Jewish Plays Project is theatrical ‘American Idol’

The Jewish Plays Project performs in Boston last April. In five years, the project has seen 14 of its plays go on to full productionsPhoto by Danielle Staif
The Jewish Plays Project performs in Boston last April. In five years, the project has seen 14 of its plays go on to full productions
Photo by Danielle Staif

David Winitsky sees no lack of Jewish works for the theater. What the founder of the New York-based Jewish Plays Project says is missing are plays that speak to this moment in time.

“I started the project because I felt that the Jewish theater we were seeing got stuck in a mid-20th century moment — a fair amount of Holocaust work, a good amount of immigrant stories about people coming from the old country, and the Neil Simons and Arthur Millers,” he said.

“We’re trying to create 21st century Jewish theater,” Winitsky said, “and we’re trying to find the plays that speak to this contemporary Jewish moment, which is a different time for the Jewish community overall. We’re a different kind of people: We’re not immigrants anymore. We are free and prosperous and powerful, and we have different questions that we’re asking now.” He wants to discover young writers who are asking those new questions about how we live a Jewish life in the Diaspora, and in modern Israel.

To that end, each year for the past five, the JPP has put out a call for Jewishly oriented plays. This year a panel of theater professionals read 204 submissions and whittled them down to a top 10. From there, Winitsky takes the JPP on the road, bringing those 10 plays to nine communities around the United States, including Boston, Chicago, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and San Francisco.

On Sunday, the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia will present excerpts from its top three Jewish plays, selected by a panel of center members with an interest in theater and arts professionals from Northern Virginia. Then, like on American Idol, audience members can pull out their cell phones and pick their favorite.

So what ideas are percolating in the Northern Virginia Jewish community?

“It is all over the map,” Dan Kirsch said. The center’s cultural arts director said his panel of 21 readers first grappled with the essential question that Jewish theaters and playwrights ask: “What is a Jewish play?”

That answer, Kirsch said, varies. “It really comes from your perspective, your experience, your upbringing, and whether that was in a religious household or a secular household, whether you’re from Israel or another country, and how does that have an impact on your world view.”

Ultimately, after all nine communities go through this process, Winitsky says he will have the best new Jewish play in the country, by popular vote. He then hopes to encourage theater producers to back and present the new work in a coming season.

“The JPP project is a pipeline,” Winitsky said. “On one end, it’s experiential Jewish learning for artists who are approaching Jewish [topics]. These artists might not necessarily engage in Jewish life otherwise. On the other end, we advocate for new work. When we find plays that are really engaging and exciting about a contemporary Jewish moment, we want to see those plays produced.”

Over the past five years, JPP has developed 29 new plays and has seen 14 of them go on to full productions in New York, London, Tel Aviv and in Washington, where local writer Renee Calarco’s God’s Honest Truth was produced by Theater J last season.

On Sunday, locally based playwright Helen Pafumi’s Redder Blood will be on the bill. Pafumi, who is artistic director of Fairfax’s The Hub Theatre, draws for this play from a midrash, modernizing it with a young woman wrestling with her own ideas about belief in God and spirituality.

Israeli playwright Yoav Michaeli’s The Son of the Last Jew is based on an episode from Yoram Kaniuk’s book The Last Jew, about a young army officer who tries to assuage the grief of a fallen friend’s family by aggrandizing the fallen soldier’s acts.

Treif, written by Lindsay Joelle, follows Shmuely and Zalmy, two Chabadniks who drive around in a Mitzvah Tank, selling their brand of Judaism to the masses, while finding themselves.

Kirsch hopes to see the JCCNV return to the days when it had a theater in residence, akin to Theater J at the Washington, D.C. JCC. “The challenge has been because the [Northern Virginia] JCC has grown and we have more members and activities, so there hasn’t been consistent time to produce well.”

As the center embarks on a capital campaign and eyes a renovation to reconfigure the auditorium and stage, Kirsch plans to begin producing theater again, as early as 2017-18, pending the renovation.

For Winitsky, who will be in Fairfax for Sunday’s reading, Jewish plays go far beyond mere entertainment. Around the country, he said, “I see young writers who want to ask questions about how we live Jewish life today and … how does the question of Jewish identity help and improve our overall lives.” The Jewish Plays Project allows him to find out.

Jewish Plays Project, March 13, 6:45 p.m., Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia, 8900 Little River Turnpike, Fairfax. For tickets and information, call: 703-537-3000 or visit 

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