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‘Imagining Heschel’ In the Wrong Places

An evening with the great rabbi and his daughter

Siân Gibby
November 11, 2010
Richard Dreyfuss as Abraham Joshua Heschel.(Imagining Heschel)
Richard Dreyfuss as Abraham Joshua Heschel.(Imagining Heschel)

Last night, I attended a staged reading of a new play called Imagining Heschel with my friend Susannah Heschel, the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth as well as Rabbi Abraham Joshua’s only child. Richard Dreyfuss played Heschel, the great theologian, and as I watched his performance, I asked myself what was going through Susannah’s mind. (Also, it had to be terrifically difficult even for a fine and seasoned actor like Dreyfuss to know Susannah was in the audience.) Heschel has been dead for 38 years; Susannah adored him and he her. What does she even remember, after so much time? Would he come alive in this performance?

I never met her father, but I have seen videotapes of him many times and studied them closely. I noticed that Dreyfuss frequently punctuated utterances with a “Ja?” which I gather Heschel did, because I know Susannah does it. A couple of other things seemed right: An inflection here, a hand gesture there.

But by and large this portrayal missed the mark, I think. The principle characteristic of Heschel was his warmth, an intense warmth; Heschel engaged fully when he talked, and his good humor shone like a sun. I didn’t see any of that here. (And really, Richard Dreyfuss, I know you are an Oscar-winning actor, but would it be too much to expect a veteran like you to muster a credible Polish accent?)

What struck me as most profoundly wrong was the actors’ sense of unfamiliarity with the material—they read their lines from notebooks. An uncertainty pervaded Dreyfuss’ performance, and if there was one thing Heschel was not, it was uncertain. From what I have seen on video (in the filmmaker Steve Brand’s excellent documentary Praying With My Legs), Heschel’s speech flowed like a powerful river. I saw none of that power, and so regrettably the rabbi who had become a beloved hero to me over the years remained elusive.

At intermission, Susannah stood up to greet some friends and schmooze in the aisles, and her bright smile, sparkly eyes, and radiant warmth bespoke both her father and her gracious mother in a way that made my breath catch in my throat. Watching her interact with well-wishers, piercing them with her sharp yet loving gaze, I realized I’d been looking for Heschel, imagining him, in the wrong place—on stage—when all the time his very human legacy of love had been sitting right there in the dark with us.

Siân Gibby is Tablet Magazine’s copy editor.

Siân Gibby holds the position of writer/editor at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute. She is the translator of Intimate History of the Great War, by Quinto Antonelli; The God of New York, by Luigi Fontanella; and Resistance Rap, by Francesco Carlo.