Philadelphia has long had a vibrant history of arts and culture, much of it Jewish in nature or production. The first mainstream play to have a Jewish protagonist, The Jew, by British dramatist Richard Cumberland, had its Philadelphia debut in 1830. Actress Molly Picon, born in New York in 1898, was rumored to have started her career by singing on Philadelphia trolley cars when she was 5. Siegmund Lubin established a motion picture studio at 20th and Indiana streets in 1910. And photographer Man Ray, although raised in Brooklyn, was born in South Philly in 1890.
Significant Jewish cultural figures emerged in Philadelphia last century as well, including rare book dealers Phillip and A.S.W. Rosenbach, artist Sidney Goodman and musical entrepreneur Larry Magid.
The tradition continues today with The West Philadelphia Orchestra, klezmer performers like Elaine Hoffman Watts and Susan Hoffman Watts, South Philadelphia storefront synagogue-cum-arts venue the Little Shul and Old City Jewish Art Center — all contributing to artistic and cultural life in the city.
But what inspires today’s local Jewish movers and shakers in the local arts community to do what they do?
The Lion of Philadelphia
“How did Philadelphia not have a Jewish theater?” Deborah Baer Mozes asked in a recent phone interview. “I started Theatre Ariel because I thought there was a gap in the theatrical and cultural mosaic in Philadelphia, which once had a vibrant Jewish theater scene.”
Mozes started Theatre Ariel in Lower Merion in 1990, when many Jewish theaters and theater groups existed across the country, like The Jewish Theatre of New England, The Jewish Theatre of Arizona and the American Jewish Theatre in New York — but there was nothing similar to be found in Philadelphia.
The roots of the genre can be traced back to the early 1900s, when there was a viable Yiddish theater world, primarily in New York City. (Philadelphia had several Yiddish theaters during the first part of the 20th century, including two on Girard Avenue and one at Fifth and Locust streets.) Famed playwright and NPR commentator Murray Horwitz is rumored to have said, “At the turn of the century, on any given Friday night, one out of every 10 Jewish families lit Shabbat candles, while the other nine went to the Yiddish theater.”
Yiddish theater featured provocative plays, like Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, while more popular productions influenced vaudeville and what became the popular musical theater. In fact, the first actors’ union was formed by Yiddish actors. Eventually, assimilation, World War I and the movement of talent to Hollywood caused the demise of Yiddish theater.
Mozes, who also works as the director of cultural affairs at the Israeli Consulate in Philadelphia, mentioned that George Washington wanted a theater in Philadelphia — which went against the grain of Quaker society — and that the City of Brotherly Love was an important stop on the Yiddish theater circuit. “Jacob Adler, and all of the greats, came to Philadelphia to perform,” she said.
Theatre Ariel produces a number of home-grown shows, recently doing so in the intimate salon format. Its recent production, Hungry Heart, by Dennis Moritz, a Philadelphia playwright, chronicles the life of the early 20th-century Jewish immigrant writer Anzia Yezierska. Other successful productions include 7 Imaginings of Sarai and Hagar, by Gabrielle S. Kaplan, and the children’s show, Old Tales/New Sparks, an interactive piece that adapted Talmudic legends and Yiddish folktales for the stage.
“I consider myself a Jewish theater artist — not just a theater artist,” the director, dramaturg and playwright said proudly. She emphasized that for Theatre Ariel, the content has to be Jewish — even if the playwright is not. “Why be a Jewish theater if not doing theater about the Jewish experience?”
Mozes was very conscientious about naming her theater. She didn’t want to call it “The Jewish Theater of Philadelphia” — she wanted a Hebrew name.
“ ‘Ariel’ means ‘God’s Lion,’ which is an intricate part of Judaica,” she explained. “A lot of shuls have it on the bimah. I liked the idea of ritual and the theater world, and of having a logo that was part of our culture and history. A lion is a majestic, powerful creature, and theater is a powerful transformative arts form.”
Mozes got bitten by the theater bug early. She grew up in New York City’s Washington Heights, and Teaneck, N.J., in an artistic household. She recalled, “When I was younger, my parents took me to see Shakespeare, opera, museums and all the high arts. In middle and high school, the other kids went to amusement parks and cool things; when we went on vacation, we went to the Berkshires and Tanglewood.”
Mozes learned the craft of theater in part by working with two important acting teachers, Sonia Moore and Herbert Berghof, both of whom were Jewish.
“Berghof was married to Uta Hagen, and they started HB theater,” she said. “I studied with them because to be a good director, you need to understand the acting process.”
Another mentor was Rabbi Neal Rose, whom she met while working at the Winnipeg Jewish Theater after college. Rose introduced Mozes to the havurah movement.
