Barbara Heller likes to refer to herself as a “growing Jew.”
The actress/singer has created a biographical show, “Finding Barb,” that traces her life from her dysfunctional family in Boca Raton, Fla., through her disappointing pursuit of an acting career in New York, to her indoctrination into Orthodox Judaism and, finally, to her present state of trying to balance her commitment to an observant life with her professional ambitions.
The play is running currently at Working Stage in West Hollywood, with performances continuing through Jan. 10.
The seeds of Heller’s quest seem to be rooted in the upheaval of her early home life. While her parents are caricatured in her play, she said the conflict between them was real.
“There was a lot of fighting in the house, not between me and my sister, but between my parents.
“They both had their issues, and they both were really honest about it. Unfortunately, they shared everything with us, like their problems. But, on the other hand, nothing was hidden. I don’t know. I guess I got to see too much.”
Complicating matters, Heller remarked, was the feeling that she never fit any of the “boxes” into which she wanted to fit — she was never part of the “cool” group in elementary school, for example. She said it got better in high school, where she loved the extracurricular acting, singing and dancing activities and appeared in school productions.
Heller recalled that she was 13 when she decided she wanted acting to be her life’s work. She was in New York visiting her aunt, who was a lawyer.
“I looked at all the books in her office, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is so boring.’ And I looked at the cover of Time magazine. Jim Henson had just passed away, and I sat in her law library ... and I just sobbed. I said, ‘I feel so much more connected to Jim Henson than to any of these books and being a lawyer.’ I remember that moment. I made a decision. I said, ‘I have to be an actor.’ And that was it.”
Heller attended Tisch School of the Arts at New York University but couldn’t finish because her parents were going through a messy divorce and didn’t have the money for her to continue there. Instead, she graduated from the University of Florida, in Gainesville, with a major in theater and returned to New York to try for acting roles.
Although she did cabaret work, toured in an off-Broadway production, auditioned for numerous Broadway shows and got called back many times, she never actually landed a role on Broadway. She started to think about quitting.
Then she was invited to a Shabbat dinner at the Upper West Side apartment of a friend she had met a few years earlier, when they visited eight concentration camps and Israel under the sponsorship of the World Zionist Organization.
That night, there was a security she had never previously enjoyed, certainly not when she was living with her parents.
“I had no structure growing up,” she said. “So, to have even one dinner a week where everyone was loving and happy and there together, and there was good food on the table and we could have guests over — just the idea of having a wholesome, intimate Shabbat dinner that was loving was precious to me. I’d never had that before.
“I bought a dream that night.”
She also met a couple there who suggested she attend a retreat in Orlando, which was being run by Isralight, an organization dedicated to “Inspiring a Renaissance in Jewish Living” through educational programs.
“I decided that weekend that I should go to Israel and study the Torah in the original text instead of the critical texts I had studied in college,” Heller said. “I stayed there for almost two years [off and on] learning in yeshivot.”
She then steeped herself in Orthodoxy and endured years of match-made dating that is portrayed in her show as hilariously disastrous.
But, for her, the woman’s role in Judaism does have a certain beauty.
“I started to get really curious about what it means to be a Jewish woman,” she said. “What are the laws that I can embrace? I love the idea of niddah; I love the idea of a woman going to mikveh and praying, and being immersed in that water,” she said.
During the period of her extreme Orthodox life, Heller spent some 10 years singing and performing exclusively for female audiences. She explained that it’s a very strict halachah for an observant woman to perform only for other women. But, ultimately, that limitation wasn’t fulfilling, and her current show is a way of reintroducing herself to more mainstream, integrated audiences.
As for dating, Heller said, as an observant woman, she didn’t touch men for six years. Still, she didn’t get married in the time frame that the rabbi said she would find a husband.
“I only dated observant men for nine, 10 years, and then I realized I’m not finding the right person for me. Maybe that’s because I’m not supposed to be fully observant in this very strict way. So, I started dating people who are not as religious, and I’m much happier, because I don’t really fit in the box of an Orthodox Jew.”
At this point in her life, Heller said she considers herself “a growing Jew,” or “limmudnik.”
“Limmud actually means ‘to learn’ or ‘learning,’ and I’m a learning Jew; I’m a growing Jew. I also teach Judaism. That’s part of what I do as a job. I teach Jewish students on the weekends at different synagogues and in their homes,” she said. “I teach Judaism, and I also run a theater camp for Jewish kids where there’s, partially, Jewish learning and theater studies as well.”
Heller concluded that her play is about finding a box that works for her, or taking pieces of different boxes and putting them together in a creative way.
The Working Stage
1516 N. Gardner, Los Angeles 90046 (five blocks east of Fairfax)
Thursdays through Jan. 10, 2013, 8 p.m.
No performance the weeks of Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s Eve