Jan 2, 2024 12:15 PM
Two actors who grew up in the Satmar community and now describe themselves as “somewhat in, somewhat out” are pursuing a career in the theater. They say it’s becoming easier to do so due to a number of factors, including the ascent of the Internet and Haredim increasing their interaction with secular culture.
Melissa Weisz, 40, and Sruli Rosenberg, 30, are appearing in a new play about a former Hasid who encouraged Jews to convert to Christianity during the Holocaust. Both say they plan to continue in the acting profession.
“I’m not like someone who was raised as a secular American Jew. I’m a Hasidic American Jew,” said Weisz, who grew up in Borough Park and began her acting career in 2012 in a feature film titled “Romeo & Juliet in Yiddish,” in which she played Juliet. “It’s just who I am and how I see the world.”
Back when that film debuted, she said she no longer considered herself Hasidic. But things have changed and now she does.
The film was a cinematic retelling of the Shakespearean play with the warring Montague and Capulet clans replaced by Hasidic sects bearing a distinct resemblance to Satmar and Lubavitch. When Weisz delivered Juliet’s famous “Wherefore art thou?” soliloquy in Yiddish, she did it from a brownstone fire escape.
Rosenberg, who had aspirations of becoming a writer before pursuing acting, said he wasn’t necessarily trying to leave the Hasidic world. “I’m making different choices,” he said. “I’m taking different roads. And sometimes that collides with where I come from.”
The two actors are appearing in “The Gospel According to Chaim,” a Yiddish play running through Jan. 7 at the Theater for the New City in Manhattan’s East Village. That theater is around the corner from one of the major Yiddish theaters of the early 20th century on Second Avenue, which is now a movie theater.
The play is based on the real-life missionary Chaim Einspruch , a Szanzer Hasid who became a Christian before emigrating to America from Galicia. Einspruch translated the New Testament into Yiddish and self-published it in 1941, after Yiddish print shops in Baltimore turned down the job. A production of the New Yiddish Rep, “Gospel” is being billed as the first new full-length Yiddish drama written in America in 70 years.
Rosenberg plays a printer who sorely needs the business but is reluctant to print the Christian bible. Weisz plays an anti-fascist activist trying to alert her fellow Jews to the Holocaust.
Weisz has made a career for herself as a performer, writer, and producer in the last decade. She played a prostitute in the 2016 New Yiddish Rep production of the Sholem Asch play “God of Vengeance,” which is about lesbian love. Weisz also co-wrote the play “Die Froyen” with Malky Goldman, which was performed in Yinglish — a form of Yiddish peppered with English terms, commonly heard among U.S. Haredim — and focused on a Hasidic woman fighting for custody of her children. A production company in Los Angeles recently purchased Weisz’s “Balabusta,” a TV series described as a family crime drama based loosely on her own life.
“I didn’t think my career would be doing so much Yiddish or Hasidic portrayals,” Weisz said. She’s noticed increased interest in stories about the Hasidic community these days, and believes it’s time for “more nuanced representation” of the community. “Who gets to tell the stories and how they get told is something I feel very strongly about,” she said. She added that she was “trying to make sure that representation is as authentic as possible. There’s a lot of sensationalism that people enjoy, and I find it very problematic.”
While Weisz appeared in the Netflix miniseries Unorthodox, which tells the story of a woman who left her Hasidic community, she feels there’s too much focus on Hasidim who leave, rather than stories about Hasidic Jews generally.
Weisz told Shtetl that the Hasidic community has seen a transformation in recent years, and there is now room “to not fully leave or fully conform in the Hasidic community. There’s space in between for people to be more of themselves. There is leeway. You don’t have to leave or stay.”
Weisz also believes the stories being told are often too simplistic. “I want to tell a story that is complex,” she said. “Not about someone who hates everything and wants to leave, or their life is in danger and therefore needs to leave. I want to tell stories about human beings who make choices that are painful, not because there is no love but because there is love. I want to see those kinds of stories. Those are the nuances I look for.”
Weisz no longer keeps Shabbos and does not go to shul any more but she does volunteer to “secure people that go to shul” or to Jewish events.
“I feel like I do my part for the community,” she said.
Weisz praised her family as “good people” and described it as “super, super close.” She now lives within walking distance of her family for the first time since she left home some 15 years ago.
“I believe that they love me even though they don’t always understand me,” she said. “And to me, that’s enough.”
Years ago, Weisz came out as a lesbian to her father.
“He’s not on board with everything in my life because he doesn’t think it’s the best way of life,” she said, “But he loves me always. I know that to be true.”
Rosenberg has parental issues, too, but of another sort. His mother isn’t crazy about this showbiz career path.
“Isn’t that the universal quarrel that parents have with their children going into anything in the arts?” Rosenberg asked with a chuckle. “It’s not, ‘Oh, nice. He’ll be able to take care of himself. It’s like, ‘My kid is going to struggle.’ She definitely did not take well to it. She doesn’t get it. I don’t blame her. It’s not like I’m 18 or 19. I’m 30.”
Rosenberg’s mother was born in Israel to a Yemenite family. His father was born into one of the last Satmar families to leave Romania. The actor grew up in Williamsburg but didn’t realize there was a Yiddish theater scene in New York until 2021 when he attended Generation J, a Yiddish arts gathering in Germany.
“I was told that there was Yiddish theater in New York and I’m, like, ‘No there isn’t. I would’ve known of it,’” he recalled. “I couldn’t believe it. I was in for a beautiful surprise.” Someone at Generation J told him, “Make sure they don’t spot you at shows, because they’re going to want to put you on stage.”
Rosenberg returned to the U.S. and started volunteering with the New Yiddish Rep. Its artistic director, David Mandelbaum, and his wife looked at Rosenberg and said, “We could make something out of you,” Rosenberg recalled.
Mandelbaum worked on some monologues with Rosenberg and served as his acting coach. “Gospel” is Rosenberg’s debut as a professional actor. Because Rosenberg keeps Shabbos, a second actor performs the role of the printer in “Gospel” on Friday and Saturday nights.
“I consider myself Orthodox,” Rosenberg told Shtetl. “Maybe ‘reformed Chasidish’ is a better term.”
Asked to describe his level of religious observance, Rosenberg replied, “It’s in my DNA but I’m doing it my way. There are certain things that I do and certain things that I don’t do.” Most of the time he doesn’t wear a yarmulke and he normally doesn’t have a beard. Rosenberg now lives in Monsey.
“I chose a different path early on,” he said. “I wanted to go to school. I wanted to go places, travel. I had different dreams than my peers.”
The playwright Mikhl Yashinsky noted that in recent years, New Yiddish Rep has auditioned many Jews who grew up speaking Yiddish but have gone “off the derech” — or left the religious community.
Mandelbaum referred to one actor in Monsey, known as Hannah Gee, as “an extraordinary talent.” Yashinsky also mentioned an aspiring actor who grew up in Chabad and who was “terrific” in a reading of the play last march but was too busy to appear in the theatrical run.
Still, New Yiddish Rep sees a lot of potential actors among Orthodox Jews with a more secular outlook, and has run acting and writing classes for them, hoping to cultivate more talent from this community of native Yiddish speakers.