Back to the Boulevard by Julianne (Bernstein) Theodoropulos invites us to travel to the past, to Depression-era Northeast Philadelphia, and meet Jewish “settlers” who turned fields and farms into a thriving community, complete with homes, shops, including kosher stores, and restaurants, all centered around Temple Shalom, a world of much joy and hope, reminiscent of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town--Philadelphia style.
This docudrama, which recently played to enthusiastic houses at the Polonsky Theatre  , is based on "A Community Remembers", a two-year oral history project, commissioned and produced by Theatre Ariel, and developed from interviews with members of the Jewish community in Northeast Philadelphia, conducted by high school students. In this play, we witness the lives of members of the Jewish Community, recreated on stage to show their experiences both then and now in their little Philly-style shtetl over the last 70 years.
This model of creating a docudrama started with Deborah Baer Mozes, Artistic Director of Theatre Ariel, the Jewish Theatre of Philadelphia. With the help of grants from several organizations , she conceptualized and initiated the community-based oral history theatre project, with the goal of leading to a main stage production that celebrates a community’s story.
Based on the concept of community outreach and drawing on oral history/docudrama theatre processes, Theatre Ariel invited local high school teachers in various disciplines from different schools to recruit students to work on this project. Award-winning playwright and director Julianne (Bernstein) Theodoropulos was hired to assist Theatre Ariel’s artistic director to oversee the development of the entire process, from data gathering, recruitment and training of students, to scheduling the numerous appointments and interviews with seniors from the Jewish Community in Northeast Philadelphia.
With the help of professional oral historians from the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History and Temple University’s Urban Archives Center, a set of questions and methods on how best to interview Jewish seniors was developed. Then, under the guidance of staff and the producing efforts of Theatre Ariel in Philadelphia, the young interviewers were encouraged to stay open to engaging in dialogues with members of the older generation so that the students would truly learn not only about people from a different generation and a different culture, but also learn about themselves. The result of their interviews: BACK TO THE BOULEVARD, written by Julianne Theodoropulos and directed by Aaron Oster.
Armed with oral history questionnaires, tape recorders, and photography equipment, these students experienced an extraordinary and transforming journey. Just as the Time Traveler in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine was greeted with curiosity and without fear by the people from another world, the young high school students of all backgrounds found that the 56 Jewish Seniors whom they met at the local Jewish Community Center (JCC) very generously opened their hearts and doors and allowed the students to travel with them into the past.
Bringing with them the historical treasures they had collected, the students returned to their classrooms, where, with the help of their dedicated high school teachers, they discussed the interviews with their classmates, and learned from the oral histories they had recorded. The students looked for common denominators, studied living history, formed a sense of shared community , and many of these young people from diverse backgrounds even developed a sense of solidarity with the Jewish seniors.
Theatre Ariel then hired a professional who spent months transcribing every word of the many interviews that the students had taped. This process produced almost 600 pages of interviews, which became the raw data for playwright Julianne (Bernstein) Theodoropulos, who then sifted through these hundreds of pages, each of which contained whole worlds of lived Jewish History.
“I had no agenda except to ‘pull out the good stuff’ . . . the specific, stories that were complete, and images that struck me and moved me emotionally,” Theodoropulos said, reflecting on her criteria for selecting the most suitable passages from the interviews. At this point, she realized that she needed to create roles for two high school students, who would serve as the narrators on a journey of investigation, questioning, and discovery.
This labor-intensive, time-consuming endeavor of sifting through countless stories, eventually led to the outline for the docudrama. At this point, Mozes brought Aaron Oster into the project as director and dramaturg. Reflecting on this stage of the artistic collaboration, playwright Theodoropulos noted, “As we cleared out the clutter, a clear dramatic journey began to emerge for the characters of Lana and Jonathan [the roles of the two high school students], while the other characters played out each scene, recalling stories of their youth, images of the past, feelings about the present, and their hopes and concerns about the future.”
