Lesley Wolman was having trouble breathing.
She was in a small room on a hot and muggy day in New York City in August 1993, singing and auditioning for the George Gershwin Broadway musical, “Someone to Watch Over Me.” A little earlier, Wolman had been breastfeeding her 21-day-old son, Yale, who was now safely in the arms of her husband, Jeff, in the waiting area. The three of them had taken the bus from their apartment on the Upper East Side.
“I can’t believe you can sing like this 21 days after delivering your first baby,” one of the casting directors in the room said to her.
“Personally, I prefer dogs,” said another.
Sixteen years later, sipping iced tea at Pat’s Restaurant, Wolman laughs at the memory of that day and seems amused that I’m asking for so many details. But looking back now, it’s clear to her that that was the day she decided she would never be a “killer.”
“Killer” is the term Wolman uses for artists who are obsessed with success, who put getting a part in a Brad Pitt movie on the same level as a Lubavitcher Chasid seeing his Rebbe revealed as the Messiah.
But if she will never become a showbiz killer, she will also never stop being a showbiz lover.
It is this love for performing that the packed house at the Pico Playhouse saw the other night at Wolman’s cabaret show, “Jewish Women in Song ... a Celebration.”
I knew very little about Wolman when I went to see her show at the suggestion of a friend. So when she came out sparkling like a jewel in a silky outfit, singing soulful and timeless songs accompanied by a three-piece jazz band, I had no idea that this was a PTA mom involved with the Bureau of Jewish Education and Camp Ramah, who sat on the board of Sinai Academy and who was about to fly to Washington, D.C., for the AIPAC convention.
All this stuff came out when we had lunch a few days later. Our conversation took on a schizophrenic quality, because I couldn’t decide what interested me more — her views on Jewish education or her performance on Broadway in “Shenandoah”; her thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or who did the choreography for her latest show.
It’s this back and forth between reality-biz and showbiz that has defined her life. It seems that whenever one side starts to dominate, the other wakes up, as if to say: “Hey, don’t forget about me.”
She recalls the many times she was stuck in an audition in West Hollywood, calling one of her friends to ask: “Can you please pick up the kids from school? There’s no way I’ll make it back in time.”
Wolman grew up in Winnipeg, Canada, and has been singing and performing in one way or another since she was a kid. Her singing didn’t stop her from getting a university degree in nursing. During her many years of struggle, auditions and performances on Broadway, she spent countless hours caring for celebrities in an exclusive rehab hospital in Manhattan.
She moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1990s with her husband and their young boy, and shortly thereafter had a baby girl. Not knowing too many people in their neighborhood on Melrose Boulevard, they hooked up with the Sinai community in Westwood, joined the temple, put their kids in the day school and she soon became your classic, devoted, enthusiastic member of the Los Angeles Jewish community.
But she could never stop singing.
Her new show is an attempt to blend her two lives — devoted showbiz performer and devoted wife, mother, Jew and community member. The show celebrates great Jewish women performers throughout the ages, and while it has completed its limited run, her dream now is to expand it into other cities and communities.
As circumstances would have it, the night after experiencing the pure joy of Wolman’s show, I was at the Odyssey Theatre experiencing the trauma of the Holocaust, in a play by Bernard Weinraub called “The Accomplices.”
The play is about the struggle of one man, Peter Bergson, who comes to America during the Holocaust to mobilize the Jewish community, the White House, Congress, Hollywood and the media to try to do something about the genocide of his people.
There’s a scene where Bergson, pleading his case, explains how many Jews he’d love to save. He starts with huge numbers and then simply says, “even just one.”
For some reason, when Bergson said those words — “even just one” — my mind went back to Wolman’s show from the previous night.
I thought about how Bergson was fighting to save millions of Jews, but he knew that this meant millions of “even just one” — millions of singular Jews of valor like Lesley Wolman, Jews who just wanted a chance to breathe and live out their story.