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Arts and Culture

May 15, 2012 By:
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South Street’s Magic Garden, created by legendary mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar, is one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. Photo by JA Kemp.

Philadelphia’s cultural canvas bears the distinct imprint of the Jews who have been creators, producers and patrons of the arts. Music, theater, food, literature, paintings, radio, television, newspapers: Philadelphia’s Jews have been leaders in the creation and cultivation of every sphere. The Jewish influence is heard in the orchestrations of Eugene Ormandy and the klezmer trumpeting of Susan Watts. It’s read in the literature of Chaim Potok and Jennifer Weiner. It’s seen on buildings graced with painted tableaus created by Jane Golden’s Mural Arts Program and on walls that glitter with Isaiah Zagar’s mosaics. It comes through the radio courtesy of Jerry Blavat, who keeps us dancing, and Terry Gross, who keeps us thinking, and through television and movies created here because Sharon Pinkenson brought Hollywood to Philadelphia. And the Jewish influence is literally tasted at tables in nationally renowned restaurants created by Rich Landau, Marc Vetri and Michael Solomonov. In the past 125 years, the Jewish influence has been particularly strong in theater, in creating works for the stage and in providing stages for those performances. The modern era began with the unlikely renaissance of South Broad Street in the 1990s. Then-mayor Ed Rendell paved the way for the Avenue of the Arts, Sidney Kimmel sponsored it and Meryl Levitz, president/CEO of Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp., promoted it to the world. But the Jewish influence on Philadelphia’s performing arts stretches back to the late 1880s and the introduction of Yiddish theater. Infused with the Yiddishkeit of the newly arrived Eastern European immigrants, the city became home to the Arch Street Theater and The Oriental, where Molly Picon, Jacob Adler and Boris Thomashevsky spoke and sang in the mamaloshen. “Yiddish theater producers, designers, playwrights, musicians, comedians, actors and audiences created a culture that morphed into what would become the heyday of American musical theater,” says Linda Steinberg, director of education at the National Museum of American Jewish History. “All of that talent went to Broadway, then the Catskills, then Hollywood. We see echoes of it today in every single comedian — Jewish or not — who has that sense of Borscht Belt humor and the serious but lyrical scripts written by David Mamet and Tony Kushner.” That Jewish talent is also on display in the productions staged by EgoPo, a Philadelphia theater company founded and directed by Lane Savadove. It’s in evidence at the Wilma Theater through the work of Walter Bilderback, dramaturg and literary manager, and Sara Garonzik, the producing artistic director of the Philadelphia Theater Company, and Shira Beckerman, its managing director. And Yiddishkeit humor is in evidence at Marc Grossman’s Helium Comedy Club. Because if all the world is a stage, we might as well laugh about it.

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