She recalled, “He ran an alternative service and wanted me to put movement to text. I’m a curious person, so even though I wasn’t sure what he was talking about, I said, ‘Sure!’ He showed me text, which was really moving, and I ended up going to shul and davening, and out of that friendship, he taught me Torah and that led to me going on a more religious journey.”
Equally influential was her understanding that Judaism can — and should — be expressed through art as well as through tikkun olam like social action and civil rights. “This was ingrained in me,” she emphasized. “It is what a Jew did: the prophetic and cultural tradition. Now I’m way more observant, I keep a kosher home, my daughter made aliyah and I don’t work on Shabbat.”
Immersed in Art
The idea of tikkun olam also resonates with Rachel Zimmerman, executive director of InLiquid, a resource for local artists to showcase their work.
Zimmerman said her mission was “to make it easier for artists to be successful, and to help younger artists not be taken advantage of” as they start their careers.
“It’s that Jewish thing about giving back to your community — and being engaged in the community,” she explained. Zimmerman wanted her contribution to be “through art — making it more accessible, enabling artists to have access to things they could not find on their own. I wanted to tie the community together in a more meaningful way by creating a network of artists and sharing that knowledge.”
Founded in 1999, InLiquid now represents nearly 300 artists and designers. The company launched out of Zimmerman’s house in Old City, with a website featuring 20 or so artists, most of whom were friends of hers. InLiquid now resides in the Crane Arts Building in Kensington, where there is enough space to accommodate events with hundreds of attendees, benefits, exhibits and offices.
“We’ve proven we are worthwhile,” Zimmerman said like the proud mama she is. “One artist said she has gallery representation in Connecticut and shows nationally because of InLiquid. For some artists, it works well, there is value and it is sustaining. For others, it is a launching pad. We are only as good as the artists on the site.”
Before Zimmerman started her company, she went to the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and worked in galleries in New York prior to returning to Philadelphia. She grew up in West Philly, attending Hebrew school at Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne.
Among Zimmerman’s biggest influences is her father, a pediatric radiologist who had a darkroom in their home where Zimmerman used to hone her craft. “I was developing pictures of brains and spines. Printing these images helped me do my own artwork. I’d spend three hours printing them in the days before Photoshop.”
Zimmerman also found a mentor when she went to work for gallery owner Helen Williams Drutt English, a major figure in the craft movement. She acknowledged, “My medium isn’t craft, but I learned a tremendous amount about that art form. Helen believed in the artists she worked with, and she strived to give them the support they needed.
“Helen made Philadelphia a destination for American crafts. Her spirit of wanting to have artists of Philadelphia recognized nationally was really important to me: If she could do it, we all could do it.”
She explained how this motivated her to create InLiquid: “Stop complaining and let’s do something about it. We can’t all move to New York. Embrace the city we live in! They can’t find us unless we are together and have the strength of all of our voices. If we are seen as second best — it’s time to stop doing that. I want people to thrive and do art here.”
To that end, InLiquid hosts various programs throughout the year, from its Annual Benefit to “Art for the Cash Poor,” an inexpensive art sale that allows collectors to buy art for under $200. “It’s a family-friendly event, with music, food trucks and a beer tent,” Zimmerman said, adding, “We want to engage our space in ways that are more community-based, more accessible than a commercial gallery.”
One upcoming collaboration that Zimmerman is excited about is an exhibit planned for May featuring elaborate chandeliers by Warren Muller, of Bahdeebadhu in Old City and photography of lighting stores in the Bowery by New York artist Geanna Merola. “When I saw her work, I wanted an exhibit of her and Warren together,” Zimmerman explained. “And when they met, they were soulmates. It’s like being a matchmaker!”
He Picks the Flicks
J. Andrew Greenblatt always knew he wanted to “make movies somehow” during his childhood in suburban Philadelphia — first in Dresher, then in Ambler. He spent his teen years watching two to three films every weekend, his bedroom was covered with movie posters and he belonged to a film club in high school, with a teacher who would sometimes drive the students down to the Ritz for art-house fare.
All of that training paid off: Greenblatt is now the executive director of the Philadelphia Film Society. He brings no small amount of working knowledge to the position: He is also a film producer, whose credits include the made-in-Philadelphia films, Explicit Ills (2008) and café (2011). He also produced two films in 2010, the Will Ferrell dramedy Everything Must Go and Twelve, an adaptation of Nick McDowell’s novel.
Greenblatt has led the Philadelphia Film Society since September 2008, and his responsibilities include running the Philadelphia Film Festival. Over the years, he has brought filmmakers including David O. Russell for The Silver Linings Playbook, Robert Zemeckis for Flight, Alexander Payne for Nebraska, and many others to premiere their films and engage in post-screening Q&As with the audience.
While much of his work involves fundraising, Greenblatt attends most of the top-tier film festivals: Sundance, South by Southwest, Tribeca, Cannes, Toronto, AFI (Los Angeles) and the American Film Market, as well as festivals in Rome and Berlin.
