Word for the Herd: Torah from your favorite teacher
This week I was honored by the Head of School for 2014 as an alumni with continuing values of my High School, The Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. This was the speech I gave accepting the honor.
When I was in my first year at NYU-Tisch school of the arts studying drama and producing, I was encouraged to get my first set of headshots. And printed on the front of every headshot is an artist's name. For many actors they just use their given name but for me the process has proven complicated. In fact the first part of any audition is stating your name for your auditioner and sometimes camera. Perhaps you know, the late Joan rivers, whom I had the pleasure of meeting twice and even speaking a bisl Yiddish with, was originally named Joan Alexandra Molinsky. And last year I was asked by my Pulitzer Prize winning production company to deliver a special message to three time tony nominee Tovah Feldshuh but only in Yiddish. When I got her on the phone She replied: "I can't understand you, I don't speak Yiddish I just perform in it, my real name is Terry Sue." I laughed and somewhere in the back of my mind was inspired by how she Jew-I-fied her name to make it, while at many times I had been encouraged by my industry to do the opposite.
My parents enrolled me at JDS in first grade as Rebecca Eisenstadt but nearly everyone called me Becky and I know by 6th grade I was on record as such. My hebrew name is Keren and I didn't even know it until my bat mitzvah when I started to explore my true identity. Still, I signed my papers in Hebrew class Rivke Alef as there was another Rebecca in my class. So there I was, by 7th grade, Reecca-Becky-Rivke-Keren Eisenstadt. Yet in college I was encouraged to be less identifiably Jewish, and play up my exotic features to be a more marketable artist. It was better to seam like I was an Israeli than just another Jewish girl in New York. So By end of college I was just Rebecca Keren. I had taken long tris to Israel and would even speak Hebrew with an Israeli accent.
There are several people in New York who only know me as Rebecca Keren. And if you asked if they knew Becky Eisenstadt or even Rebecca Eisenstadt they'd say no. As a teacher I go by Becky Keren, and many families on the upper east side of manhattan lovingly talk about being one of Becky's students. I generally keep 30 private students at a time. When I tell them my real full name they giggle that it sounds so European and ask me why I changed it. Yes, by day I work in Broadway and every night and weekends I teach children Hebrew and bnei mitzvah studies.
My identity crisis or metamorphosis can be attributed to a lot of factors. But the core I am who I am is because of JDS. I was in my first performances in these buildings. It is no coincidence one of my favorite english teachers, Mrs. Rosenthal was also a music teacher and singer in her own right. I prided myself on being great at Hebrew and Bible studies. My teachers like Rachel Lerner and Gveret Kedem gave us exciting assignments and I would always write a song or do an accompanying art project with them. I remember where I sat in every class. At the beginning of every school year I'd try to finish our Hebrew language workbooks "yisadot halashon" within a few days. I took pride in being great at Hebrew vocabulary, I volunteered every year multiple times for parashat hashavua and generally was a kiss up when it came to my Judaic studies. I did fine in other subjects but was turned on by all things Jewish, Hebrew and Israel.
Later in Upper-School I had the good fortune of having teachers like Mar Barnoy and Mrs. Ravin multiple times. Rabbi Sales (Z'L), my first rabbinics teacher, left a lasting impression on my understanding of Halacha. But my love of language truly blossomed being able to perform musicals in Hebrew like Joseph and Kazablan. I was also a Hebrew and Bnai mitzvah tutor at my shul, Beth-El. Falling in love, every week, with passing Torah on dot l'dor and consuming my life with a Jewish soundtrack. Besides being an educator, I always volunteered for opportunities to lead our grades zimriah, sing or dance at ceremonies and assemblies, assistant direct the middle school musicals in Hebrew....the list goes on and on.
