She hasn’t slowed down; on the contrary, even after a bad bout of pneumonia, she got up the other day, “back in fighting form” with “new york on the horizon.”
Growing up in a Jewish family in the 1930s, Irene faced many challenges. After several interviews with me, in her typical honesty, she shared what few would even admit to themselves: “Much as I longed to be like everyone else, fitting the norm and marrying at 19, I was always out of sync, it seemed to me—always the wrong age, place, time, sex, or ethnic background.”
It’s precisely this willingness to analyze life realistically which comes through powerfully in her writing as a theatre critic. The woman who is brutally honest with herself is also the person who is willing to go all out for new plays. She loves discovering new playwrights; directors; actors; set, costume and lighting designers—not only on Broadway, but especially in off and off-off Broadway theatres.
Irene has been a prolific critic of Jewish theater in New York City and Connecticut for more than a quarter of a century, and has been published in such diverse periodicals as The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Jewish Post & Opinion, and All About Jewish Theatre, where she became the most widely published critic. After raising four children, she returned to the academic world, studied Theatre History and Criticism at City University of New York and wrote her dissertation on the Jewish Repertory Theatre: Her East Side Story became a seminal work, winning a first-place National Book Award in History, among others.
Through many years of writing theater reviews of major plays, Irene said that “over the years, I’ve tended to be gentle, muting the criticism or not even mentioning poor performances.… But of late, I’ve become blunter, more ornery, letting the arrows fall where they may. It’s probably an indication of old age.”
Despite her self-diagnosis, one would be hard pressed to find anyone involved with Jewish theatre who has an unkind word for Irene. In fact, she has become a role model for many of us, including some of the most established members of the Jewish theatre community.
Now 90, Backalenick is still navigating her way through the labyrinth of New York, unafraid of searching for new basement theaters or of mingling with the festive crowd at an opening on Broadway. When I asked her how she does it, she wrote, in her matter-of-factish way, “I get around New York mostly by walking or by subway…. I’ve been known to sprint across Grand Central Station, barely making the train.”
Irene, may you sprint to catch the last train at Grand Central Station many more times, and may you write many more reviews, especially as you, to quote a Yiddish proverb, more than qualify: “Zi iz mushlemes bekhol hamayles!” or, “She’s got it all!”
I would like to thank everyone involved in this special birthday surprise for the amazing Irene Backalenick on her 90th birthday, writers as far apart as Canada and Brazil, Israel and Australia, and from all over the United States of America who received secret e-mails, to make sure that Irene would not hear about our joint effort in sending her our bouquet of memories and a cascade of our congratulations to one of our finest. It’s an honor, Irene, to call you a friend.
With love, with love from all of us,
A Bouquet of Memories
An Ideal Advocate and Spokesperson
Q: How did you meet Irene Backalenick?
A: Many moons ago in the early stages of researching Jewish plays and playwrights in America, I interviewed the principals of one of New York's two Jewish theatres, Ran Avni and Ed Cohen. They lost little time in proudly referring me to East Side Story, a recently-published history of the Jewish Repertory Theatre. That was the first time I'd heard of Irene Backalenick. The first, but thankfully, hardly the last.
Not long after, I met Irene at a conference of the Association for Jewish Theatre, then called the Council of Jewish Theatres, where she gave a run-down of that season's plays of Jewish interest in New York. She had seen everything!
Q: How did Irene initially strike you?
A: Her lively presentations became one of the highlights of the annual AJT meetings. I never failed to be impressed by Irene's sharp critical eye and measured, well-substantiated judgments. We talked shop over lunch that first day—the start of many (but never enough) opportunities to enthuse (and sometimes lament) over a subject dear to both of us. Irene's wide knowledge and lively enthusiasm are matched by her inexhaustible energies. She continues to review for several publications.
Q: She writes about practically every Jewish play.
A: Yes, American Jewish Theatre is fortunate to have found an ideal advocate and spokesperson in Irene. She is a thorough scholar, a fine reviewer, and a graceful writer. Best of all, she is a warm, generous human being. It is a privilege to benefit from her work, to call her friend, and to have this opportunity to salute her.
