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The making of a Jewish actor: Reuven Russell returns to N. Haven

Reuven Russell

NEW HAVEN – Reuven Russell says there was something “miraculous” about how he landed the part of the Orthodox rabbi Hersh Rasseyner in “The Quarrel,” the role he originated when the play premiered in Madison, N.J. in 1999.
When co-authors Joseph Telushkin and David Brandes adapted their award-winning film into a play, Russell answered the casting call for an Orthodox Jewish man.

“I was offered the role and I said, ‘That’s very nice but, similar to the character, I also observe the Jewish Sabbath so performing in Friday-night or Saturday-matinee performances will be a problem,’” Russell recalls. “When they told me that they couldn’t get an understudy, I said, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t think I’m your man.’”
Russell got a call three days later from the director, who had checked the play’s reservation books after the actor’s audition. There were no reservations for the Friday-night or Saturday-matinee performances.
“He told me, ‘We’ve thought about it and decided to change the production schedule and not do Friday-night or Saturday-afternoon performance, so that you can have the role,’” Russell says. “This is unheard of, especially considering the fact that the theater is not a Jewish one. I said, ‘If there’s any way at all that you can figure out how I can do the role, you’ll be blessed and the theater will be blessed.’ Seven and a half years later, we opened off-Broadway, and Daryl Roth, a premier theater director in New York, also ran the four-week production on a shomer Shabbos schedule.”
The son of the late comedian Joey Russell, the actor returned to his native New Haven two years ago to enroll his children at Southern Connecticut Hebrew Academy, the same day school he attended from kindergarten through 8th grade.
“My father wasn’t observant, but believed very much in a Jewish education,” he says. After graduating public high school in Milford, Russell earned an undergraduate degree from Carnegie Mellon University and then moved to New York to study acting with Stella Adler and Michael Moriarty.
He auditioned for the Yale School of Drama in 1984. When he didn’t get in, he participated in the university’s program at Oxford University the following summer, and traveled through Europe. “I visited all the Jewish areas, and Dachau had the biggest impression on me,” he says. “I came back to New Haven and said, ‘I think I should take my Judaism seriously.’ Because I had gone to Jewish day school as a kid for 10 years, I didn’t have to start from the alef-beis. Rather, it was a refresher course for me, and I studied little by little.” When Joey Russell learned that his son was interested in returning to his Judaism, he told him, “You like Judaism? You like show business? Become a rabbi!” the actor recalls.
The Quarrell revolves around two childhood friends – a devout rabbi and secular rabbi – split apart by personal betrayal and uprooted by war who accidentally.  Their accidental meeting years later sparks a battle of wits that tests the limits of friendship, faith and tolerance.  Adapted from “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner,” a short story by the acclaimed Yiddish writer Chaim Grade, the play is based on Brandes and Telushkin’s award-winning film and has toured the United States for several years.
Russell is most struck by the central message of “The Quarrel,” as described by co-author Joseph Telushkin: “Can you love someone whose views you really can’t stand? And can you learn to look beyond those views and to see the fullness of the person who holds those views?”
“It’s a relevant message here today,” Russell says, “especially with all the talk radio shows that espouse fanatic views and pit religious against not religious views, Republican against Democrat. It’s not an easy task: are someone’s views who they are?”
Russell teaches theater and public speaking at Stern College for Women in New York. In addition to acting in “The Quarrel” around the country, he performs regularly as a standup comedian at 150 Chabad houses throughout the world. He has also appeared in the TV show “ER,” the feature film “Chaplin,” and the family DVD, “The Adventures of Agent Emes.”
Whether because he is the son of a funnyman or his name foretold his profession, Russell says that his Jewish name, Reuven Yitzchak, especially signifies his essence. Reuven translates as “Look, a son!” referring to the eldest son of Jacob and Leah in the Torah. Yitzchak comes from the Hebrew word “to laugh.” “So my father could always point to me and say, ‘Look, my son is a comedian!’” Russell says.

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