Director Oster succinctly described his own thoughts on the process: “Our goal was not to recreate actual people exactly, but rather to create a community on stage that was recognizable to our target audience of Northeast Philly residents. . . The primary challenge facing Julianne and myself was creating a living, breathing theatrical event out of a mass of factual interviews and a smaller number of personal anecdotes.” The writer-director team met this challenge head on and created numerous scenes that made local Jewish History come alive in vivid detail.
In approaching the staging, Oster put the focus on the people, and not on the environment: “Our set was an assortment of boxes which became pews, benches, tombstones--and even tiny row houses--and a transparent black scrim through which some of the pastiche scenes were played. Images of the North East, past and present, were projected on a CVC at the back of the stage.” In Oster’s vision, “The stage was really a canvas to be painted by the bodies of the actors and the words of those interviewed.”
One of the most moving and thought-provoking of these scenes occurred when two of the older women described how they desperately wanted to participate in the bar mitzvah celebrations of their brothers and cousins, before bat mitzvah for girls even existed. While older traditions then prevailed and girls were not allowed to undergo this rite of passage, one of these women persevered and, gray-haired and aged 70, finally managed to get her bat mitzvah.
To create this scene, Theodoropulos first distilled the essence of the following verbatim interview transcripts of five women’s recollections about their experiences with bar and bat mitzvah:
Did you have a bat mitzvah?
When my daughter was in college I went back to college and I got a Masters in humanities. . .And then I decided that I wanted to be a bat mitzvah. When you’re thirteen, you have this ceremony. A boy is welcomed into the world as a man . . . Maybe some day I’ll be able to have that ceremony.
Oh yes I did. I had [my bat mitzvah] on my 70th birthday but not when I was a child. I went to Talmud Torah Sunday School. I went up until graduation. In fact, I won a Jewish star prize, sort of like for an honor student. But there was no Hebrew taught at that time to girls.
No. My Dad believed in girls being bat mitzvahed, but I don’t think they were really doing it [when I was young]. We had a program here at the Y a couple of years ago and I took a lot of classes and I was bat mitzvahed.
No. They didn’t believe in girls being bat mitzvah--only boys. So he never taught me. [He thought] I didn’t need to know.
No. In those days girls didn’t have a bat mitzvah, and especially orthodox. Unfortunately, in those days, women were second-class citizens in the orthodox religion. What would happen is when I would go to Hebrew school, the boys have a program. They read a certain portion of the Torah and whatnot. I would know it better than the kids who were being bar mitzvahed because they would be practicing and I would be sitting and hearing it and I knew it before they did. In those years, I don’t think anybody knew women [who] ever had [a bat mitzvah].
Theodoropulos then transformed the raw material on bat mitzvah of the women’s stories into a unified, coherent, and very moving passage, representative of the play as a whole:
I don’t know why I feel so sad. I don’t go to services anymore, my bar mitzvah is long over.
At least you had a bar mitzvah. For the longest time, women never got bat mitzvah’d. I was so angry -- when I went to Hebrew school, the boys had a program where they read a certain portion of the Torah and whatnot . . .
My own father taught Hebrew to boys and prepared them for their bar mitvahs. But he didn’t believe girls should be bat mitzvah’d--only boys.
I sat right here and listened for hours to those boys practice. And I ended up knowing it better than the boys who were being bar mitzvah’d. And I knew it just as well. But I couldn’t say anything.
So my father taught the boys to read Hebrew, but not me. His own daughter. (pause) I do remember being consecrated, though.
Me, too. Only girls got to do it. The ten of us did the entire service.
(smiling) And the Saturday after consecration, our families gave us this big dinner dance at the Oak Lane Glee Club.
Later on, I decided, to heck with it, I want a bat mitzvah! So I studied Hebrew right upstairs in classroom B2, and a couple of years later on my 70th birthday, I stood up on the bema, right here in this sanctuary, and I was bat mitzvah’d!
At this moment during the performance of Back to the Boulevard, the actors had to stop before moving on to the next scene, as thunderous applause filled the auditorium. Similarly, whenever a conversation or image reminded the seniors of their past, women and men in their 70’s, 80’s, and even in their 90’s, talked among each other, giving a running commentary on many a scene throughout the performance.
