In 2002, director/playwright Karen Sommers heard a story on National Public Radio about the Jewish American Board of Peace and Justice, a Jewish mediation court on the Lower East Side of New York that adjudicated disputes among community members between the late 1930s and 1956. The proceedings took place in a back room of the House of Sages, a synagogue led by Rabbi Shmuel Aaron Rubin, who presided over the cases, which were recorded and carried on such Yiddish radio stations as WLTH and WEVD. According to the Yiddish Radio Project Web site, where many of the programs heard on old-time Yiddish radio are archived, the conflicts covered everything from “the complaints of abandoned parents to altercations over ill-fitting sheets.”
In an interview, Sommers said that when she listened to some of the actual arbitrations, conducted in Yiddish and English, she was transported back in time.
“I really got caught up in these lives, and, at the same time that they were very funny and almost ridiculous, they were also very touching, and it was real life.
“This was, in a way, the first reality show, and people were there for their problems. So, I listened to this broadcast and, by chance, about a week later I was telephoned by the Tribeca Performing Arts Center in New York City, and they offered me an artist-in-residency, which included a year of working on a project. This is the project I wanted to do, to develop that story into a full theatrical piece.”
Sommers has been developing the project for 10 years, a process that culminated in the recent world premiere of her play “South of Delancey,” now at the Fremont Centre Theatre in Pasadena. The stories she has re-created affected her so deeply, she recalled, that more than just telling people about them, she had to dramatize them.
“I’m very visual; I’m a stage director by passion, by trade, and, when I hear of a story, immediately I can see it. But this was more than that. I could feel it; I could picture these people; I saw the court; I saw them arguing with each other; I saw the rabbi. I feel it now, just talking about it; it’s such a powerful feeling in my bones.”
Sommers fictionalizes the private lives of the participants, but uses actual recorded transcripts when presenting what transpired during the hearings. “The verdicts were binding. They did sign something that said they were going to follow what the judges decided,” she explained. “According to my research, the people who sought this court, which was free, didn’t have the means to hire a lawyer and go through the American judicial system. Also, a lot of them were immigrants who didn’t speak English and didn’t understand the American judicial system, and they were sort of fearful of going that route.”
“South of Delancey” depicts three cases. One involves two very different sisters (Jordana Oberman and Kal Bennett), who live together but have come to hate each other.
In another, a man and woman (Barry Alan Levine and Jodi Fleisher) engaged in a passionate affair finally get married, but with radically opposing expectations.
The third case concerns Marty (Michael Rubenstone) and Faye (Abigail Marks), who didn’t know each other very well when they married just before Marty went into the service during World War II, and, after eight years, have separated. Faye charges that Marty lies to her, stays out late, never “bothers” with her and has been abusive. In response, Marty insists that his wife relies too much on her interfering mother (Casey Kramer).
In this case, the final verdict may well strike today’s audiences as naïve. Alhough the rabbi comes down very hard on Marty for hitting Faye, declaring that the holy Gemara says a man who raises a hand against another person is a wicked man, and though he extracts a declaration of love from Marty for Faye and their baby, he ultimately rules that the couple should “go home and have a happy life.”
“It was very simplistic,” Sommers admitted. “You could say it was a simpler time. I don’t know; I don’t believe it was. I think that the rabbi had a simple way of looking at things. At first, when I initially heard his verdict for Faye and Marty, I was upset, and I, of course, was siding with her.”
She added, “This is how it was, and there’s something about that that I think is important for people to know as a piece of history, and to realize how far we’ve come. Is that a good piece of advice, or is that a ridiculous piece of advice? I think when people first hear that, they say, ‘That’s crazy, that he should say to go home and have a happy life.’ But, after the 10 years that I’ve been working on this and listening to that verdict over and over again, I find that it’s simple, but it’s honest, and it’s possible.”
Sommers said she feels there is comfort in seeing that the problems you’re dealing with today are problems that have been going on for years, for decades, even for centuries, and that you’re not alone.
“People before you have gone through what you are going through now; they survived, and you can survive as well. Or you can see that these people in the play are making the mistakes that you’re making in your life, and that you need to look at these problems or else you’re going to end up like these characters do. The play is really holding up a mirror to audiences and having them see themselves on stage and reflect upon their own lives.”
“South of Delancey,” Fri. and Sat. 8 PM, Sun. 3 PM, through July 31. Tickets: $25; Students/Seniors $20. Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Avenue, South Pasadena. Reservations:(866) 811-4111 – For Groups and Info: (626)441-5977.