In the New Yiddish Rep’s masterful production of “Awake and Sing,” Luzer Twersky plays Sam Feinschreiber, the hapless cuckold, an outsider in a play filled with outsiders.
The drama is one of Clifford Odets’ masterpieces, about the Bergers, a Jewish family in the Bronx. It debuted in 1935 and has been revived frequently since then, including a star-studded Tony-winning production in 2006 and another at the Public Theater two years ago that featured an all-Asian cast.
This is the fourth time that I’ve seen a version of the play, and to see it in Yiddish (which I do not speak — relying on supertitles) gives it a power and resonance missing from previous productions. Like Levi’s rye bread, you don’t have to be Jewish to play a Jew, but somehow this cast, ably directed by the Rep’s artistic director, David Mandelbaum, draws upon not only Yiddish but a reservoir of Yiddishkeit to make wonderful theater.
None more so than Twersky, who shuffles across the stage, weeping, beaten. He’d married Hennie Berger, not realizing she was pregnant by someone else, and when she tells him the truth, he feels alone, betrayed, with few sources of solace.
It is a familiar feeling for Twersky, 32, who left the Belz chasidic community a decade ago. He also left behind his wife, their two young children, and most of his friends and family. Twersky was one of three former chasids featured in “One of Us,” a Netflix documentary.
Unlike the two other people the documentary follows, Twersky wasn’t subjected to verbal or physical abuse. “Nothing happened to me,” he said in a telephone interview. “I simply did not believe in God. I realized I was an atheist. On my journey looking for answers, I found them in science.
“Not everything is God’s will,” he said. “Sometimes it’s simple science.”
Ultimately Twersky decided that he couldn’t live a lie any longer, and he left. He has not seen his children since. But he was totally unprepared for life outside the community. He had no skills
Like Sam, the character he plays in “Awake and Sing,” he was entirely alone.
“I realized how difficult it was to integrate into the modern world,” Twersky said. “There was no one to care for me. No one to turn to. No one to help me. All I had was loneliness and the feeling I had no shot. I didn’t belong here and I didn’t want to go back. I found myself between a rock and a hard place.
“So what was I supposed to do? Check out.”
He attempted to do so twice, but with the help of Footsteps, a nonprofit that counsels former ultra-Orthodox Jews on how to deal with their new lives, he found a measure of peace.
“I’ve always been a performer,” he said. “I used to sing at weddings,” although not professionally. “That wasn’t a career choice people made.”
On the subject of career choices, Twersky’s first decision seemed to be odd. “I decided to keep my payos and beard for a while,” he said. “This was going to be my way of breaking in. No one else has payos. No one else speaks Yiddish
“I’ll corner the market on chasidic roles,” he said.
He landed a bunch of background roles in New York TV productions, such as “The Good Wife” and “Law and Order,” before heading out to L.A., where he lived briefly rent free in a friend’s RV. It was not something he publicized, because, as he said in “One of Us,” living in an RV “affects my image, not that I have an image.
“But it would affect it if I had one.”
Twersky’s first big break came in a starring role in a successful Canadian film, “Felix and Meira,” playing, ironically, a cuckolded husband. He has a role he can’t talk about in the upcoming season of HBO’s “High Maintenance,” and now he is a member of the New Yiddish Rep ensemble.
None of this has relieved him from the need to make a living. He does that by driving for Uber and Lyft (he prefers Lyft), which recently earned him a summons from a nice River Vale cop, who gave him a ticket for an obstructed license plate rather than the speeding he was stopped for.
“The dream is to be a successful actor,” Twersky said. “To do this for a living. To have a legacy. I think that’s what most actors want, to make films and to be the best at my job I can be. And that takes time.”
Any regrets? “I miss the food. The music. I would have liked to be closer to my family. My nephew is getting a bar mitzvah, and a couple of days ago my brother, who I’m pretty close with, said, ‘I hope you understand, but it’s probably better that you don’t come.’
“I wish that wasn’t the case. But it would have been a circus and taken away from the bar mitzvah boy.
“I miss those moments. I miss being part of the family.”
He occasionally speaks to his father, less so to his mom. Both parents were unhappy with his participation in “One of Us,” he said. It may take a while, but he hopes at some point “they’ll come around.
“People come around.”
Performances of “Awake and Sing” continue through December 24
at the 14th Street Y, 344 E. 14th St. Tickets are available through
www.NewYiddishRep.org or by calling (646) 395-4310.