Actor memorializes grandfather in one-man show

Harry Davidowitz was the star yeshiva student in his Lithuanian town.

Starving in Europe, he came to America, earned a couple of Ph.D.s and became a rabbi in Cleveland. Immigrating to Israel in 1934, he became the first person to translate Shakespeare into Hebrew.

In "Wasting Time With Harry Davidowitz," Israeli-born entertainer Danny Maseng shares the story of his relationship with his grandfather. He will perform the one-man, 1-1/2 hour show Saturday, Feb. 19 at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.

The show, written by Maseng in 1995 specifically for a run off-Broadway, has been touring to rave reviews throughout North America for the last three years.

"Wasting Time" is by no means Maseng's first performance piece. He has been singing professionally since the age of 14. He acts and teaches acting all over the United States, and has produced a number of CDs, including the popular "Israel's Greatest Singers."

"I have written seven plays, a couple of musicals, a lot of poetry and quite a few songs," he said in a phone interview from his home in New York. "I'm now involved in a project called 'Soul on Fire,' which is a theatrical concert featuring devotional music, mostly Jewish, along with contemporary and folk music, including ancient Yemenite and Chassidic songs as well as original pieces. It's very eclectic and different."

The piece was recently performed before an audience of more than 1,000 at the Reform movement's Union of Hebrew Congregations Biennial in Orlando, Fla., "where the response…was overwhelming," Maseng said.

The performer is inspired by a rather remarkable family tree.

His maternal great-grandfather first visited Palestine in 1909 and brought his wife there in 1918, when he became the first American Jew to set up industries in the Holy Land. Maseng's mother, who was born in Philadelphia to a fiercely Zionist family, moved to Israel permanently at the age of 7 or 8.

Maseng's father was a non-Jewish, Norwegian-American fighter pilot during World War II, and later volunteered to fight in Israel's war of independence.

"He was a rare bird, an idealist," Maseng said. "He had an opportunity to do the right thing by the world, and he took it…He had gone to the war an innocent, and came back much changed. He was approached after the war by the Haganah [pre-state Israel's army], who were looking for idealistic pilots, and pilots who could teach others in a hurry, and could be counted on. They were told that Trygve Johannes Maseng was such a person, and they approached him, and he said 'yes.'"

Maseng said his father never looked back, remaining a Zionist "till the end…He always told me that this was a great source of pride in his life — that he was privileged to help bring a country into being. He eventually converted to Judaism, married my mother and stayed in Israel."

But is was Maseng's maternal grandfather, Harry Davidowitz, who inspired the work he'll perform in Marin County.

Coming to America, he later brought over his mother and siblings. He graduated from Columbia University "and became modernized," becoming a Conservative rabbi. In addition to Shakespeare, he translated Chaucer and "Beowulf" into Hebrew.

"It was most extraordinary how kind and sweet he was," Maseng said. "He was the gentlest person I ever met. I never thought of him as a genius, though we were required to be quiet when he was thinking. He was my angel, and the man to whom I owe my life in many ways."

Maseng describes his piece about his relationship with his grandfather as "a musical journey of a Jewish soul portrayed through narrative and song."

"The framework of the piece is structured around the Sabbath — on Friday evening as an infant, maturing through Saturday morning to adulthood, then departing at havdallah," he said. "It's about growing up in a special place with special people. About moving away from and then coming back to my roots."

The piece uses Chassidic-style story telling, part myth and a lot of reality.

"My writing this was very serendipitous," Maseng said, "A producer I knew was desperate for a one-man show for the John Houseman Theater, and asked me to write one. So I decided to write a show about my grandfather. It hadn't really occurred to me to write anything like that until then.

"The amazing thing was that once I sat down to write it, it took all of three months. It was quite amazing — it just sort of poured out. And making this journey to know my grandfather, and the things I discovered along the way, has had a huge effect on my life, and it seems to touch other people in a very special way — Jews and non-Jews, and that's very important to me."

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County." She is a wife and mother of two grown sons and grandmother of three.