This seasoned theatre reviewer has never before seen audiences respond to a play this positively and directly. Clearly, the playwright and director reached and touched the audience. More importantly, the audience identified with the scenes on stage so strongly that, for those two hours, the old shtetl in Northeast Philly came back to life.
While two student interviewers  narrated and connected the many rapidly changing scenes, four professional actors—two men  and two women  --played dozens of roles, once lived by thousands of people in the Jewish community of the old shtetl in Northeast Philadelphia. Enhanced by director Oster’s effective use of staging, lighting, and just a few props, the cast presented a whole life’s worth of experiences, from the creative defiance of the loveable, feisty bat mitzvah women to the old-fashioned revolutionary Jewish social activist, who, together with his wife, had actually managed to help African-Americans get accepted into the neighborhood and buy their own homes.
Given the ethnic tension in some neighborhoods in the United States, this docudrama allowed this audience of all ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds to look beyond their mental neighborhood fences, and enabled them to create an intergenerational and interethnic dialogue.
This dialogue, which began with the student-senior interviews—prepared for in the classrooms of the participating high schools, and conducted in the local JCC and one of the few remaining synagogues in Northeast Philadelphia--now continued in the talkback session after each performance.
One audience member after another expressed heart-felt thanks for a play that clearly had hit home. And even after the artistic director had thanked everyone for coming, people of all ages and backgrounds still would not leave, and engaged in nostalgic conversations with each other and with the actors, the interviewers, the playwright, and the director.
Others lingered in the hall long after to view and discuss the photographs of the Jewish seniors that had been taken by the interviewing high school students7. These thought provoking portraits of the seniors in the project can be seen on the Internet here.
More than a whole month has gone by since I saw Back to the Boulevard. Many of the scenes still reverberate in my brain, including this moving observation by one of the characters that summarizes the sense of loss experienced by many Jewish communities around the world:
“When a synagogue closes, even if it’s not your own, it’s like somebody in your family dies. Even now, when I pass . . . the synagogue on the Boulevard that closed last year, I get a stabbing inside . . . It still has the Star of David up there, but now it’s a church. It’s an Indian church.”
Theatre Ariel managed to complete this enormously complex and very labor intensive task in two years.
May this approach to history encourage future researchers, educators, and members of the theatre community to follow the Theatre Ariel model to unearth Jewish History, and—with the help of good playwrights and theatre people—create live theatre. Don't let the time machine of historical research rust, but keep it oiled and well-used. Wherever you are—whether you work on a kibbutz in Israel with Sephardic Jews, whether you study Jewish theatre in New York, whether you are interviewing Russian Jews in Berlin—take notes, get together with your friends, and start recording the stories that may not show up in textbooks but which are part of history all the same.
Listen, read, and write so that future generations of educators, students, and theatre people can continue traveling through history. Recover the present experiences of your contemporaries and the past of those who came before you. Enlighten and transform your audiences by connecting them with the most challenging of those experiences. Make their stories come alive on the stage. It’s never too late to unearth and record living history, especially of those whose voices are rarely, if ever, heard.
Henrik Eger, Ph.D. www.HenrikEger.com
1 of the Miriam and Raymond Klein Branch of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater
2 Back to the Boulevard was made possible by grants from the Pennsylvania Museum and
Historical Commission, the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, the Samuel S. Fels Foundation,
Stockton Rush Bartol Foundation, Connelly Foundation, and Jewish Federation of Greater
3 For more information on the play, check “A shared history of transformation,” the review in the
Philadelphia Inquirer by Dianna Marder, April 26, 2007: http://www.philly.com/inquirer/columnists/dianna_marder/20070426_Shared_history.html.
4 George Washington High School students Tatyana Kalko and Dane Wozniak.
5 Brian Adoff and Corbin Arbernathy.
6 Becca Landis and Peggy Smith.
7 under the supervision of Theatre Ariel photographer Jordan Cassway.