Theater group seeks to span cultural divide between Americans, Israelis

Launching its first full season this month with performances on both sides of the bay, Jewish Circle Theatre plans to navigate more than one bridge. With Israeli and American performers, the theatrical group hopes to span the cultural divide between the two cultures, presenting Israeli- or biblical-themed plays in English along with Hebrew songs, as well as original works that incorporate drama, dance and Israeli-inspired music.

“Theater, whether classical or contemporary, is a community-oriented form of art,” said Ofra Daniel, the artistic/executive director who co-founded the group with fellow Tel Aviv University graduate Roni Alperin. “What we will try to do is address this cultural bridge.”

One way is to create bonds through the shared experience of Jewish heritage. The season opener, “Shir HaShirim” (Song of Songs), by Daniel and Lior Ben-Hur, offers a modern take on the

erotic poetry of the Bible, with biblical translations by Berkeley poet Marcia Falk. The performance, which includes both Hebrew and English texts, opens Saturday, Nov. 2 at the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay, with three performances in Berkeley. It will also stage performances Nov. 10  and 17 at the Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos.

By presenting traditional themes in contemporary settings, “Americans, familiar with the ancient text [of Song of Songs] in a religious context,” Daniel said, will re-experience the work outside that context, looking at divine love on a human level through a relationship. Meanwhile, “Israelis will resonate with the music” by Ben-Hur, who originally hails from Jerusalem.

“The plays are not just verbal plays. It’s not an intellectual experience,” said Daniel, who lives in Berkeley with her husband and three children. “If you want an intellectual experience, read a good book.”

She sees the plays as “thought-provoking,” affecting theatergoers on an emotional plane. “We are going to touch the hearts of the audience, with something for both cultures.”

Jewish Circle Theatre began in 2009, with occasional plays for children and adults, interactive performances and classes. Recently established as a nonprofit with a board of directors, the group is presenting an entire season of four works, with a troupe of some 30 actors, musicians and choreographers, mostly professional.

In December and January, the group will stage “What If?” for children and families, exploring the power of imagination. In February and March comes “To Be or Not to Be — Jewish,” an interactive drama, with the audience providing dialogue for the actors to interpret the Jewish experience here and in Israel. In May “Two Wives,” the first in a Torah Project series, explores the relationships of Jacob and the two sisters he marries, Leah and Rachel.

In addition, the group will offer classes, workshops and outreach programs.

The theater company’s board of directors includes Americans as well as Israelis. John Gertz, the chairman, holds dual citizenship. In his professional life, he is an entertainment entrepreneur and is founder and CEO of Zorro Productions.

Discussing the local theater scene, he said Jewish Circle Theatre “is not, strictly speaking, a replica of Traveling Jewish Theatre,” which presented plays for 34 years, settling in San Francisco before its 2012 demise.

This group, he said, “is actually traveling, with no intention” of settling down in one place. In addition, the group’s focus is bringing modern Israeli works, in English, to American audiences.

That remains a challenge, said Daniel, who is a playwright and actor. Because “Israelis are very exposed to drama and death and loss and fear,” the plays often are “provocative, with heavy themes.” The American Jewish experience is different, but Daniel is determined to bridge that gap. Israel is producing “great poetry, great literature and great theater, and none of it is coming here. I think we can be an ambassador for that.”

Will the group be touching on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Not at this stage, Daniel said. “We are a nonpolitical group.” Its focus is “not about taking a stand,” but on “encouraging the audience to go through an experience.” Eventually, she hopes to bring those experiences to JCCs throughout the Bay Area.


“Shir HaShirim,” 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2, 9 and 16,  JCC of the East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley; 7 p.m. Sunday,  Nov. 10 and 17, Addison-Penzak JCC, 14855 Oka Road, Los Gatos. $20 in advance, $25 at door.


Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].