A Jewish Actor’s “Chosen” Challenge

Courtesy PhotoActor George Guidall had grown up receiving his Jewish education from a melamed. He had deeply religious family members. So he knew a lot about the background of the rabbi he plays in Long Wharf Theatre’s upcoming production of The Chosen, which runs Nov. 22 to Dec. 17.

But he also found himself in tension with that character — and possibly, in doing so, practicing his culture and his faith.

The Chosen tells the story of two boys growing up in Brooklyn — one modern Orthodox, one Hasidic. As the boys grow into men, they wrestle with the expectations their fathers have for them about how they’ll carry on the traditions of their families.

Both fathers and sons must figure out how to reconcile the responsibilities of the past with the realities of the present, family obligations and personal ambitions. It’s a rich story that offers a glimpse into the tensions within Jewish culture that seem as true today as they were in the mid-1940s, when the play takes place. It also reaches beyond its historical and cultural context to tell a universal story about acceptance — whether it’s parents trying to figure out how to let children go their own way, or children figuring out what, exactly, that way should be. 

Guidall was familiar with the Chaim Potok book from which the play (by Aaron Posner) is adapted. “I loved it because it speaks of my background. Anyone who has any kind of Jewish education realizes they grow up with that kind of tension between Orthodox Jewry, Reform Jewry, Conservative Jewry, Reformation, Reconstruction,” he said on a recent episode of WNHH’s “Chai Haven.” “The whole idea of a Jewish culture is incredibly complex. What is Jewish culture? What is that? ... The culture involves everything that means Jewish to the person practicing it. … It means history, ancestry, where you come from, where your parents come from, where your grandparents come from, where you used to live, and how you were trained in any kind of Jewish education. And that’s a very wide field.”

Guidall’s character in The Chosen is a Hasidic rabbi who, in the realm of the play, occupies the most conservative end of the spectrum of Jewish culture. Rabbi Saunders is steeped in his tradition. He doesn’t follow it blindly, but it defines his life, his family, and his community, and he fully expects his son to follow in his footsteps.

Guidall, by contrast, followed a somewhat more idiosyncratic path. He grew up in Plainfield, N.J. His mother had immigrated from Poland and “didn’t care for the Hebrew school kind of thing.” Instead, she sent Guidall to a melamed, “someone who, one on one, teaches a young boy.” Guidall started his education with his melamed when he was six, studying three days a week after school with him until he was 12.

“It was an incredible education,” Guidall said, “because he was very learned — very ethical. In fact, he used to have a sheet on his walls where he would check off the synagogue that he attended each Saturday because if he attended a synagogue more than once, they would claim him as their member, and that would attract a lot of people because he was so well respected, so he made sure that no one could claim him.”

Guidall’s introduction to the stage was through the famous Yiddish theaters in New York City that have left deep fingerprints on American popular culture. “My parents went to the Yiddish theater all the time,” Guidall said, and they took him with them. “When I was about 9, 10 years old, I saw a wonderful play in Yiddish where the audience was just crying and weeping and I didn’t know what to do. It was so upsetting to them.” The play “was about this salesman who had two sons, and he was losing his job, and it was called Death of a Salesman. And this was in Yiddish. The play itself lends itself so well to a Yiddish milieu, to a Jewish family in New York, that later, when I was a senior in high school, they gave that play as an assignment and I said, ‘wait a minute, this isn’t an American play, this is a Yiddish play.’”

But Guidall recognized that his own education was just “one side” of it, that there were many ways for Jews to become Jews. “It depends on the depth to which parents subject their kids to learning what a Jew is. You learn ancestry. You learn history. You learn music. You learn prayers, of course — that’s an important part.”

As he grew up and throughout his adult life, Guidall appreciated how much Jewish culture — both for him personally and in the world at large — could change. In “the old tradition,” perhaps in early Hasidism, he said, “the teacher used to walk around and hit you on the hand with a ruler if you got a wrong answer. But that kind of disappeared in this country.” For a while, he observed that Hebrew school in many Jewish families was more or less mandatory, overriding other commitments, like sports practices. But in the past “10 or 20 years,” he saw that change, too.

Sometimes those changes hit close to home. There were three doctors in Guidall’s family, and when Guidall said that he would rather be an actor, it didn’t go over well (though he obviously prevailed). For Guidall’s part, “As I grew up with my children, it meant something to me when they would date someone who wasn’t Jewish. And I had to deal with that. It’s a real thing. I’m not that fantastically religious. I’m very spiritual. I go to temple on Saturdays, a Reform temple. But I came to believe that if this is who they loved, if they love each other, and if that’s what it is, who am I to say ‘that’s not for you?’”

Guidall was familiar with the world of the character he’s playing. Parts of his family, he said, are “very Orthodox,” and he understood the appeal. “There’s tight community. There’s tight family life,” he said. “There’s great beauty to it.” He’d been to a Hasidic wedding and seen men and women dancing in circles to music played by a huge orchestra. He saw the joy on the dancers’ faces, how thrilled they were. “I stood there and watched, because I’d never seen that before, and there it was, and it’s still alive. And you think, without that, Reform Jews, and Conservative Jews, and mildly Orthodox Jews — where would they be? Because that’s the source from which all the other Jews come from.”

But he also knew that he didn’t share his character’s most fervent convictions. “That’s a problem I’m having with the part that I’m playing, because I’m not a Hasidic person, and I don’t believe in it. So I’m finding his passion — the love that he has for the Master of the Universe, the love that he has for his son, the love that he has for his people, because he’s a rebbe and has a large following — that’s something I can attach to. But the fanaticism of the Messiah? I appreciate his love for it and his need for it, but as a person, I’m trying to hide that.”

Though that tension in the end isn’t too surprising. Following the old expression of “two Jews, four opinions,” argument has been at the center of Jewish culture for thousands of years. In a sense, in delving into the personal, religious, and cultural arguments that surround the characters, the play is itself a practice of faith.

“But it depends on what you have faith in. I think Potok ultimately had faith in humanity,” Guidall said — faith that people, “despite their differences, can face each other and coexist at the same time, which is so important for us…. The play’s metaphorical value is almost as important, or perhaps even more important, than its literal value in terms of Jewish families fighting with each other, Jewish beliefs. What does it mean for the rest of us to live with someone who doesn’t agree with us?”

It’s in this questions that The Chosen isn’t just about Jewish culture, but about the people within it, and the ways they find common humanity. It reaches beyond its cultural context. “The play ostensibly is about two fathers and two sons. And stripping it of all the encumberances of Jewishness and religions, it’s about independence, and when sons grow up and go their own way,” Guidall said. It’s about “listening to your soul, listening to yourself in terms of what you want to do, what you need to do.”

The Chosen runs at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargeant Dr., from Nov. 22 to Dec. 17. Click here for tickets and more information. To listen to the full interview with George Guidall, click on the file below.

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