In the Beginning
by Norman J. Fedder
“A lady never tells her age” was our fearless president’s response to recent questions addressed to her regarding how old this association is. “But that,” she later admitted, ”was to cover the fact that I really don’t know.” What Deborah did know, however, is that I had been an “early pioneer,” as she put it, in the Jewish Theatre movement and (never having been a lady) might be willing to come up with an article about AJT’s origins and “a reflection on how we have grown.”
The 1980 “Jewish Theatre Issue” of THE DRAMA REVIEW has a good account of how it all began:
During the mid-1970s the impetus for founding a Jewish Theatre Association stemmed from the energy and commitment of two individuals. Although living over a thousand miles apart and of different professional backgrounds, Norman Fedder and Steve Reisner each simultaneously began exploring his Jewish heritage through theatre. Increasingly fascinated and moved by these experiences, each felt the need to form a theatre organization specifically devoted to the Jewish experience. . . . The pair approached [The National Foundation for Jewish Culture] and [in 1979] at last met with success. [The Foundation] agreed to fund the project and provide headquarters for the fledgling Jewish Theatre Association. Under the management of [the Foundation’s] Richard Siegel and consultant Susan Merson, theatre groups and individual artists were invited to join the association. “We tried to contact as many people as possible. The association is open to all artists exploring aspects of Jewish culture from either an historical or contemporary perspective, whether they be Jewish themselves or not. “[The association held] its first general meeting [that year] and the first annual Jewish Theatre Festival was scheduled. . . . [It] took place at Marymount Manhattan College in June, 1980, thus fulfilling the association’s goal of bringing together theatre artists interested in investigating expression of Jewish identity and culture. Inspired by Black and Chicano theatre groups, the Jewish Theatre Association sees itself as part of the ethnic theatre movement and is connected to the upsurge in religious theatre of all denominations which is taking place throughout the country. (Tina Margolis and Susan Weinacht, “Jewish Theatre Festival 1980,” pp. 93-95.)
Following that, the association helped organize the first International Jewish Theatre Festival in Tel Aviv in 1982. And soon after, producer/directors such as Janet Arnold (Arizona Jewish Theatre), Herb Katz (Center Stage), Evelyn Orbach (Jewish Ensemble Theatre), and Bryna Wasserman (Sadye Bronfman Centre Yiddish Theatre), among others no longer with us, became prominent in JTA; and it was later decided, in keeping with the nature and needs of most of the membership, that the name should be changed to the Council of Jewish Theatres. At the same time, playwrights like myself and critics such as Ellen Schiff were welcome and participated.
At first the annual conferences were held in New York City; but, thereafter we met in various cities throughout the USA and Canada.
Happily, over the years, more Jewish theatres were created and their leaders became active in the Council: to name but a few – Kayla Gordon (Winnipeg Jewish Theatre), Marilyn Hausfeld (The Center Company), Mira Hirsch (Jewish Theatre of the South), Naomi Jacobs (West Coast Jewish Theatre), Deborah Baer Mozes (Theatre Ariel), Ari Roth (Theatre J), Kathleen Sitzer (New Jewish Theatre). And – God bless ’em! – they soon encouraged a stronger role for playwrights, who now flocked to the Council; so much so that, along with new sponsorship by the Jewish Community Center Association, a wider focus and another new name resulted: The Association for Jewish Theatre.
The new century added a further dimension to AJT, promoted by a trip to Israel of the leadership – leading to the Jewish Agency’s sponsoring Israeli performer, Robbie Gringras, to establish a “Global Jewish Theatre Network” centered in Israel, complemented by Moti Sendak’s “World Jewish Theatre Website.” All this culminating in our stellar conference of this year – including, besides the North American stalwarts, an impressive contingent of Israeli and European theatre artists. From the perspective of one who was there in the beginning, I couldn’t help but kvell at how far we have come in these 24 years. In the words of that great Dramatist-In-The-Sky with regard to His/Her world premiere, I should say “it was good – very good!”