She Must Marry a Doctor

For Joel Schecter, Yiddish theater is no long-vanished artifact from the Lower East Side of Jewish history. It’s alive and well at San Francisco State University.

The SFSU theater arts professor is about to unveil a new production of Sholem Aleichem’s 1887 one-act play “She Must Marry a Doctor.” It is, he says, a strikingly modern comedy about family values, women’s liberation and Yiddishkeit.

“It’s a satire on arranged marriages,” says Schecter. “Sholem Aleichem was objecting to this imposition.”

The plot involves two parents planning their daughter’s marriage, debating whether she should marry a doctor or businessman. As Schecter tells it: “Their educated son comes in, and says, ‘This arranging of marriages is barbaric. Haven’t you reached the modern age?’ Then the daughter says, ‘I can decide for myself.'”

Adding to the drama is an extended dialogue about the nature of despotism. “At the time the play was written,” notes Schecter, “the czar had banned all Yiddish theater in Russia. This dialogue was a veiled reference to the czar and a protest against tyranny of many kinds.”

To cast the play, director Schecter drew from a diverse pool of SFSU theater students. Among the performers starring in “She Must Marry a Doctor” are Nahal Afshar, Michael Wu, Jaideep Nijjer and Regina Morones. Not exactly Molly Picon types.

“A lot of this play is universal,” says Schecter. “One Asian American student told me she knows people with the same problem of arranged marriage.”

Though the play is performed in English, Schecter added several songs, including “A Libe Iz an Umglik Oyf der Velt” (“Love is a Misfortune in the World”) and “Oy Mayn Baykhele” (“Oh My Belly”). The cast will sing them in Yiddish.

To get his players ready, Schecter enlisted the help of local klezmer and Jewish music maven Gerry Tenney. He’s been teaching the cast the proper way to enunciate words like oy and vey.

That comes easily to Schecter, a Yiddish speaker with a long personal and professional love of Jewish culture. He grew up back east in a Conservative home, and though his education included plenty of Hebrew, Schecter never picked up the Yiddish of his parents and grandparents.

He earned a doctorate in drama at Yale, became a dramaturg at Yale Rep and later worked in the New York theater scene. Once he accepted the chair of SFSU’s theater program, he developed a passionate interest in Yiddish theater. “I’m fascinated with this culture that is almost extinct or forgotten,” he says. “In terms of theater, there’s a rich body of work just lying in archives.”

In addition to teaching, Schecter is currently writing a book about Yiddish theater. “There’s a movement to rediscover the old Yiddish arts,” he says. “For myself, when I work with students it comes to life. Most of the work I’ve done reflects the immigrant experience and the conflict within generations in families. Many immigrant students relate to the Jewish immigrant experience. There are parallels.”

Now it’s go-time for the cast and crew of “She Must Marry a Doctor.” Schecter’s staging is nimble enough to allow the production to tour. The group will perform not only at the university, but also at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco and several other sites around the Bay Area.

“We have to be very portable,” says Schecter. “We have costumes and live music, but because it’s a traveling show it will have minimal sets and lights. We can pack it in a suitcase.

“She Must Marry a Doctor” by Sholem Aleichem plays 3 p.m. Tuesdays, Nov. 9 and 16, and 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 14, at SFSU’s Studio Theater, 19th Ave. and Holloway. Admission is free. Information: (415) 338-1331.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.