Christmas play forces actors to confront their Jewishness

As the saying goes, "once from New York always from New York," said actor Jim Friedman, referring to the connection of most American Jews to Ellis Island.

The stage production of the autobiographical short story by author Grace Paley opened last week, together with "A Child's Christmas in Wales" by Dylan Thomas, and continues through Sunday at the Magic Theater at Fort Mason in San Francisco.

Word For Word actors produce only short-form fiction and chapters from novels. In an effort to promote both literature and literacy, the troupe enacts every word of the story right down to the "he saids" and "she saids." The group also performs at libraries and schools.

"The Loudest Voice" is the tale of how an immigrant Jewish couple copes with news that their loud-spoken daughter, Shirley Abramovitz, has been chosen to play the lead in her school's Christmas pageant. Ironically, many of the big roles are given to Jewish children, which prompts a lot of talk in the heavily Jewish immigrant neighborhood.

Word For Word's production reverberates age-old anxieties of surviving the Christmas season as a Jew.

Four actors play about a dozen roles that, besides the Abramovitz family, include teachers, shopkeepers and neighbors.

Two of the actors — Jeri Lynn Cohen and Sheila Balter — grew up in Jewish neighborhoods in Connecticut and New Jersey. Actor Jim Friedman grew up in San Francisco but had many relatives from Jewish neighborhoods in New York.

Even Jewish play director Adrian Elfenbaum makes a familial claim on the story — he was singled out at his grade school to be Santa Claus in a Christmas play.

The story is rife with Yiddishkeit. The authentic shtick came readily to the Jewish actors, said Friedman, who plays Mr. Abramovitz. Actor Andy Murray, a former Brit who plays a Jewish shopkeeper, found the dialect more challenging.

Friedman said the play's assimilation theme hit uncomfortably close to home; this Christmas will be his second spent with his Greek Orthodox fiancée.

The actor was a bar mitzvah and observed Jewish traditions, but his family also celebrated Christmas. Now that he's betrothed, he said, "I'm having an identity crisis." Like little Shirley, who blows "a kiss of tolerance" to the Christmas tree on her street corner, Friedman agrees — "it's a wonderful time of the year. It's hard not to get caught up in it."

It's a dilemma, he said. "Either you stick to your ethnic group and [forfeit] American identity or assimilate and lose a bit of your ethnic identity."

Cohen, who plays Shirley's mother, said the meaning of everything Jewish began to erode when she was 9 and her mother remarried into an Irish Catholic family.

"We always stayed home from school on the High Holidays, but we went to the movies instead of synagogue. Every year it became easier to celebrate Christmas than Chanukah."

When Cohen confronted her mother about what she perceived as "hypocrisy," her mother became enraged. The mother was walking her own thin line; she would know better than anyone if she had crossed it.

The veteran thespian takes on her mom's anger as Mrs. Abramovitz, who grapples with her own limits as her daughter joins the neighbors in "making tra-la-la for Christmas."

Cohen has found meaning in Jewish observance since leaving her childhood home, but continues to struggle with the Christmas season.

"As an adult it makes me cringe…but it's almost impossible to isolate yourself. You can try to ignore your friends but they'll still invite you over for Christmas day."

"What is the line? That is one of the questions that we constantly ask ourselves as Jews. We have come up with all these forms of Judaism to conform to our lives, first Reform and Conservative, now Reconstructionist. I like the room, but [one] talks so much about being a good Jew."

Actor Sheila Balter, on the other hand, throws caution to the wind as little Shirley, who loves celebrating Christmas.

Balter made character studies of Bernal Heights children, with whom she works as an artist-in-residence, to capture Shirley's childlike optimism. She also consulted with her father, who coincidentally grew up in the same neighborhood as the story's author.

Raised in a different Jewish neighborhood, Balter knows what it is to think of the rest as "lonesome Christians," as Shirley calls them in the play.

"I can relate to Shirley's frame of reference," Balter said, "`Isn't everyone Jewish?'"

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.