Author Archives: Aileen Jacobson

The Lilith Blog

August 7, 2019 by

The Extraordinary Bravery and Short Life of Hannah Senesh Come to Life in the Revival of a Valuable Play

By all rights, Hannah Senesh should be as widely known and beloved as Anne Frank. Both were young Jewish women who confided their dreams and struggles during the Holocaust to their diaries in bright and sharply observed entries. Both their stories are moving and inspiring, revealing a steadfast spirit and a lively intelligence.

Some people may know her poems, one of which—”Eli, Eli,” has become a poignant liturgical standard. Some may remember Senesh’s story of extraordinary courage, and now more people will, thanks to a play that just opened at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. “Hannah Senesh,” which includes music, dance and songs based on poems Senesh wrote, brings the young idealist to urgent life.

She emigrated from her native Hungary to Palestine in 1939 and, a few years later, volunteered to parachute behind Nazi lines to save other Jews, an arduous and dangerous venture. She was part of a Jewish contingent in a larger British plan to rescue downed English fighter pilots, after which the Jews could attempt their own rescues.

In the play, we first meet Hannah at age 13 and stay with her during the next decade of her eventful life. She starts out as a giddy teenager, announcing she’s a vegetarian as she waves around a stick of celery and tries to figure out how to modify the frilly pink party dress her mother has bought her so that it is more to her liking.

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The Lilith Blog

April 10, 2019 by

A Feminist Takes on the Constitution—Live on Broadway

The easiest word to overlook in the title “What the Constitution Means to Me” is the “me.” The exceptionally moving and surprisingly entertaining play by Heidi Schreck now running at the Helen Hayes Theater on Broadway is about the Constitution, of course.

But it is also about Schreck—who plays herself, the central character—in resonant personal ways: Consider the story she tells of her own great-great grandmother, brought to America when she was purchased for $75 through a matrimonial publication, later placed in a mental institution and dead at age 36 of what the death certificate called “melancholia.” Domestic violence may have been part of the cause. 

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The Lilith Blog

February 26, 2019 by

Fiddler on the Roof (in Yiddish!) and Feminism

fiddler galsPerforming “Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish isn’t just a gimmick. The intimate production now playing at Manhattan’s Stage 42 adds warmth, depth and freshness to the all-too-familiar 1964 musical. It invites a new focus on the meanings of a show that starts out celebrating “Traditsye,” as the rousing opening number is called, and then delineates the demise of some of those notably sexist traditions, like arranged marriages and fathers deciding the fates of their daughters. And yet it’s bittersweet, as these new viewpoints arrive in the midst of a painful ripping apart of a vibrant, cohesive community. This National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene production played for six months at the Museum of Jewish Heritage on Battery Place, where it extended and sold out four times, before moving uptown to 42nd Street, a more convenient location for many theatergoers. 

Within the comfortable fold of “Fiddler,” the production’s English translations hardly seem necessary. Many theatergoers know the dialogue and lyrics by heart. Or think they do. Reading the English words as they are projected on the set forces a new kind of attention.

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The Lilith Blog

December 4, 2018 by

“Do You Know What Meshugge Means?”

She was meshugge,” Gladys, the strong-willed octogenarian played by Elaine May in “The Waverly Gallery,” says lightly about a relative. Then she leans over conspiratorially to her young-adult grandson Daniel, with whom she’s discussing family history, and asks, “Do you know what that word means?”

He tells her twice—louder the second time—that he does, but she hasn’t heard him. “It means kooky, you know: a little nutty,” Gladys explains in this gentle bit of humor that helps to signal that this is a play about a Jewish family.

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The Lilith Blog

November 6, 2018 by

Gloria Steinem’s Life, Onstage

 (L-R)  Joanna  Glushak,  Fedna  Jacquet,  Francesca  Fernandez  McKenzie,  Christine  Lahti,  Patrena  Murray,  DeLanna  Studi,  and  Liz  Wisan  in  GLORIA:  A  Life  by  Emily  Mann,  directed  by  Diane  Paulus,  at  the  Daryl  Roth  Theatre.  Photo  ©  Joan  Marcus.

(L-R) Joanna Glushak, Fedna Jacquet, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Christine Lahti, Patrena Murray, DeLanna Studi, and Liz Wisan in GLORIA: A Life by Emily Mann, directed by Diane Paulus, at the Daryl Roth Theatre. Photo © Joan Marcus.

As I entered a Midtown Manhattan building a couple of years ago, I spotted a slim familiar-looking woman with blond hair rushing out. Wide-eyed, I asked the two thirty-something security guards–one male, one female–”Was that Gloria Steinem?”

They replied, “Who’s Gloria Steinem?”

A few days later, I related my astonishment about the guards’ reaction to two other thirty-somethings–one male, one female–whom I know to be college-educated, media savvy and squarely in favor of equality for women.

They, too, asked, “Who’s Gloria Steinem?”

