When a Jewish girl plays Jesus, you get Coney Island Christmas

In City Lights Theater’s production of Donald Margulies’ “Coney Island Christmas,” 28-year-old Roneet Aliza Rahamim plays Shirley, a 12-year-old Brooklyn girl, circa 1935.

How does she pull off that feat of age defiance? Acting. And a sports bra.

Roneet Aliza Rahamim as Jesus in “Coney Island Christmas” photo/mike ko

“I spent a lot of time nannying,” says the Palo Alto–born actress. “I also used to work in a preschool, so maybe I have a knack for knowing how kids function. When you play certain characters, it’s more about finding that posture, the way they walk that gets you into the character.”

“Coney Island Christmas,” which opened Nov. 21, runs through Dec. 22 at City Lights Theater Company in San Jose. Based on Grace Paley’s short story “The Loudest Voice,” the show premiered last year at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. This is its Bay Area premiere.

Despite the title, it is a Jewish play at heart. It tells the story of Shirley Abramowitz, a 90-something great-grandma reminiscing about her experience playing Jesus in her public school Christmas pageant.

Shirley’s parents, not too far removed from the shtetl and pogroms, find the idea abhorrent and forbid their daughter to take part. But once the acting bug bites, little Shirley will not be denied.

As the daughter of an Israeli of Iraqi Jewish heritage, and as someone who has been acting since childhood, Rahamim can relate.

“I would definitely say my family is an Israeli family,” she notes. “Being different from the rest of the Americans around you, for sure I connected with that. Shirley comes from an Ashkenazi background. Mine is a bit different.”

Margulies — one of America’s most honored playwrights —  won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2000 work “Dinner With Friends.” He regularly draws on his Jewish heritage for inspiration, but “Coney Island Christmas” has the added warmth of a nostalgic Neil Simon memory play.

Shirley Abramowitz (Roneet Aliza Rahamim) in her turkey costume photo/mike ko

And it’s just as funny, particularly the scenes depicting two hilariously amateurish elementary school pageants,  one for Thanksgiving (in which Shirley dresses up as a turkey), the other for Christmas.

As a child, Rahamim attended Jewish day school in Palo Alto. That means she experienced a few Hanukkah pageants of her own before setting her sights on a stage career.

“I got into it as soon as I was old enough,” she remembers. “My mom took me to the children’s theater in Palo Alto, run by the city. I auditioned for shows there, which is how I got involved in theater as a kid.”

At Gunn High School, she studied with the influential drama teacher James Shelby before attending Marymount Manhattan College, where she earned a BFA.

Rahamim lived and worked in New York City and Minneapolis (a thriving theater town), where she landed roles in everything from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” to experimental works such as “Hijab Tube” at the Twin Cities’ Mixed Blood Theater (she played a Muslim woman in that play).

Now back in the Bay Area, she has performed with San Francisco’s Golden Thread Productions and with City Lights, for which she co-starred in a recent revival of Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler.”

“Coney Island Christmas” gives Rahamim a chance to be the star. “I loved it,” she says of her first read-through of the play. “It put a smile on my face.”

She admits director Kit Wilder was a bit surprised when a 28-year-old auditioned for the part of young Shirley, but Rahamim pulled it off.

As for context, the actress asked her mother about the grim history of Jewish assimilation and oppression.

“The line that stuck out for my mother was one about assimilation as a ‘creeping pogrom,’ ” she says. “There is a Jewish fear of assimilation. Any minority culture is concerned about what sacrifices you have to make to join the mainstream.”

And with all the deeper meaning of the play, for Rahamim it’s mostly about presenting an irresistible family drama. And being able to get out of the bulky turkey costume in time for the next scene.

“It got pared down a bit,” she says, recalling a few close calls with costume changes between scenes. “Originally it had legs.”

“Coney Island Christmas,” through Dec. 22 at City Lights Theater, 529 South Second St., San Jose. Tickets: $25-$30. www.cltc.org.

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.