In 1939, as a child of 3, Sonia Levitin fled Hitler's Germany with her family. The first friend she made in the United States was a small African American girl. Nearly 50 years later, as a well-established writer of young adult fiction, Levitin won the National Jewish Book Award for "The Return" (Atheneum, 1987). This historical novel focuses on the plight of Ethiopian Jews, who consider themselves descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. In tracing their perilous journey from Africa to Israel via Operation Moses in 1984, Levitin combined her long-standing interest in African culture with her own childhood memories of leaving her homeland behind.
Now "The Return" is becoming a musical play, thanks to an unusual collaboration between Jews and prominent members of the African American arts scene. "Children of Sheba" will receive its first partial staging at the Museum of Tolerance on Tuesday evening, Dec. 10. Playwright Myla Lichtman-Fields supplied the show's book and serves as Levitin's co-lyricist. Hollywood composer William Anderson wrote the musical score. The director and choreographer for "Children of Sheba" is the legendary Donald McKayle, who staged such Broadway musical hits as "Raisin" and "Sophisticated Ladies," and today heads the dance department at UC Irvine. Leading the primarily African American cast is actress-singer Jonelle Allen, known for her role as Grace on the '90s drama series, "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman."
Though McKayle, who is married to an Israeli, has some knowledge of Jewish life, the young black cast members have had to learn such basics as how to bless Shabbat candles and recite the "Shema." At the end of a prayer, one actor expressed with surprise: "You guys say 'Amen,' too!" But Levitin is delighted that her performers "are so full of life and energy." She added, "What all my work has been about is trying to build bridges. [This project] really forges a link between black and white people, and between Jews and non-Jews."
For information about the Dec. 10 presentation of "Children of Sheba" at the Museum of Tolerance, Simon Wiesenthal Plaza, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 772-2452.