Rattlestick’s exciting (and very Jewish) new production is the result of a collaboration between the theater company and a synagogue
Divorce is a common experience, and by definition, rife with conflict. And yet it seems strangely underrepresented in narrative art. Aside from a few notable examples—Kramer vs Kramer, Heartburn, more recently A Marriage Story—many more stories seem to end in a marriage than begin with the end of one.
As for the Jewish version, the gett, or a Halakhic writ of divorce, I can’t think of one example from literature, stage, or screen—until now. Playwright and CANVAS Compendium contributor Liba Vaynberg has wisely mined this little-understood ritual in her new play, The Gett, which runs from November 9 to December 11 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre in New York. There’s an engaging story behind the production. But first, let’s talk about the play itself.
The Gett begins with what screenwriters call a “meet cute”: two twenty-something Jews stuck in an elevator on the way to the same party. Both are charismatic: Ida (played by Vaynberg) is anxious and hyperarticulate; Baal (Ben Edelman) is good at sleight-of-hand tricks and has a withholding, distant charm. They marry, and—since the play’s title refers to the Jewish ritual of divorce—of course, it falls apart.
But The Gett is more than the chronicle of failed marriage. It’s a meditation on Jewish ritual and identity: Ida’s promising new relationship ends, for example, when the Other Man (the versatile Luis Vega) insists on a Christmas tree in the house. It’s about Jewish mothers and daughters and the longing to communicate: some of the most touching scenes are the increasingly concerned voice mails from Mother (Jennifer Westfeldt). And it’s about the intensity of marriage: under Daniella Topol’s able direction, the play’s tone varies from light comedy to sputtering rage (sort of like a real marriage).
The story behind the story
All of this makes for a marvelous play. But the story behind the play’s creation is interesting and revealing as well. The Gett is a prime example of how connections between organizations—Jewish or otherwise—and support for talented Jewish artists like Vaynberg can result in dynamic, challenging art that resonates with the culture at large.
The seed for the play was planted by Rosalee Lovett, formerly a Board Member and Vice President of Congregation Beth Elohim (CBE), in Brooklyn, and a Board Member and Treasurer of Rattlestick Theater. (Lovett passed away in early 2022.) She introduced Topol, the Artistic Director of Rattlestick, to Matt Green, a rabbi at CBE, with the idea of a collaboration in mind.
“The timing was perfect,” Topol said. “Rattlestick wanted to develop a piece that centered the American Jewish experience in some way, and CBE was in the process of expanding their arts programming.”
Green, a co-founder of The New Jewish Culture Fellowship, a CANVAS Emerging Network grantee, has a deep interest in the intersection of the arts and Judaism. (More info about the Emerging Network program here.)
“I wanted a big part of my rabbinate to be about culture,” he said. “I wanted CBE to take culture seriously, as a way to get the community to think about how they are Jewish.”
Through small donations—“$18 to $100,” Green said—CBE raised $10,000 to commission a new play. They received over 100 submissions, which they whittled down to five finalists. The selection committee, which included Green, playwright Anna Ziegler, Tony-award winning producer Daryl Roth, and David Winitsky, Director of Jewish Plays Project (another CANVAS Emerging Network Grantee), ultimately chose Vanyberg’s proposal for a play about a Jewish divorce and a woman’s relationship to God.
CBE was closely involved in developing the play.
“I headed over to CBE to study Jewish texts with Matt that were related to themes I wanted to explore,” Vaynberg said. “We looked at Bereshit [Genesis], and the seven days of creation as a metaphor. We did a close reading of Song of Songs. We read tochecha, the parts of Torah where God rebukes the Israelites.
“When we looked at what divorce is in Judaism, I found that the gett is a ritual that doesn’t center women. A woman is the recipient of the gett. That got me thinking about how to ensure the play had an empowered female protagonist.”
Green then involved the CBE congregation, with congregants meeting to discuss their own experiences of divorce.
Much of this research found its way into the play in some form. The structure, for instance, is based on the seven days of creation, and important objects—such as a hope chest that Ida wants to keep in the divorce—became plot points.
Clockwise from top left: Liba Vaynberg, Ben Edelman, Luis Vega, and Jennifer Westfeldt.
Reaching a broader audience
The first reading of play was at CBE in February of 2020. Due to the pandemic, subsequent workshops were online. Once theatres started opening up again, it quickly became clear that The Gett had an audience beyond the Jewish community. In June of this year, the play was selected for a staged reading at the Colorado New Plays Festival in Steamboat Springs.
Topol said, “It was really exciting to see a strong, positive reaction from an audience that was primarily not Jewish. People really responded to the questions the play is asking: What does it mean to recover from a relationship? To start again? How does divorce intersect with organizing religion?”
The reaction in Colorado inspired Rattlestick to host post-show discussions on of the themes of the play as part of its Community Conversation Series during its New York run (info here):
- On November 14th, Rattlestick will host a conversation about The Gett that looks at the role of women and divorce in Jewish tradition. (Panelists to be announced.)
- On November 18th at 6pm ET and December 10th post-show, Rabbi Matt Green will host a Shabbat gathering at the theatre.
- On November 27th, Rattlestick will have a post-show magic workshop with Alexander Boyce, magic consultant for The Gett, and Ben Edelman (Baal).
- On November 30th, post-show, Rattlestick will bring together representatives from various religions for an interfaith conversation on the themes of the play. (Panelists to be announced.)
The Gett is a funny and moving play, delightfully and unashamedly Jewish. (Just one more example: the name Baal refers to both the Hebrew word for husband as well as the violent false god of the Bible.) And its creation and production demonstrate how collaboration between Jewish culturemakers can resonate with the culture at large.
We should end with a note of gratitude to Rattlestick and CEB Board Member Rosalee Lovett, who saw potential in connecting Judaism and the arts:
“Rosalee was passionate about the theatre and about Judaism and the synagogue,” Topol said. “She found a way to make an incredible match.”
It might be tempting to think of The Gett as a matchmaking that ended with a divorce. But this one brings a happy result to its creators and audience.