By Charles Bernsen
Even before reading The Jew Store, a 1998 memoir of a Jewish family’s experience running a rural West Tennessee dry goods store during the 1920s, Nashville playwright Jay Kholos knew he wanted to adapt it for the stage as a musical.
“It was the title,” he said. “I was knocked out by the title.”
The problem was that the rights to The Jew Store were owned by country music icon Dolly Parton, who was hoping to develop it as a feature film.
But Parton’s project never happened, and last year Kholos finally acquired the rights. Just nine months later, his musical adaption – “Jew Store: The New Musical” – premiered in Cincinnati’s Aronoff Center for the performing arts with a cast and crew from Nashville. Among the 1,000 people who saw the play at the center’s Jarson-Kaplan Theater was 95-year-old Stella Suberman, the author of the memoir on which it is based, along with more than a dozen family members.
“Our family laughed and cried and truly loved the production,” said Suberman, who participated in an audience “talk back” after the last of three performances, a Sunday matinee.
In addition to writing the words and music, Kholos produces and directs “Jew Store,” which fits the creative niche he has carved out for himself with his previous nostalgic, Jewish-themed musical comedies – “A Stoop on Orchard Street,” which tells the story of early 20th century East European Jewish immigrants to New York, and “My Catskills Summer,” a paean to the upstate New York resorts that became so popular with the growing Jewish middle class after World War II. (Both shows premiered at the Gordon Jewish Community Center, and “Orchard Street went on to run for more than a year off Broadway in New York.)
In a way, “Jew Store” picks up where “Orchard Street” left off by focusing on one of those New York immigrant families – Aaron and Reba Bronson (Andrew Raney and Madison Graves) and their children Miriam (Abigail G. Nichol) and Joey (Cole Strosberg, son of Rabbi Saul Strosberg and Daniella Pressner). Seeking opportunity beyond the teeming tenements of New York, the family moves to a rural Southern town in 1920 and opens “Bronson’s Low-Cost Dry Goods Store.” (The play uses the same fictional name for the town – Concordia – that Suberman uses in her memoir. Her father’s store was in Union City, Tenn., where she was born in 1922.)
Kholos describes “Jew Store” as a “classic fish-out-of-water story.” The Bronsons are the only Jews in Concordia, and both the comedy and dramatic tension arise from their encounters with an unfamiliar culture in a community where they are initially viewed with curiosity by many and hatred by some.
The first townsperson they meet, for example, is T.J., a polite, well-meaning young man who immediately takes a liking to the Bronsons – and is smitten by Miriam. Wrestling to overcome the negative Jewish stereotypes he had heard his whole life, he sings, “So once again I’m certainly confused. Why am I supposed to dislike Jews?”
The play is narrated in Suberman’s voice by Nashville actor Francine Berk-Graver. A regular in Kholos’s productions, she also plays the key role of T.J’s aunt, Miss Brookie, a wealthy and eccentric spinster who treats the strange Jewish family with kindness and open-mindedness (and who, we learn, eventually leads the effort to end child labor at the town’s shoe factory).
Of course, a two-hour musical can’t begin to convey the nuance and details of Suberman’s 300-page memoir, and Kholos acknowledges taking a few liberties for the sake of dramatic effect – as when Aaron invokes the “kineahora curse” (a reference to “the evil eye”) to expose the ignorance of hooded Ku Klux Klan members who invade his store on opening day singing “Jews get out now or it’s six feet underground.”
The play covers a 12-year period that ends with the Bronsons return to New York shortly after the onset of the Great Depression, though not before their store has become a fixture in Concordia and the family has gained the respect of most of the town’s residents after helping save it from bankruptcy. The townspeople express their fondness for the Bronson’s – if not for all Jews – in the play’s penultimate song, “Our Jews.”
Following several extended narrations that reveal details about the lives of the Bronsons and some of the residents of Concordia after the events of the play (including the romantic relationship between Miriam and T.J.), “Jew Store” ends with the song “Shalom, Concordia” in which the family and townspeople promise never to forget one another.
After runs scheduled later this year in Atlanta, South Florida and Philadelphia, Kholos said he hopes to take the production off Broadway in New York. •