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Spotlight on… Playwright Terri Klein

“What Next” explores life, death and the existence of God

By Cindy Mindell

Terri Klein

CROMWELL – Actor and playwright Terri Klein has spent the last 13 years exploring Jewish identity and belief in a new play, “What Next.” She will debut her work in two staged readings next month, on Oct. 7
at Congregation Adath Israel in Middletown and on Oct. 20 at Farmington Valley Jewish Congregation – Emek Shalom in Simsbury.
“What Next” was inspired by Klein’s own Jewish journey growing up in many different Jewish communities and watching her own parents and stepfather explore their respective Jewish identities. She is interested in how Jews define themselves and express their personal religious beliefs.
A native of Arlington, Va., Klein has an unusual and varied Jewish background. Her parents both grew up in Denver in families involved in the Jewish community. She was born in Arlington, Va., and was raised as a Reform Jew. When she was 6, her parents divorced and her mother married an engineer, also from a Denver Jewish family, who was transferred every two years by his employer.
“Everywhere we moved, the first thing my mother would do is find the local synagogue and the local deli,” Klein says. “The synagogue was for herself and her children and the deli was for my father. My mother would say to him, ‘The only thing Jewish about you is your stomach.’ When we were living in San Jose, California, she repeated that to the rabbi and he said, ‘We get ‘em any way we can.’” Klein attended Sunday school in each new community, starting over several times from the Alef-Bet.
In the early ‘70s, the family was living in Jacksonville, Fla., the “buckle” of the Bible Belt.
“It’s as if people had a name tag: ‘Hi! I’m Terri. I’m a Jew,’” she says. “I was pelted with questions as the only Jew many people there had ever met. There was a little bit of antisemitism, nothing major; nobody hurt me. But my behavior was scrutinized, and there was a lot of questioning about why I would persist in being Jewish and I had the feeling that they would convert me if they could. That was the beginning of my self-conscious attempt to really forge a Jewish identity. By the time I was in high school, I felt I was Jewish and it wasn’t going to wash off in any way,” she says.
The family was then transferred to Zaghreb in the former Yugoslavia, and Klein spent two years at an American high school in Switzerland. Jacksonville’s Jewish community may have been sparse, but here Klein found only one fellow Jewish student. When she was home in Zaghreb, she would accompany her parents to the only synagogue they could find in the city, on the third floor of an unmarked Soviet-style apartment building, and different from what they were used to – a Sephardic Orthodox congregation.
At one service, Klein met three Israeli girls traveling through Europe. “They could do the whole service and everybody was making a big fuss over them,” she recalls. “I felt really stupid in Europe that I didn’t know anything and it increased my resolve to be more Jewish.”
Klein learned about Brandeis University from a visiting cousin. “I decided to go because I was tired of being the only Jew
for miles and miles,” she says.
It was there that Klein met her husband, a native of Spring Valley, N.Y. “We were exotic to one another,” she says. “He had lived among Jewish people his whole life, and wherever my family moved, the Jewish people were always across town.”
Klein studied comparative literature and became an actor and playwright. Now a resident of Cromwell, Klein has been active in Congregation Adath Israel in Middletown for 15 years, where she has helped run the annual Shpiel Café.
For the last 13 years, she has been working on her play, “What Next,” which will be presented twice in October. Klein sums up the plot in one sentence: “Two Jews are on their way to a bar mitzvah, when suddenly there’s an act of God.”
“I had all these questions about Judaism and death and the afterlife and does God exist and if so, what’s God like?” she says. “The play started out as a kind of conversation with my two atheist fathers and my at-least agnostic husband about believing or not believing in God. The main reason for writing it is because I’m Jewish and I think about these things, and I wondered whether other Jews think about these things. I have made an effort to write a Jewish play that is very much about identity, about the various different kinds of Jews I have met or been in my life and how they work out the idea of belief and who they are. How Jewish are you, are you Jewish enough, what do you have to do to prove it? What is Jewish identity? What does it consist of, and what do you believe, and how do the two interact?”
Klein brings two additional sensibilities to her Jewish and artistic identities. “I see theater as reparatory,” she says. “I want to do things that are inspirational.”
The other is humor. Several years ago, she was studying part of Parshat Beshalach – describing the Exodus from Egypt – to read at her daughter’s bat mitzvah. After the children of Israel cross the Sea of Reeds and enter the desert, they come to Moses and Aaron to complain about the lack of food. It would have been better, they tell their leaders, to have died at the hand of the Lord in Egypt, where at least there was plenty of meat and bread.
As she read, Klein heard the tone of the grievance in a Borsht Belt tone: “‘What, there weren’t enough graves in Egypt so you had to bring us to the desert to starve and die?’ There may be aspects of Jewish ritual that don’t quite fit, that I feel uncomfortable with,” she says. “But this was the part of Judaism that I knew was really me. I know I’m ‘Jewish by the joke.’ I’m glad there’s an outlet in Judaism for somebody who sees the funny.”
Both staged readings of “What Next” will be followed by a talk-back with the author, director, and cast.

Sunday, Oct. 7, 2 p.m.: Congregation Adath Israel, 8 Broad St., Middletown | Info: (860) 346-4709

Saturday, Oct. 20, 7 p.m.: Farmington Valley Jewish Congregation – Emek Shalom, 55 Bushy Hill Road, Simsbury | Info: (860) 658-1075.

Comments? Email cindym@jewishledger.com

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