What better way to cap off a bat mitzvah than with a funeral?
That was the thinking of New York birthday girl, Susan Ballenzweig, who will follow her bat mitzvah ceremony, Nov. 23, with a trip to the Off-Broadway hit, Grandma Sylvia's Funeral.
That she's bringing 200 of her friends and relatives to the show is less unusual than Ms. Ballenzweig's age: she turns fifty that Saturday. Traditionally, boys, and now girls, are bar mitzvahed at13-years-old as a way to officially join the adult Jewish community.
"I knew my husband, Howard, would give me anything I wanted for my birthday," Ballenzweig said. "When my daughter Ruth was preparing for her bat mitzvah last June, I realized I'd always regretted not having my own. When I was thirteen, it just wasn't common... I am very active as a volunteer at my temple. [Last year] I gave a speech about my commitment to Judaism and this crystallized my desire to take this spiritual journey."
Ballenzweig also realized that themes in Funeral coincided with the Torah portion she'd be reading in Temple that morning, concerning Jacob's dispute with his father-in-law." Ballenzweig got the idea of buying out the SoHo Playhouse house after learning the Supremes' Mary Wilson was in the show. "I liked reading about how the show was experimenting with a non-traditional casting idea, putting a black actress in the role of a Jewish yenta." (describing the choice, spokesman Beck Lee wrote that director Glenn Wein "who has encountered several black Jewish audience members at his show, decided he would experiment with the [role of the] family interloper.") Original cast member Sheri Goldner is now back in that role. Other current cast members are Steve Grillo, a member of the Howard Stern Show radio crew, and Jaid Barrymore, Drew's mom. Grillo plays a hormonally-imbalanced bachelor; Barrymore a shikseh love goddess. Negotiations are under way to have Carole Shaya come back to the show. She was the policewoman fired from the force for posing in Playboy. "She looks Spanish," spokesperson Lee told Playbill On-Line, but she's Jewish, born in Israel."
In the interactive world of Grandma Sylvia's Funeral, members of the audience take part in what purports to be a real New York Jewish funeral, complete with wacky family members, food, dancing and luxuriant weeping.
Those wishing to witness the jovial Jewish community depicted in Grandma Sylvia's Funeral can call (212) 691-1555 for tickets and information. The show celebrates its second anniversary this month, November 1996.
-- By David Lefkowitz