To one hundred and twenty, Irene—and always on the aisle, big hugs.
Professor Emeritus, Author and Editor of numerous books on Jewish Theatre
New York City, NY
An Outstanding Writer—A Real Mensch
Q: What happened at the launch of All About Jewish Theatre?
A: I met Irene and her husband Bob at the AJT international conference at Theatre J in Washington, DC, in March 2003. On this occasion we had the launch ceremony of All About Jewish Theatre. We sat next to each other at the same table during the dinner party where she suggested writing a summary of the conference for All About Jewish Theatre to which I agreed.
Q: How did Irene become the New York correspondent for AAJT?
A: At the conference she also suggested being our NY correspondent. I was delighted. Since then for the last 8 years she wrote almost 200 reviews on a weekly/monthly basis and every year during the summer holiday a season overview.
Q: She was your first American correspondent.
A: Yes, and since that time, with Irene’s help, we’ve built up our network of theatre critics. Today, AAJT has 18 correspondents in many cities, including Washington, DC; Philadelphia; Chicago; London; Jerusalem; Tel Aviv, and more.
Q: How do you see Irene’s contribution as a writer?
A: Irene is an outstanding person with a uniquely great sense of responsibility, high standards, and professional values—a real "Mensch.” I'm honored that I had the opportunity to meet and collaborate with Irene and want to wish her and her family much happiness and a long life.
Yom Huledet Same'ach, Happy Birthday, Irene.
Director & Chief Editor
All About Jewish Theatre
Tel Aviv, Israel
An Amazing and Delightful Shadow
Q: How did you meet Irene?
A: Irene wrote to us because she was doing the dissertation and I remember that I answered. She came and talked to me and I invited her to avail herself of any information she could uncover. We were a very small organization at the time. It was only Ran Avni and me, working out of one small office at the 14th St Y. We were so constantly involved in crises with the current productions, the upcoming productions, answering the phones, selling tickets, reading scripts and casting, etc., that we had no time to think past the present moment.
Q: What kind of impression did the younger Irene leave on you?
A: Irene came in and quietly and steadily worked her way through piles and piles of old papers, programs, reviews, correspondence and made a coherent picture of our history which we never could have done on our own. She interviewed anyone she could find and was just always there—like a quiet shadow in the office—while we went about our business in our usual hysterical ways. But when the book was done, we were amazed and delighted.
Edward M. Cohen
Former Associate Director of the Jewish Repertory Theater
Author and Playwright
New York City, NY
Just the Kind of Person a Playwright Wants in a Critic
Q: As an academic, how did you see Irene Backalenick’s work?
A: I first became acquainted with Irene and her work in the mid-eighties when she contacted me in connection with her doctoral dissertation on New York City's Jewish Repertory Theatre, which was later published as the award-winning East Side Story: Ten Years with the Jewish Repertory Theatre. As one of the founders of what became the Association for Jewish Theatre, I was pleased that someone with Irene's critical and scholarly qualifications was undertaking this seminal study—which I later referred to and quoted from in an article I wrote for a book about Jewish American Dramatists. From then on I was delighted to be able to enjoy Irene's informative and insightful reviews of just about everything of Jewish interest appearing on the New York stage.
Q: When did you actually meet her?
A: This culminated for me in having the pleasure of having dinner with her at an AJT conference in 2009. I found her to be charming, well-informed, level-headed, and fair-minded—just the sort of person a playwright, like myself, would want in a critic!
Q: What impact has Irene had on you personally?
A: What I admired most about what she told me of her life was how, while strongly committed to her family and work, she managed to get herself a degree with highest honors from Brown University in her mid-twenties and a doctorate from the City University of New York in her mid-sixties. As a theatre professor and artist still active on all cylinders at the age of 77, I look up to Irene as an inspiring role model—persisting, as she so well put it, until I "run out of steam and collapse . . . watching [teaching, writing, directing] a marvelous play!"
Norman J. Fedder, Ph.D.
University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Theatre, Kansas State University
Associate Director/Professor, Interdisciplinary Arts Program, Nova Southeastern University
Playwright and Registered Drama Therapist/Board Certified Trainer
Delray Beach, FL
A Dynamic Force in American Jewish Theatre
Q: When did you meet Irene?
