Jew Store (the musical)” will serve up a warm blend of family tradition and Tennessee Jewish history, all to benefit Akiva School, when it opens next month at the Gordon Jewish Community Center.
The show, based on Stella Suberman’s 2001 memoir, “The Jew Store,” will be performed on Dec. 9 and 10. Nashville’s Jay Kholos is its writer, producer and director.
Suberman’s book told how her family came to live in a rural Tennessee town where they were the only Jews – ever. Her father, Aaron Bronson, had fled pogroms in Russia and originally settled in New York City, where he married her mother, Reba.
At the heart of the story is a simple fact, Kholos said: “The husband had shpilkes, and the wife didn’t want to leave” New York.
Eventually the Bronsons moved to what’s called Concordia, Tenn., in the book, where they opened a dry-goods store that locals called the Jew store. (It wasn’t uncommon in that era for non-Jewish rural people to call similar stores Jew stores.) The Bronsons were the first and only Jews in town, and the story includes fish-out-of-water humor and small-town American life in the 1920s.
Kholos has written several Jewish-themed musicals, including “A Stoop On Orchard Street.” “The Jew Store” had all the elements of a hit musical, he said: “a little pathos, the jeopardy of dealing with townspeople who weren’t exactly welcoming, the KKK. …” There also was romance, with daughter Miriam Bronson falling in love with a local boy.
He admits he took many creative liberties in adapting the book into a musical and was extremely pleased and frankly relieved that Stella (Suberman) loved the musical adaptation, which premiered in Cincinnati earlier this year. Kholos was able to create “Jew Store (the musical)” only after Dolly Parton’s rights to make the book a movie had lapsed.
“Aaron, the father, has a way of using humor” to defuse difficult situations, Kholos said. Songs in the musical often use humor to tackle difficult subjects.
In one song, “Our Jews,” the Concordia townspeople say their Jews – the Bronsons – are the best Jews. The townsfolk may not exactly embrace other Jews, but they sing the Bronsons’ praises because of the personal relationships they’ve built.
Kholos, originally from Los Angeles, has lived in Nashville for 20 years. He owned West Coast-based advertising agencies prior to entering theatrical world as writer and producer. Kholos wrote the script, music and lyrics for Jew Store, and he produces and directs it. Show runs two hours and 20 minutes, including the intermission.
“The Nashville production includes a couple of new scenes not in the Cincinnati shows that I am excited about,” he said.
There will be some familiar faces in the Nashville production, notably Cole Strosberg, son of Rabbi Saul Strosberg of Congregation Sherith Israel.
Cole Strosberg plays young Joey Bronson and performed in the Cincinnati production. Kholos recalled how he had been interviewing children for the part, but hadn’t yet found the right person.
“Someone I knew told me there’s a young boy I believe might work. … We auditioned Cole and he was terrific. We learned more about Akiva and we actually did some rehearsals there early on,” he said.
“I got caught up in the Akiva story and that it’s a great place for young people,” he said. That led to the decision to stage “Jew Store (the musical)” at the GJCC, with all proceeds to Akiva.
There are 17 people in the show, with nine principals. The Nashville cast will have performers from New York, South Florida, Nashville and Chicago. The actors who play father Aaron Bronson and his wife, Reba, will be new to the cast, but both have acted in several of Kholos’ plays.
“Jew Store (the musical) will be performed twice in Nashville, on Saturday, Dec. 9 in the evening and on Sunday, Dec. 10, as a matinee.
Afterward, six to eight shows are in the works for Atlanta, eight in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, four to six weeks of shows in South Florida and two weeks in Philadelphia, culminating in an open-ended engagement in New York. If all goes well, Kholos said, “Jew Store (the musical)” could be on a New York stage next fall.
For tickets and information, you may visit www.jewstorethemusical.com or you may call (615) 823-1031. •