Hadassah has much to brag about. The volunteer women’s organization — founded in 1912 by Henrietta Szold — is not only one of the largest international Jewish organizations, but its fund-raising work on behalf of community programs and health initiatives in Israel and the United States attracts international renown.
What else can we say about a group that already enjoys so much well-deserved acclaim? We can say that for the last two decades, some of its local chapter members — none of them professional musicians — have wowed the community with their original musicals.
Hannah Price, Berthe Nathanson, and Arlene Rifkin have much in common. They all were Bergen County teachers. They are all longtime Hadassah members — although Hannah and Arlene belong to different chapters and Berthe recently moved to Boston — and they have evolved over the years as talented writers, actors, and directors. And, it would seem, the success of their group, the Hadassah Players, has continued to evolve as well.
The story of the three women’s journey into the communal spotlight began in 2010, “when someone gave us a play,” recalled Hannah Price of Montvale, a member of the Pascack Valley/Northern Valley chapter. “We had been writing original plays for Hadassah for years and years.” Each subsequent year brought forth new ideas and a new show. This year, an idea that started out as just another way to contribute to their beloved organization morphed into something much larger; the group is offering five performances of its latest production.
While the details are hazy, Ms. Price remembers that sometime around 2012, someone from the Jewish Home in River Vale invited the Hadassah troupe to perform there. The show they brought was based on “The Bintel Brief,” a Yiddish advice column that printed anonymous readers’ questions and the editor’s replies. The column was started by Abraham Cahan, editor of Der Forverts — the Forward — in 1906. Recent Jewish immigrants asked for advice on matters including economic, family, religious, and theological difficulties.
“We had done ‘A Bintel Brief’ for Hadassah,” Ms. Price said. “We took that and had different women read the letters. Then we asked the residents for their opinions on how they would solve the problems. Then we read what the editor said.” Following that performance, the Hadassah Players began to receive regular invitations from the River Vale home, and later from the Jewish Home at Rockleigh.
“We did ‘Calendar Girls,’ in 2013,” Ms. Price said. “We went through the months of the year referring to Jewish themes.” She remembers that for Yom Kippur, they had a song about “Al Het,” the confession of sins. “In 2014 we did ‘The New View,” based on the television show and featuring a panel including people like Zsa Zsa Gabor. Guests included “famous people, stars who came back to life.”
The ideas just kept coming. In 2016, “The Traveling Matchmaker” featured four Jewish women traveling out West with a ditzy tour guide; in 2017 “The Cut-Off” was about a baby who was supposed to have a bris but disappeared instead; in 2018, “The Golden Age of TV” included excerpts from famous television shows; and — new this year — “Momma Knew Best” will highlight the relationship of two bickering sisters who come together after their mother’s death to reminisce.
“They remember when they went to Radio City and when they visited Israel,” Ms. Price said. “There’s a lot of Jewish content. And we always try to put in something Hadassah women can relate to. There’s a line about shopping for an outfit for a bar mitzvah and a Hadassah luncheon.”
While Ms. Price is not a professional lyricist, she did launch an off-Broadway show many years ago, “to good reviews.” Her daughter, Nancy Feldman, is an actress and cabaret performer; she “has had leading roles with the Bergen County Players,” her mother said. Ms. Feldman and Janita Carpenter, “a comic actress who loves to sing,” will perform in the new show. The rest of the cast is made up of seniors. “The two young actresses bring it to a new level,” Ms. Price said.
In general, she added, “people come in and out” of the group. It’s time consuming — there are 10 rehearsals per show.
Accompanist Hal Keshner “can play in any key,” Ms. Price said. In addition, “he stepped up to the plate and now acts in our shows, and loves it.” Men are not easy to come by, given that Hadassah primarily is a women’s organization. And while not many cast members have a great deal of singing experience, the group has included several cantors.
Ms. Price said that the three writers have worked together well. Each has a different strength. “We bounce ideas off each other,” she said. “The ideas go back and forth. That’s the best part.” Now that Ms. Nathanson has moved, Ms. Price and Ms. Rifkin — who lives in Paramus and is a member of the Paramus Bat Sheva chapter — will bring in a third partner.
“I love the writing part the best,” Ms. Price said. “Directing is fun, but there’s nothing I’d rather do than get together with the two girls and write the show.” As for costuming, she leaves that to Ms. Rifkin.
Ms. Rifkin said that she and Ms. Price have worked together for a long time. She recalled the two of them creating a puppet show for B’nai B’rith. “Hannah was in Paramus then,” she said. The show, which was later picked up by a community television channel, was about Brotherhood Week. It was filmed at William Paterson College.
“It’s win/win,” Ms. Price said. “The cast members love to perform, we love to write, and the audience loves it.”