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The Lilith Blog

October 11, 2018 by

The Chutzpah of Sarah Bernhardt

6xfxanLASarah Bernhardt had chutzpah. This illegitimate daughter of a Dutch Jewish courtesan had already gained wide renown as the best actress of her day when she decided to take on an exceptionally high-profile, high-risk role: She wanted to play Hamlet. Not girlfriend Ophelia or mother Gertrude, but the Danish prince himself, considered by many to be Shakespeare’s most difficult and iconic character. 

It was a glass-ceiling-breaking move, one among several in Bernhardt’s career, and it inspired playwright Theresa Rebeck to build a play, set in 1897, around Bernhardt’s struggles. First Bernhardt had to overcome the dismissive skepticism of some men: “It’s grotesque. If Shakespeare meant for Hamlet to be a woman, he would have named the play ‘Hamlet princess of Denmark,” Rebeck has one critic protest.

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The Lilith Blog

September 21, 2018 by

A Forgotten Lillian Hellman Play That Deserves Another Chance

Set in a small town in Ohio and revolving around a workers’ strike at a brush factory, Lillian Hellman’s little-known play, “Days to Come,” was a resounding flop when it debuted on Broadway in 1936. Hellman, who had enjoyed great acclaim for her first play, “The Children’s Hour,” went on to even wider success and fame with her next play, “The Little Foxes.” 

But at the opening night of this one, her second-born, as she recalled in her 1973 memoir “Pentimento,” she stood at the back of the theater, sensed that things were going wrong, and vomited. Then she saw William Randolph Hearst and his six guests walk out during the second act. Bad reviews and a quick closing followed.

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The Lilith Blog

April 27, 2018 by

What Is a Feminist Audience to Make of Albee’s Anti-Semitic Matron?

Glenda Jackson in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, directed by Joe Mantello, at the Golden Theatre. Photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe.

Glenda Jackson in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, directed by Joe Mantello, at the Golden Theatre. Photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe.

Edward Albee often said that he modeled the main character in “Three Tall Women” on his adoptive mother, from whom he was estranged and about whom he never had anything good to say.

If it’s a revenge play, as some people have speculated, then he failed, though he presents the old woman with all her failings, including an anti-Semitic (and racist) streak. But the two-act drama now at the Golden Theater on Broadway is far more nuanced than that.

First of all, it is a terrific play and a terrific production, often bitterly funny about the indignities of aging. (I don’t recall laughing much, or hearing much laughter, during its 1994 Off-Broadway debut.) 

The play is also, it turns out, far more forgiving and understanding about the flinty, demanding and frequently imperious central character played by Glenda Jackson than the playwright perhaps intended. Or, more likely, he did intend, as he explored the reasons for his mother’s extreme discontent, to come to terms with how she treated him. And to allow audience members to come to their own conclusions.

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The Lilith Blog

April 12, 2018 by

How Feminist is the “Mean Girls” Musical, Really?

"Mean Girls" playing at the August Wilson Theater.

“Mean Girls” playing at the August Wilson Theater.

“Mean Girls,” the shiny new musical about high school cliques written by Tina Fey and based on her movie of the same name, concludes with some upbeat messages for teenaged girls: Don’t pretend to be less smart than you are to attract boys. Don’t try to be someone you’re not in order to fit in: be yourself. And don’t forget to be, as one anthem is titled, “Fearless.”

Wait a minute! Is this 2018? Why do girls still need to be told these basics? And this is supposedly an updated version of the 2004 movie, not a throwback. There are plenty of references to social media and a new nugget of advice: Don’t send nude photos of yourself over the internet, because boys will share them, though wouldn’t it be nice if they didn’t.

This apparent lack of progress can make a seasoned feminist’s heart sink. Has anything really changed over the last half-century?

The show, with music by Jeff Richmond (Fey’s husband) and lyrics by Nell Benjamin (who co-wrote music and lyrics for the similarly upbeat “Legally Blonde”), is hardly anti-feminist, and it could be seen only as a good-natured and often funny look at an awkward period in everyone’s life. But it sends mixed messages. The most envied girls at the high school wear super-short skirts, super-high heels and manes of glossy hair. These are the title’s mean girls, and who wouldn’t want to be like them? The musical is supposedly saying that no one should—but that is not the aesthetic or emotional message.

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Feminists In Focus

December 23, 2017 by

When a Woman Made Decisions at Washington Post: New Movie Tells All. Or Most.

The Post, 20th Century Fox

The Post, 20th Century Fox

“The Post,” a new movie starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks and directed by Steven Spielberg, could be seen mainly as a saga about the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers. Or it could be seen as a film about the workings of a newspaper—in this case, The Washington Post.

But, really, what it most feels like is a story about the evolution of a feminist, or at least the beginnings of that evolution. That emerging feminist is Katherine Graham, then the publisher of the Washington Post, a position that had been thrust upon her after her husband’s suicide. She had to make the difficult decision of whether to print contents of the leaked Pentagon Papers despite threats of criminal charges from the White House and warnings from bankers that the move could lead to her company’s demise.

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