Art is about very many things — pontificating about it is done at the pontificator’s own great risk — but one of those things is the minuet between the specific and the universal. Those two allies and enemies step and pivot and bow to each other, glance and look away, flirt and glare.
Sometimes the subject of a work of art is that dance, sometimes subtly, sometimes not so much. “My Name Is Asher Lev,” the play, written by Aaron Posner and based on Chaim Potok’s novel about a chasidic boy’s need to chose between his tradition and his life as an artist, is entirely straightforward about the conflict.
It, like many other plays, books, and movies — like, for example, to be obvious, “Fiddler on the Roof” — tries to use the specificity of its setting and characters to tell a more general story about the eternal internal struggle between tradition and change.
So it makes great sense that when Ariel Abergel of Fort Lee wanted to produce a play at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly this summer, he picked “My Name is Asher Lev.” (See box for details.)
Is anything ever entirely straightforward, though? Ariel’s not your ordinary theatrical producer. He’s 16 years old, a rising junior at the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester in Hartsdale, N.Y., and he’s interning as a producer, under the tutelage of Deborah Roberts of Tenafly, the JCC’s longtime drama school director.
And to be clear, it’s not as if Asher Lev’s story is Ariel’s. He’s not chasidic, his father does not disapprove of him, and he is not planning to ditch a Jewish life to forge another one as an artist. He’s planning to bring them together. Still, there are parallels, hints, and echoes.
Ariel is the much youngest of the five children of Lydia and Joseph Abergel. His oldest sibling is 33 and the next youngest is 22; all have been married and his parents have eight grandchildren. He is in the enviable position of being part of a large family and growing up as an only child. His father is an art dealer, focusing mainly on contemporary art, a calling that demands much travel from both parents, so Ariel has a well-exercised sense of independence.
His parents both were born in Morocco; they, both sets of grandparents, and other siblings settled in Fort Lee decades ago, when his parents were young. His family forms the core of the growing Moroccan community in town. His grandfather, Rabbi Simon Abergel, who died at 93 two years ago, founded the Sephardic Congregation of Fort Lee.
Ariel, though, has forged his own religious path. He started at an Orthodox day school but soon transferred to the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, where he feels more at home. “I’m proud to consider myself a Conservative Jew,” he said; that does not stop him from loving and appreciating the Sephardic Orthodox community that surrounds him.
Ever since he was young, Ariel said, he has known that the theater’s potent magic was what he wanted. “I saw my first Broadway show, ‘Mary Poppins,’ when I was 7, and ever since then I’ve always been fascinated with all aspects of the theater. I remember watching her — Mary Poppins — fly into the mezzanine, and I remember thinking that I just wanted to be in the room where that happened.
“I turned to my mother at intermission, and I said that I wanted to be in the theater. And the first thing that we did was go to the JCC — we already were members — and we met Deb Roberts.”
Ms. Roberts has an extraordinarily deft touch with children; under her tutelage, they discover things not only about theater — they learn a great deal about theater — but also about themselves. Her classes bring together children and teenagers from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds. “That’s one of the things that’s so great about the JCC,” Ariel said. “No matter what denomination of Judaism people come from, they just come together here and spend their days together.”
Ariel took musical theater and acting classes with Deb for a few years, he said, and “then it got to the point where I said that I love acting, and I would love to experience more of the theater.”
Acting, he said, is in some ways — and necessarily — self-centered. (Ariel does not sound like someone his age, but he really is 16, and this is really what he says and how he thinks.)
“Being an actor is like being at the center of a very big circle, and I don’t know what’s waiting for me outside that circle,” he said.
“When you’re an actor, it has to be all about you, about making yourself look great instead of making the show look great, and that’s not who I am. It’s all about perfecting your own personal craft, which is a very exciting thing to do — but there is so much more that adds to the magic of theater.”
Deciding that he wanted to expand his horizons two years ago, when he was 14, “I spent the summer as an intern at Goldstar Talent Management,” a talent management company in Columbus Circle in Manhattan, run by the husband-and-wife team of Lynn and Sid Gold.
“Someone recommended Ariel to me,” Sid Gold said. “Deb Roberts. She said ‘If you want an intern, I have someone really great.’ I said ‘Great. How old is he?’ She said ‘14.’ I said ‘Oh no. That’s not possible. That’s too young. That’s impossible. To make a long story longer, I said okay, and then afterward I said ‘Deb, if you ever recommend anyone to me again, I’ll take him right away. I don’t care if he’s 8 years old.’”
Oh, and something else everyone says when they talk about Ariel. This time, it’s Mr. Gold. “He’s a real mensch,” he said.
“Sid introduced me to many agents and casting directors in the industry, and I talked to clients when he wasn’t able to,” Ariel said. Weren’t they taken aback when they see that they were talking to, well, a kid? “Most of the business was done over the phone,” Ariel said. “They didn’t necessarily know.”
