The Arty Semite

Less Than Actual Abraham Joshua Heschel

By Gwen Orel

  • Print
  • Share Share
Jonathan Viguers/The TASC Group

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was a fascinating individual. Too bad Colin Greer’s play, “Imagining Heschel,” is such a yawn.

Heschel was born in Poland, and got out before the Holocaust; he was a poet, teacher and author of influential works including the 1955 classic, “God in Search of Man.” He believed that Jews should fight for justice, and he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr.

You learn some of this in Colin Greer’s play, which focuses on Heschel’s decision to participate in the Second Vatican Council. I can’t recommend “Imagining Heschel,” yet I’m glad to have seen it. Those with a strong interest in the man may want to make the excursion to the Stella Adler Studio of Acting on West 27th Street as well.

This is the second outing for Greer’s play. An earlier incarnation starring Richard Dreyfus and Rinde Eckert at the Culture Project in 2010 never officially opened, although it played its entire scheduled run — critics who had attended could not publish their reviews; others were uninvited. At that time, the play was a two-hander between Heschel and Cardinal Augustin Bea, who coaxed Heschel to come to Rome and be the voice of American Jews on the Council. Now there is a third character, the Irish Father Brian Martin. Father Brian objects to the reformation of the Mass and to the State of Israel, and his few scenes, weirdly, are the liveliest. They don’t go anywhere, but at least there’s something going on in them, and some real conflict.

Most of the play involves Bea, played by a lovable Chet Carlin, coaxing Heschel, played by Mickey Ryan with subdued intensity, to come to Rome. Heschel complains about the Vatican’s indifference during the Holocaust, and insists the church stop trying to convert Jews. Bea says accommodating things, but Heschel takes offense at something. Then they smooth things over. Rinse and repeat.

We watch the characters bond or spar at Heschel’s favorite tree in Riverside, at his home over tea, at a Jewish restaurant in Rome. We learn that Bea had Jewish friends, that he admired the way Jews were openly emotional. A scene of Heschel lecturing establishes his sense of universalism, as does his eulogy for Martin Luther King, Jr., which happens out of sequence — the play flashes around in time without letting the audience know.

The acting from the three cast members is excellent, as one might expect from the Harold Clurman Laboratory Theater Company and the Stella Adler Studio. But what drew the most emotion from me were two sequences of slides. The first was images of the Holocaust set to a Yiddish song, while the second was a series of black and white stills of Vietnam, Martin Luther King, Jr., Kent State and other ‘60s shots set to the Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today.” It worked, but I was cheap, unearned emotion.

Director Tom Oppenheim does what he can, but while the characters are interesting, the play isn’t. Greer conveys his interest in Heschel (although his final line about Jews needing the antagonism of Christians seems wildly out of character, as does his choice to say Kaddish without a minyan — they seem to contradict everything else we have just learned about Heschel), but never succeeds in dramatizing him. He remains only imagined.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Theater, Imagining Heschel, Colin Greer, Gwen Orel, Abraham Joshua Heschel

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.