1 Controversial Study + 10 Up-and-Coming Playwrights: A New Dialogue About Jewish Identity

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David Shmidt Chapman is the Founding Director of PEW-ish: artists responding to the new Jewish identity, a new initiative that aims to bring a broader array of voices into the conversation about Jewish identity in America.

With the help of a Go Create! ROI Micro Grant, we launched PEW-ish, a new initiative that aims to bring a broader array of voices—especially artists—into the conversation about Jewish identity. Using the findings of the recent Pew study on Jewish Americans as a starting point, PEW-ish seeks to spark a new and surprising dialogue about what being Jewish means. For the launch event, we commissioned 10 playwrights of Jewish descent to create work inspired by the Pew study.

The seed of the idea was simple—to get Jewish (or Jewish-ish) playwrights to respond to the study. First, I brought ROIer Warren Hoffman on board as an advisor and one of the playwrights. As a Jewish professional and successful playwright (and all-around great guy), Warren was a perfect collaborator. The next step was finding the other playwrights. An initial scan of our virtual Rolodexes told us that we actually knew a lot of Jewish playwrights, including some who never wrote about Jewish themes.

We quickly learned two things: First, that for all the debate the Pew study triggered within the Jewish world, few of these artists even knew about the study, let alone the waves it made. What a missed opportunity, we thought - A well-known, independent research outfit turns its attention to American Jews, and some of the fringe folks that the rabbis, sociologists, and scholars were worried about had not yet been brought into the conversation. The second thing we learned was that our initial target number of playwrights - four - was way too small. Nearly everyone we spoke to wanted to participate, and we wanted as many voices as possible in the mix. We landed with a great group of 10 writers, ranging from observant to secular to non-Jewish (but with Jewish lineage), male, female, gay, straight, mothers, fathers, urban, suburban, a Jew by choice, even an Israeli American - a pretty good cross-section of American Jewry (although we knew that next time we’d need more non-Ashkenazi, older, non-white, trans, and Orthodox voices). We gave each playwright a copy of the study and no parameters except length, number of actors needed, and that it had to in some way respond to the study.

After about a month, we started getting first drafts. We brought on actor/educator Jake Goodman as a dramaturg to help give writers feedback. When we had final drafts of all 10 plays, we realized we had an incredible collection on our hands. The plays were incredibly diverse - some funny, some serious, some absurd, some realistic, but all were creative in their exploration of the material, deeply authentic, and staggeringly original. We hadn’t decided what would be next…a website? A publication? A pitch to producers or JCCs? But after seeing how vital the plays were, we knew our next move: to produce a community-wide event, bringing together a wide range of people to hear the plays and talk to one another, maybe over a nosh and a glass of wine…We wanted to make an event that was welcoming, memorable, and above all, fun.

Thankfully that’s where [email protected] came in. But more in that in a future post.