A: I had the pleasure of meeting Irene Backalenick close to fifteen years ago when I attended several Association of Jewish Theatre conferences. Irene always reviewed plays that were on Broadway or in other areas at that time which she thought would interest those of us in Jewish theatre. I valued her opinion and reviews.
Q: How has Irene affected your work?
A: I founded the West Coast Jewish Theatre in 1993 with the good advice and help from several of the members of AJT. When I presented a one-act play at a conference in Saratoga, Florida, Irene gave me much encouragement to continue. When I sent Irene a copy of my memoirs, The Builder’s Daughter, she was kind enough to write a wonderful review of the book.
Q: How do you see her impact on Jewish theatre as a whole?
A: Irene Backalenick unselfishly and capably has been a dynamic force in Jewish theatre in America. I am happy to honor her and wish her good health and happiness in the coming years.
Naomi Karz Jacobs
Author, Playwright, and Founder of the West Coast Jewish Theatre
Los Angeles, CA
Deep Knowledge of Jewish Theater
Q: How did you first encounter Irene Backalenick?
A: Irene Backalenick first reviewed my play A Shylock in 1995, when she was writing for Backstage. I did not know her history as a reviewer and a writer at that time, but I definitely appreciated her deep knowledge of Jewish theater. Imagine my surprise when I met her, years later, through the AJT.
Q: As a Jewish playwright, producer, and director of a New York theatre, how did her work impact you?
A: It was my pleasure to read her continual reviews of the New York Jewish theater scene. It was a service to me, both as a potential audience member who wanted to sort through the thousands of productions here in the city, and as a producer of theater who wanted to spread the word. As Executive Director of the AJT, I very much appreciated the service she was providing to members by keeping them updated about Jewish-themed productions in the area.
Q: Theatre critics and theatre artists often have an on-off, if not troubled relationship.
A: True. Artists and creators have a relationship that can be contentious at times, but everyone, readers and artists alike, appreciate a critic who brings experience and knowledge to their writing. Irene's long lifetime of experience watching and writing about Jewish theater is something very valuable to us all, and I am grateful that she has been able to continually share it.
Playwright, Director, Artistic Director of Untitled Theater Company #61
Former Executive Director of the AJT and chair of the 2009 AJT conference in New York
New York City, NY
How Does a Photographer Bring out a Private Person’s Liveliness?
Q: Irene never seeks the limelight. Instead, she goes all out to feature others in the theatre world. How did you bring out her liveliness and youthfulness through your camera lens?
A: I just treated her like an actor and found places to shoot backstage at New York City’s Theater for the New City that would lend an interesting and "textured" setting. As is my practice, I showed her the photos as we went along so we could refine the concepts together. I like to shoot collaboratively with my subjects.
Actor, Press Agent and Theatrical Photographer.
Greenwich Village, New York City, NY
Powerfully influencing people and communities and never knowing it
Q: You spoke highly about Irene Backalenick on several occasions. As the founding artistic director of the Jewish theatre of Philadelphia, what influence did she have on your work?
A: There are people who influence a person and a community in important ways and never know it—so I appreciate having the opportunity to acknowledge and thank Irene. In 1990, as I was creating Theatre Ariel, I came across her book, EAST SIDE STORY: Ten Years with the Jewish Repertory Theatre. The story she wrote was an important case study on creating a contemporary American Jewish theater. Reading her work gave me the inspiration and strength to pursue my dream: Theatre Ariel.
Q: What role did you see Irene play in the Association for Jewish Theatre?
A: I was very excited when Irene came to the then Council on Jewish Theatre conference and shared her important review of Jewish theatre in NYC. As we grew from the “Council” to the “Association,” Irene's contributions to our annual conferences have been very important. Irene has always been the highlight of our conference, and I greatly appreciate her wit, insight, and feisty spirit.
Q: Attending Irene’s virtual 90th birthday party, what toast would you propose?
A: Irene, your contributions to AJT, including Theatre Ariel, continue with each review that you share with us. May you continue to bring NYC's Jewish theatre to all of us across North America and beyond until you are 120!