When I moved to NYU, the school with the largest jewish population, I was actually in culture shock. I was with kids who identified as Jewish yet did not observe traditions. I had class every Friday night and could not take an active role at the campus Hillel. Perhaps it was the competitive and all consuming nature of my arts program, but not one other Jewish student found it troubling that missing school for High Holidays counted as an unexcused absense. We were only allowed two and then would fail a class. Coming from JDS when we had all holidays off to being penalized for observance seemed impossible to me. And much like how I was allowed an encouraged at JDS to organize drama clubs and concerts, I decided to start a women's theater organization at NYU that was sensitive to all religious holidays and would not require students to sacrifice their activities for religion and vice versa. I was offered many opportunities to script my own work and when I did I found myself drawn to Jewish subject matter and areas of study. Using my JDS copy of Elie Wiesel's NIGHT and my JEW IN THE MODERN WORLD, I crafted a one woman show about the rise of prejudice in the 1930s and the Holocaust. I became a member of the student senate and help to make high holidays approved absences for Jewish students. My involvement and leadership allowed me many privileges and opportunities including a breakfast with Oscar winner Meryl Streep on a Good Morning America. When a main production at NYU was announced as a a modern version of The Yiddish classic The Dybbuk, I can realistically say I was the obvious choice to play the lead. And I got It. My work in the start of NYU to hide my Jewishness was not only futile, it was counterproductive. Everything that I was inspired to create had Jewishness at its core.
The National Yiddish theater called NYU looking for actors who spoke Yiddish, and without hesitations sent over my numbers. They said, "We don't know what she speaks ...but this girl is really Jewish." While I had no prior Yiddish under my belt, they felt being near fluent in Hebrew was promising and gave me a scholarship to study to be an actress in their company.
Some of my proudest professional moments have been performing with the National Yiddish Theater Off-Broadway, at Lincoln Center or beyond. I also began writing musicals with Jewish content with five-time Tony Award nominee ELIZABETH SWADOS and have managed grants from individuals and major Jewish organizations for many of her projects with Jewish content. I even had the opportunity to be a part of New York's centennial event honoring the victims of the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory fire, by of course performing in Yiddish, representing the Jewish immigrants who died in the fire.
I now work for one of the foremost Broadway production companies in NYC, holding 36 Tony Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes and countless other awards. While my company is run by four Jewish men, I am still the only person who takes off for Yom Kippur. I am, however a part of all conversations when considering new plays or musicals with Jewish subject matter. I am put in charge of out reach to Jewish groups or Jewish performers. My producers, who produced THE PRODUCERS, affectionately indulge me in stories of the children whose Bar-mitzvahs I lead or trips I guide to Israel. There I am Rebecca Keren Eisenstadt. They all know I'm very Jewish.
What I've noticed more than anything is that my strength in teaching is a combination of all my prior teachers at JDS. Becoming a students friend like Mar Barnoy and Yonina Blech-Harmony. Giving them a piece of jewelry to solidify your connection like Jane Rosenthal. Supporting them in extra curricular activities like performances or sports--- like all my teachers would go to my shows and congratulate me. But more than anything, finding what excites each child about being Jewish and learning Hebrew and playing only to their strengths... the way I found so many of my language teachers did for me.
And as Shakespeare has Juliet say of Romeo: "What's in a name. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Or in. The Yiddish version in which I played Juliet: .אה, ראמיא ראמיא, פארוואס ביזטו ראמיא. ס'איז נאר די נאמען וואס איז מיין פיינט, דו ביזט דאך דו אליין און נישט קיין מאנטיגו, וואס ליגט אין א א נאמען, די זאך וואס אונז רופן רויז, ביי סיי וועלכע נאמען וועט שמעקן די זעלבע זיס,
I think that's what I'm getting at here.
In an attempt to change my name to fit some mold of a perfect Broadway starlet, which is what I thought I wanted, I realize no matter where I go I am more than just generic. I cannot hide my Jewish identity the way I was foolishly advised. And that identity gives me a competitive edge in business, a deep and compassionate way to view to world and create art, and perhaps to my life's greatest calling... allows me to continue passing on a love for the language and customs of Jewish people through teaching. Hebrew and Jewishness is without a doubt the soundtrack of my life and I credit JDS with teaching me how to make the music.