Rose Oser is the writer behind "Shoshana in December."
Rose Oser is the writer behind "Shoshana in December."

‘Shoshana in December’: New queer Hanukkah musical hits S.F. stage

In the first scene of Rose Oser’s new musical, “Shoshana in December”, a Jewish character sings: “I want to have the thing that everyone else had in December, an effervescent outer glow from a fierce internal ember … if I stay frozen, not picking a side, I don’t have to hurt, don’t have to decide.”

It’s a feeling many American Jews can relate to during the holiday season, when most of the country is prepping for Christmas celebrations.

Presented in partnership with the Custom Made Theatre Co., “Shoshana in December” tells the story of the titular character, a queer Jewish woman who is deciding whether to have an open relationship with her long-term partner, Danny, while she grows closer to a new friend, Cecily — all in the month of December.

Running for a month beginning Nov. 18 at the Phoenix Theatre in San Francisco, it’s a show about finding oneself, Oser said.

“I think people who it might resonate most with are people who either identify as Jewish or are exploring queerness,” said Oser, 31. “But I also think this show is more universally about what it means to take risks.”

The musical, which Oser co-wrote with lyricist Weston Scott and musician Matt Fukui Grandy, takes place in one of those unusual years when Hanukkah and Christmas overlap. Shoshana is faced with the dilemma of whether to celebrate Hanukkah with her family or to give Christmas a try for the first time with Cecily.

Though “Shoshana” is a work of art, Oser drew upon her own life experience for the story. Christmas, for both Shoshana and Oser, is more complex than a simple holiday. As a Jew, Oser said, she always felt the need to resist Christmas. Traditional Christmas stories in film and literature usually carry heteronormative, monogamy-focused narratives — for instance, the pressure to find true love by Dec. 25 and the rush to get home in time for the holiday, Oser said. She wanted to explore the idea that someone would want to be in multiple places — and with multiple people — during the holiday season.

“Part of what I love about Hanukkah is that it lasts for eight nights, and there is this freedom of not [having] so much pressure and urgency around one day,” said Oser. “Part of what we’re trying to explore is that it’s OK to be thoughtful or slow about how you come into yourself.”

Sher knows how that feels, too. “Shoshana” was inspired in part by Oser’s own experience exploring nonmonogamy with her partner, she said.

Kaitlyn Ortega (left) and Sara Felder during a rehearsal for "Shoshana in December."
Kaitlyn Ortega (left) and Sara Felder during a rehearsal for “Shoshana in December.”

Oser was born in Munich but grew up in Novato. A longtime resident of the Bay Area, she celebrated her bat mitzvah at Reform Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael and studied rhetoric at UC Berkeley.

“Shoshana” is her second production with lyricist Scott. The two previously collaborated on “Tinderella,” a musical about “finding the one … and the one after that.”

“Tinderella” premiered at the Custom Made Theatre Co. in 2018 and ran in Portland at the Brunish Theatre in March of this year. Since 2016, Oser has worked at Z Space, a nonprofit performance space in San Francisco, where she is interim producing director. She also hosts Tinder Disrupt, a presentation-based dating show that has run since 2016 and was featured this summer in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Oser feels drawn to create musicals, she said: “I think musicals are actually an interesting way to explore [our identities] because there’s so many ways that music can help us feel things that we’re unable to express with words.”

As is natural for a musical about the intersection of Hanukkah and Christmas, Oser is not the only Jew in the production of “Shoshana.” Oakland resident Sara Felder, a multidisciplinary performer and former star of her own one-woman show, plays Shoshana’s mother, Rebecca. Kiki Lipsett, a member of the musical team at Chochmat HaLev and creator of the Shushan Queens Purim spiels, is the musical director, and Berkeley actress Lena Sibony (whose Bat Mitzvah was announced in J.) plays Shoshana,

Though Sibony has been acting since childhood, this is her first role playing a Jewish character. She has been a fan of “Shoshana” since its first reading at Z Space in December 2021.

“I think it is so rare to find shows where there are nuanced, exciting, relevant, modern Jewish characters to play,” Sibony said, “As I’m a young person figuring out my own Jewish identity, doing this kind of work…means that much more because I can learn about myself through this character and that’s really meaningful.”

Though “Shoshana” is a story about being queer, Jewish and nonmonogamous, Oser hopes anyone will be able to see themselves in the musical. “The show is about honoring traditions and also questioning traditions,” she said.

“Shoshana in December”

Nov. 18-Dec. 18 at the Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason St., S.F. $36-$55.

Lillian Ilsley-Greene
Lillian Ilsley-Greene

Lillian Ilsley-Greene is a J. Staff Writer. Originally from Vermont, she has a BA in political science and an MA in journalism from Boston University. Follow her on Twitter at @lilsleygreene.