Deborah Baer Mozes
Artistic Director, Theatre Ariel
A Cascade of Congratulations
“We salute her. We admire her. We treasure her.”
Irene Backalenick's discerning, appreciative, affirming critical eye has helped to celebrate and advance the field of Jewish Theater in America for decades.
We, the writers and artists, producers and audience members who benefit from her celebrating robust Jewish expression, stand in awe of her fortitude, her constancy, her passion, durable commitment to the art form, to the ritual, to the civic enterprise that is attending and supporting the theater.
We wish her more than the best. We thank her for the endless hours, the rivers of ink, the forests of paper that have all been marshaled for the purposes of transmitting to the greater population a sense of what transpired in a sacred theatrical space. Irene has lifted our field and conferred honor upon our profession.
We salute her. We admire her. We treasure her.
Happy Birthday, Irene!
Artistic Director, Theater J
In your 90th year, blessings from Psalm 90
Dear Irene, thank you for decades of unstinting enthusiasm and encouragement, exemplary critical acumen, devotion to the Jewish part of theatre and for reminding us of the dignity and importance of the work we do. And particular thanks for your enthusiasm and gracious support of the short lived but very alive Mosaic Theatre at the 92nd St. Y in NYC, more than 20 years ago.
In your 90th year, these words of blessing from Psalm 90:
“Teach us to number our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart
. . . Let the work of our hands prosper, O prosper the work of our hands.”
With love and gratitude,
Director, Department of Dance and Theatre, Manhattanville College
Director, Editor, Translator
New York, NY
A true advocate for the Association for Jewish Theatre
Irene infuses her reviews with the vision that propels her writing gracefully into what's behind the script and production. That quality, Grace, is most satisfying in maintaining the integrity of the piece while being mindful of the care and taste of the team behind the work. She is truly wonderful to work with and always passionate about the reviews she puts out there. A true advocate for the Association for Jewish Theatre, a true advocate for theatre.
Former Artistic Director of the Winnipeg Jewish Theater
Actor and Teacher at the University of Acting and Musical Theatre at the University of Winnipeg
Past President of the Association of Jewish Theatre
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
A Great Recorder of Jewish Theatre
Through her work, Irene has been a great recorder of Jewish theatre over her long and illustrious career. Jewish culture has always revered memory. The importance of those who record and transmit that memory is invaluable. I wish her many more successes and, as they say in Yiddish, “may she live to be 120.”
David Y. Chack
Artistic Director of ShPIeL—Performing Identity
President, Association for Jewish Theatre
Louisville, KY and Chicago, IL
Living Witness and Steadfast Chronicler
It has been an honor to be a fellow columnist of Irene Backalenick. On occasion I've had the special honor of having my film or television reviews featured right beside her "Jewish Theater" reviews!
I've never ceased to be amazed by Irene's fine writing, attention to detail and youthful enthusiasm in reporting on the plays and the playwrights. She always offers valuable background on the playwrights and on their place in Jewish theater in general. She offers insight into their insights, justly chides them when insights and artistry are lacking, and advocates for the importance of good, tasteful and authentic Jewish theater. Because of her column, I, who must spend all of my spare time with the mass media, feel that I am reasonably conversant with the Jewish theater world.
Irene has impressive credentials and an even more impressive track record as reviewer. She has, thank God, been granted the years to be a living witness to an important cultural phenomenon and a steadfast chronicler of it. God grant her many more years of health, strength, insight, and valuable writing, and every blessing to her family.
Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel
Conservative Congregation Rodfei Zedek, Chicago, since 1988
Author of What Jews Know About Salvation and Over the Top Judaism: Precedents and Trends in the Depiction of Jewish Beliefs and Observances in Film and Television
Media critic for The National Jewish Post & Opinion since 1979
“She leads, she delights, she enriches”
Only recently becoming aware of Irene Backalenick’s treasure trove of critical theatre reviews, we have now become ardent admirers of this admirable woman.
Her passion for education and quality theatre are truly inspiring. Her thoughtfulness, her perception and the articulate manner in which she conveys her insights have contributed immensely to an understanding of Jewish theatre. She is, in effect, more than a theatre critic; she is a fine teacher, who leads us to understandings that not only enrich our lives but make us competent critics in our own right.