“I am looking for films to program at the festival and to program at the Roxy,” he said, referencing the Center City theater complex that serves as the society’s official home base.
Greenblatt’s latest venture has been to acquire the Prince Music Theater at Broad and Chestnut, which will become a hub for the Film Society and the annual Philadelphia Film Festival.
“It’s the centerpiece of the festival, and most of our biggest films are there. It’s so critical to what we do at the Film Society,” he explained. “It’s equally important to so many other area nonprofits because of its size, flexibility and price. We couldn’t figure out how we would live without it, so we figured out a way to acquire it so it would be available to us and everybody else.”
The venue, which Greenblatt says was obtained “through the incredibly generous grant from the Wyncote Foundation,” will showcase films in summer and winter and during Oscar season, but it will also be available for rent by other nonprofits, such as The Curtis Institute and the Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus — organizations that have been longtime renters. “Our goal is to have this venue utilized as much as possible so people can enjoy this treasure of the Avenue of the Arts all year-’round.”
While he consumed film at every opportunity growing up, his family, which was moderately religious — they belong to Tiferet Bet Israel in Blue Bell — were theater people. Greenblatt’s path to a film career began when he was in law school and a close friend asked him to come out to Los Angeles to help him with some film projects. His friend started a production company, Film 101 Productions, and after graduation, Greenblatt helped produce several documentaries and Explicit Ills.
In his current role at the Philadelphia Film Festival, Greenblatt does show Jewish films, but he specifically does not program sidebars on Jewish or Israeli cinema so as not to take away from other local fests like The Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival and the Israeli Film Festival.
“We appreciate all of the other fests, and want them to have their moment in the sun. We don’t want to take too much from them,” he explained. “It’s good to have these Jewish and Israeli film festivals, because there’s so much content — good content — and audiences need to have the opportunity to see it. There are so many niche genres that specialty festivals are necessary. The Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival sells out screenings because it has a strong level of support, which speaks to why you should have those festivals.”
“What I love about film,” Greenblatt added, “is that you can express and experience so much through it. It is accessible and appealing, and it can play to anyone. You don’t need a formal education to understand film to enjoy it.”
Get With the Programming
Sahar Oz is also well-versed in the intricacies of bringing in film festival audiences. He directed the Cherry Hill Volvo Jewish Film Festival of the Katz JCC from 2008 to 2014. Under his direction, festival screenings grew from 10 to 31 films per year, and attendance increased from 2,300 to almost 5,000.
Now Oz has been newly minted as the director of programs at the Gershman Y, where his responsibilities include everything but the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival. Some of his recent accomplishments include art exhibits, such as the recent “And the word is…” and dance performances, like a recent feminist interpretation of the story of Purim, literary readings and more.
Oz, who was born in Israel, came to the United States with his family in 1985. Before moving to Chester County, they lived in Boston and the suburbs of Detroit.
“I grew up speaking Hebrew,” he explained. “But I grew up in a secular Jewish home. We celebrated holidays, but didn’t keep kosher or observe Shabbat.”
What bound the family was “a tremendous emphasis placed on education and history — knowing it, living it and examining it.”
He continued: “I grew up in a home that appreciated the arts. We would go to shows, lectures, museums as a family in part because we didn’t have a lot of income. We pursued culture through financially attainable ways. We’d ride our bicycles to the science museum in Boston.
“After we moved to Philly, where there is such a thriving cultural scene, we would go in to see shows like Pink Floyd laser shows at the Franklin Institute, or to see Marcel Marceau at the Kimmel Center.
“I would say that Israeli literature, theater and music as a body has influenced me more than anything else. This is the best example of a secular yet instinctively Jewish expression of arts and culture and ideas. I developed an appreciation for culture, and now it is my life. I love that.”
Oz’s work at the Gershman Y involves bringing in dance, visual artists and performance artists, literati and more. He is involved in an upcoming program hosting the largest exhibition of contemporary Israeli art in the United States in well over a decade. Featuring 45 Israeli artists, the show — called “Visions of Place” — is being curated by Marty Rosenberg, of Rutgers Camden and Society Hill Synagogue, and Susan Isaacs, who teaches at Towson University in Maryland. The exhibit will span four sites: the Gershman Y, Rutgers Camden, Towson University and the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts.
“This is a perfect milieu for me to interact with people of all backgrounds, across all ages,” said Oz. “It’s exciting and inspiring to meet people who are on their own Jewish journey, and I play a role in their getting excited, or educated, or discovering a new skill. The beauty of art is that it gets people riled up — in a good or a bad way — because it spurs discussion,” Oz added of his role at the Y. “That sense of the experience of seeing someone discover something new because of their exposure to art, culture, music — it’s priceless.”
Gary M. Kramer is a frequent contributor to Inside. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.