallander, has a surefire way of motivating her cast of 15 children, aged 8 and 13. "Each week at rehearsals, we give one of the kids an award," she says. "It's called a CAR award, which stands for Child Actor's Recognition."

The award might contain an element of wish fulfillment. Heimowitz has set her career sights firmly on the film industry, and one of her goals is to land another movie part as soon as she can. Industry figures she admires include Steven Spielberg and teen actor Elijah Wood.

"Being onstage is great, because it's different every time," she says. "But when you're in front of a camera, you can try again if you get something wrong." Also, she adds, "You're more well-known."

She's aware, though, that it's a cutthroat profession — or, as her mother, Barbara, puts it, "There are lots of starving actresses." The Heimowitzes should know: The teen's father, Stan, is an entertainment agent who books comedians for local venues.

If she doesn't make it as an actress, Heimowitz says she would still like to be involved in the industry, perhaps coaching kids on a movie set or working with special effects.

For now, though, she has her hands full with "Jewpardy." Fifteen kids have to learn their lines by Sunday and there are props and sets to oversee.

And the category is? "Lots of fun."