If all theatre reviewers were as wonderfully positive about the enormous value of theatre to an extenuation of culture and life as Irene, everyone would have hope for the future of this creative art form. She leads, she delights, she enriches. She is truly a treasure.
We can only hope that Irene continues for many, many more years: healthy, happy and productive.
A very, very happy birthday to you, Irene!
Playwright and Co-Author with Mel Weiser of A Tiny Piece of Land
Los Angeles, CA
Her Support is Inspiring
What a joy it is to have this clear-eyed, dedicated, youthful woman among us to shed light on our work, and to call attention to the Jewish playwright!
I'm ever so grateful to the support Irene has given my work. She's a lovely lady whose support of the theatre, especially Jewish theatre, is inspiring.
To many more fruitful years, Irene!
Writer, Actor, Director
New York City, NY
Fair in Her Assessment of Plays
Irene Backalenick—although her name may be difficult to pronounce, her theater reviews are always easy to understand. She makes the plays sound appealing regardless of the topic. She is fair in her assessment of plays. Even if overall she does not like a play, she makes sure to find at least one aspect —costumes, lighting, songs, actors, director, stage design—that she can, with a clear conscience, compliment.
Editor, National Jewish Post & Opinion
Small Jewish Theatres Carry Irene’s Dedication and Zeal
We, at the newest and ground-breaking Jewish Theatre on the Central California Coast, the Liliana Moraru Santa Cruz Jewish Theatre, believe that the small Jewish theatres springing up all over the country carry Irene Backalenick’s dedication and zeal.
Our love to Irene.
Artistic Director, Liliana Moraru Santa Cruz Jewish Theatre
Santa Cruz, CA
The Protagonist of Her Own Reviews
Irene Backalenick could be the protagonist of her own reviews—the protagonist forever, stamping the whole history of the Jewish People on the New York stage through her reviews. As the main protagonist of this historical play, she moves with much freedom, intelligence, sensibility, feeling, courtesy, and enthusiasm, bringing the audience closer to the theatre.
Thanks Irene, on behalf of Jewish Theater in Latin America, too.
Theatre Director and Theatre Educator
São Paulo, Brazil
Irene’s Positive Contributions to Jewish Theater
Congratulations to Irene Backalenick on your positive contributions to Jewish Theater. Your enthusiasm and energy are admirable. Bravo!
Multimedia Artist (who created “Jewish Theatre,” a special piece for Irene’s 90th birthday)
Studio City, CA
A Jew Living and Performing in Germany Wanting to Meet Irene
Throughout the 30 years I spent singing opera in Germany, I was well aware of Irene Backalenick's work, which was of particular interest to me as a Jew living and performing in Germany. Her life story fascinated me all the more–especially her comments on Providence and Brown University–which was my alma mater as well. There is even a photo of her in 1945 in front of one of the Pembroke dorms I knew so well. Now that I am back in New York, it would be wonderful if I could actually meet her and congratulate her personally.
Opera and Concert Singer, German-English Translator
New York City, NY
"I Want To Be Irene Backalenick"
I want to be Irene Backalenick:
Following my love of theater
Writing about what I care about for many, many years
Living the life that I choose
Intellectually, Aesthetically, Spiritually, Culturally—
Is it possible to live so purposeful a life,
A life with such great style?
Please tell me: Yes!
Yes, you can live like Irene,
But you cannot be her (there's only one).
You'll have to learn from her
And make your own way.
Playwright, Dramaturg, Educator, Writer, Speaker, and Performer
“The Drama of the Human Race is Now Imprinted With Your Face”
For Irene Backalenick
Whose storehouse of knowledge I wish I had
Ninety years of caring and giving
Knowledge of life and wisdom of living
Launching scholar-ship on seas so deep
And rousing us from cerebral sleep
Enlightenment floods through theatres and plays
You’ve changed our nights and transmuted our days:
The Drama of the human race
Is now imprinted with your face.
Anne Sarzin, Ph.D.
Writer, Editor, Co-Author of Hand in Hand: Jewish and Indigenous People Working Together
Director of Write 4 U Consultancy