Ariel has gone to the last two conventions of the International Model and Talent Association. “A manager from L.A. and I were chatting during the convention, and at one point he asked me if I wanted to go to a bar tonight with a few other managers,” Ariel said. “‘I said I can’t. I’m underage. I’m 16.’ And he said ‘I thought you were at least 22.”
When he finished that internship, Ariel started ninth grade; because the Bergen County Schechter does not have a high school, he went to the Schechter in Westchester. His commute was long and he plunged himself into activities at school, so he had to give up his classes at the JCC.
Toward the end of his freshman year, Ariel started the Culture Club. “Our mission is to broaden and strengthen the cultural experiences of the students in our community, to take them to the theater, to introduce them to forms of art they wouldn’t have been influenced by if it hadn’t been for clubs such as this one.”
The club’s first activity was a 13-member outing to “The 39 Steps” on Broadway. Both students and faculty are part of the club, and faculty often go on the trips — which are on school nights, not to Sunday matinees, which are more practical but less exciting — not as chaperones but as participants. “Not all of them loved the show, but we kept hearing how good it is to be out of school together with faculty members as friends, as one community. Not only do we see theater — even if someone doesn’t like what we see, it will be a great night, because the faculty get to know their students better, and the students get to know the faculty better.”
The Culture Club also hears from prominent artists and critics. “This year we Skyped with Ben Brantley, the New York Times’ chief theater critic, and Michael Riedel, the critic for the New York Post, actually came in to meet with us.”
How did he know these people? “I didn’t. I just cold call. I never expect them to respond — but I’ve learned that these people are just people. We don’t realize that but they are.”
Last school year, the club went on one outing each month; this year Ariel hopes to arrange two a month. “The idea is to make people happy, and to let them know that we are next door to one of the greatest cities in the world. We have to take advantage of that. And if we don’t the arts will collapse. We can’t let that happen.”
There are very few aspects of the theater that don’t interest Ariel. He also writes plays; this summer, his second short play, “When They Dimmed The Lights,” “which follows a boy and a girl on their first date for 15 minutes in real time,” won first place at the Palace Theatre’s annual Emerging Young Artists competition, and it was staged at the theater, in Stamford, Conn. The honor also came with a $2,000 prize.
Ariel is close to Dr. Bill Blank, his school psychologist, who is a former actor, a Tisch graduate, a Culture Club member, and its incoming faculty adviser. “He really needs to become a Broadway producer,” Dr. Blank said. “He is instantly likeable, hard working, and always figures out a way to get things done. If the answer is no, he figures out a way to yes. He will be an absolute force to be reckoned with.”
To that end, Ariel applied for an internship with a producer this summer. He was accepted, and everything was on track — until the producer learned that her lawyer, fearing liability issues, said that she could not have a 16-year-old in the office. “I was scared that I wouldn’t have anything to do this summer,” Ariel said. “So I thought, ‘Why don’t I just produce my own show?’”
He talked to Ms. Roberts, and together the two of them decided that he would intern as a producer at the JCC. They looked at a list of possible plays, “and I said, ‘I am Asher Lev,’” Ariel said. “It’s one boy’s struggle between art and faith.
“When I read the blurb about the play, I thought, well, this is a version of me, but reading it, I thought, this is me,” he added. “The reason I love ‘Asher Lev’ is because it so specific to the community, yet it is such a universal play. I think that anyone who sees it will be touched by it, no matter what their religion, race, or sexual orientation.”
“It’s many people’s story,” Ms. Roberts confirmed. “That’s true whether or not the details are completely accurate. In Ariel’s case, many of them are accurate.
“I have always been extremely interested in Chaim Potok’s work, and moved by it,” she added. “I thought that this is a chance to do something really meaningful.”
Although it has been many years since Equity actors worked at a JCC production, the three actors in “My Name Is Asher Lev” — Nathan Gardner, Mark J. Quiles, and Valerie Stack Dodge — all belong to the union. “I put up a notice in ‘Backstage,’ and we received 115 submissions,” Ariel said. “We narrowed it down to three phenomenal actors.” The director, Marci Elyn Schein, who also is an Equity actress, works at Schechter, and Ariel loves her work. He and a professional, David Zanko, are both working as set designers.
“I don’t know anyone like Ariel,” Lynn Gold said. “What I admire about him — one of the things I admire about him! — is that he is very very traditional. His family is very traditional. He has one foot in pop culture, and one foot in traditional culture.”
His name is Ariel Abergel. It almost could be Asher Lev.
Who: The Palisades Players, a group of Equity actors, will perform
What: “My Name Is Asher Lev,” a play by Aaron Posner based on the book by Chaim Potok
Where: At the Eric Brown Theater at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 E. Clinton Ave. in Tenafly
When: There will be three performances open to the public, on Saturday, August 27, at 9 p.m., on Sunday, August 28, at 2 p.m., and on Monday, August 29, at 7:30 p.m. The Sunday performance will be followed by a talkback with the cast.
On Thursday, August 25, senior citizens and veterans will be invited to a dress rehearsal.
How much: $15 for JCC members; $20 for everyone else.
For more information and tickets: Go to jccopt.org/shows or call