In the beginning, Philadelphia-based theater artist Jesse Bernstein wrote a one-man play about the ancient Jerusalem scribe who compiled the holy, sacred first Torah.
Now he is performing the witty, irreverent work on stage in a national tour that launches Nov. 3 in an event hosted by the Siegal Lifelong Learning Program at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. The production, which will be shown virtually in Cleveland and will receive its first live performance at the Jewish Theatre of Oklahoma a month later, will be followed by a question-and-answer session.
The potentially true but most assuredly fabricated story offered in “The Scribe” features a reluctant wordsmith who must reconcile his contradicting sources and piece together a cohesive text under the watchful eyes of Ezra and Nehemiah. But first, he must come to terms with the pressure of writing an international bestseller and saving the Children of Israel, confront his personal doubts, and keep from longing for the good-old-days of exile in Babylon.
The author of numerous plays and short films, Bernstein is a board member of the Alliance for Jewish Theatre and the associate artistic director of Theatre Ariel, Pennsylvania’s only professional theater dedicated to illuminating the social, cultural, and spiritual heritage of the Jewish people.
As an actor, he has performed off-Broadway and on regional stages across the country, where he has portrayed an impressive roster of Jewish characters. Bernstein originated the role of Reuven in Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen” at the Arden Theatre Company and played Eugene in each part of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Trilogy with the Walnut Street Theatre company.
“In some ways,” suggests the playwright, “the character I play in ‘The Scribe’ exists in that part of my inner Venn diagram where Eugene and Reuven overlap. Certainly, Simon’s and Potok’s writings have been influences on me as a playwright. In fact, Chaim’s history of the Jews, ‘Wanderings,’ was a resource for me while I was writing this show. His widow, Adena, was the first person to hear ‘The Scribe’ read aloud when it was still in development.”
Cleveland-based Interplay Jewish Theatre, which is dedicated to staging contemporary plays that view the world through a Jewish lens, is the co-producer of “The Scribe,” along with Theatre Ariel.
“We’ve been working with Siegal Lifelong Learning since March to create this community event,” said Faye Sholiton, the Beachwood-based playwright who founded Interplay 10 years ago. “Our role has been planning and bringing all the parties together, with dozens of Zoom meetings and hundreds of emails. It has been a most exciting creative partnership.”
When registering for “The Scribe,” patrons will be automatically registered for the online panel discussion, “Who Wrote The Bible?” to be held one week later at 7 p.m. Nov. 10. Panelists include Shawna Dolansky, who specializes in biblical studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada; Alison Joseph, who is the senior editor of The Posen Library of Jewish Civilization and Culture; and Sarah Shechtman, a freelance editor specializing in academic writing.
“The Scribe” premiered virtually for Theatre Ariel in June 2020, after the live show was canceled due to the pandemic.
“Just me in my apartment with my laptop, trying not to step on my cat as I performed,” Bernstein said.