Editor’s note: This performance, originally scheduled for March–April 2020, has been postponed due to coronavirus restrictions. See the theater company’s website for updated information.
The Seattle Jewish Theater Company’s latest production, Arrivals, tells a Romeo-and-Juliet-style story of Sephardic-Ashkenazi romance in early 20th-century Seattle. Artistic director and playwright Art Feinglass shares the process of researching the play. Arrivals will be performed around Seattle and Off Broadway at the Actors’ Temple in October.
What was it like to research and write Arrivals?
I called [University of Washington professor] Devin Naar, and he said, if you want to do a Sephardic play, you’ll have to write one. That goes back about six years. I didn’t get serious about it until about two years ago. I met with the Ladineros [a group of Ladino enthusiasts], and I talked to Hazzan Ike Azose and [Ezra Bessaroth president] Albert Israel, and I began to learn about the culture. At the time, I was on the board of the Washington State Jewish Historical Society, and Lisa Kranseler gave me access to their archives. The stories are wonderfully human. I interviewed people at The Summit, and everybody was very helpful.
How did you find the story you ultimately chose to tell?
I started doing the research, and I learned a lot, and I decided the story was the love story, the Romeo-and-Juliet story and their attempt to bridge that cultural gap. I wanted to do a Sephardic play, and the story I found was Sephardim coming to Seattle and encountering Ashkenazim. I hate to cite West Side Story, but Tony sings, “Somewhere there’s a place for us.” Would there have been? Would they have been able to make it?
So, wait, they don’t make it?
The question is, can they bridge this gap? If you marry him, you’ll have him, but the Ashkenazi community won’t accept you. What makes you think they’ll be willing to accept you? And what if he goes back to Turkey and takes you? She’s got PTSD, she’s survived the pogroms. She comes to America, and she’s terrified of everything, and the idea of being without family again is terrifying to her. That’s what her dilemma becomes.
Did you find anything that you had to leave out because it was scandalous?
In one scene he holds her hand; that’s as wild as it gets. These are people’s grandparents. And it has to be historically realistic. When I started this, I thought I was going to find a lot of vitriol a lot of racism, and I didn’t.
I found aloofness. I found a quandary. One of the questions is, why can’t they just get married? That’s what I still don’t know. They’re all Jews, they live in the same neighborhood, they sit next to each other at school.
What do you hope this play achieves?
Part of what I hope is an appreciation for the Sephardic Jewish experience, and it’s also a vote for diversity within the Jewish community and without. These were good people being separated by foolish prejudice. Bigotry is foolish and destructive and devastating. Within the Jewish community I imagine a lot of potential wasn’t filled because of bigotry, which is a tragedy.