By Judie Jacobson
In 1904, Abe and Minnie Dubroff immigrated from Russia to Brooklyn, N.Y. where they raised seven daughters and a son. The Dubroff
children married and had children… who had children…who had children. And each year, all those children – anywhere from 60 to 110 of them — gathered at Passover to celebrate the seder together as a family. A century worth of seders, held first in Brooklyn, then in
Boonton, N.J., and then, for the last four decades, in Newburgh, N.Y.
The seder was a labor of love orchestrated by the Dubroff sisters, who took six weeks to shop, chop, cook and bake — using century-old family recipes to create seder table staples like gefilte fish, horseradish and sponge cake. All the while laughing, bickering and reminiscing with one another. Not surprisingly, the process of preparing for the seder became as integral a part of the Dubroff family Passover tradition as the main event itself.
That fact did not escape Iris Burnett, daughter of Dubroff sister Rosie Groman z”l, and Iris’ husband, photojournalist David Burnett, who realized that the Dubroff’s Passover seder was more than just about a holiday celebration – it was about the family rituals that keep us connected spiritually and emotionally. And so, five years ago, Burnett and her husband chronicled the Dubroff’s sixweek Passover prep and seder in an awardwinning PBS documentary that has since aired throughout the country.
Now, Burnett and playwright/composer Matty Selman have turned the Gefilte Fish Chronicles into a musical that will premiere at the Warner Theatre March 2 – 10 for five performances. The production is produced by the Jewish Federation of Western Connecticut Foundation, in association with the Warner Theatre.
The Ledger spoke recently with Iris Burnett from her home in New York about her new musical and the family ties that bind.
Q: How did the musical end up in Boonton, N.J. and then to Newburgh, N.Y.?
A: That’s where we all lived: half my family were from Boonton and half from Newburgh. I’m originally from Boonton. We always got
together on Passover and had the seder in my Aunt Sophie’s basement in Boonton. It was there every year until she moved, and then it moved to Newburgh to my Aunt Peppy’s house – my mother’s twin. When Aunt Peppy sold her house, my cousin Rosalie had it at her house in Caldwell, N.J. Then Rosalie sold her house two years ago and I bought a house in Newburgh. Now it’s at my house in Newburgh. It’s kind of come full circle. Of course, the sisters are all gone now. My Aunt Peppy died last year. She was the last. But we still have the seders.
Q: What was it about these seders that prompted you to immortalize the seders?
A: My husband, who is a photojournalist, was fascinated by the fact that it took my aunts six weeks to prepare for Passover. They started at Purim. So he asked my aunt if he could stay with her for those six weeks and then shoot the seder. That’s how it started. We really were making a movie for the family because we thought it was really important for all of our children to understand the tradition and what it was like for all of us. We hoped it would have some sort of impact and it would encourage them to have some kind of a celebration at Passover, even if it isn’t having 60 people at their seder, as we do. From the time we were very little, it was a time of year we all looked forward to; a time when the cousins all got together — and we were a substantial number of cousins. Everybody came at Passover wherever it was and
whatever the issues were, you put everything away.
He watched my aunts and my mother over a period of six weeks. For the last 10 years or so the first cousins came and we helped. We did the fish with them, the matzoh balls, the cholent. They were tired – one of my aunts was 92, my mother and my Aunt Peppy were 84 or so. We’ve always tried to get the younger cousins involved so that they would understand what it was.
Q: So this was really about more than just a lesson in what it takes to prepare for a seder?
A: For us “Gefilte Fish Chronicles: The Musical” is really all about passing on to the next generation the traditions, and keeping all those who went before us alive. There’s not a thing that we do when we’re preparing for Passover that we don’t say something like, “No, no, Aunt Peppy did it this way” or “Aunt Rosie or Sarah did it this way,” or “do you remember when Aunt Sarah peeled 50 pounds of potatoes and then she wanted to know when she was supposed to peel the potatoes.” There are all these family stories, and telling the stories keeps them alive for us. We were very lucky. They were amazing women. Of course, there was a lot of yelling, which for us was really a part of the humor. My Aunt Peppy, for example, would always argue, and it didn’t matter if you were agreeing with her or not, she would still
argue. They were just characters; lovable characters and all very funny.
Q: Can you give us an example of that humor?
A: Well, when one of them died one of the things that they always did was they would gather at the front of the temple around the
coffin and they would pray and they would talk. So, when my Aunt Helen died, there were my Aunt Sophie and my Aunt Peppy standing at opposite ends of the coffin, and my Aunt Peppy was saying to my Aunt Helen, “you know, I was always happy to pick you up and to do this and that for you, I’ll miss you so much.” And my Aunt Sophie says to her “Pesh, you’re talking to her feet.” Well, we started to laugh and the congregation thought we were crying because our shoulders were shaking. But no matter what the tragedy there was always a laugh. So when we wrote the musical that’s what we wanted it to be. We wanted it to be laughter and tears.
Q: How did this evolve from a documentary into a musical?
A: Well, we made it for family. But I was in television and I sent it to my boss who was the head of USA networks for her opinion,
because we were beginning to think that maybe it was more than a family movie. I expected her to say it was a nice little family movie, now put it away. But she said to me “Wow, I think you’ve really got something here.” So, I sent it to WNET where a friend of mine worked and he said “This is great, we’re going to show it.” And they did. They showed it on WNET on a Sunday, and on Saturday there was a review in the New York Times. We had no idea that it was going to happen. The next year it was at five stations and the next year at 10 stations. Now it shows on over 70 stations, usually around Passover.
Q: When did you decide to make a musical out of it?
A: Matty Selman and I had mutual friends, and one day one of these friends said to me, “I know this guy who’s a wonderful composer and lyricist and he thinks the Gefilte Fish Chronicles should be a musical.” And I laughed and said “I don’t know that we need to take it any farther. It’s as wonderful as it’s going to be as a documentary.” But he called me and we started to talk. He had another friend who was going to write [the book] and he was going to do the music and lyrics. But then the friend got very busy and had to drop out. So, Matty urged me to do it and I said, “okay, I’ll do it with you, but I’m not going to do a musical version of the documentary.” I wanted it to be a separate story about passing on the traditions and keeping those who’ve gone before us alive.
I told him that we could not duplicate my mother and my aunts. There was just no character that can play any one of them. But as unique as they were, our family is like every other family, whether it be Jewish or Italian or Chinese… We’re like every other ethnic family. Every family has that special celebration at some point – whether it’s an Italian Christmas, a Chinese new year, etc. Everybody’s family is like that in some way. That’s why our theme — keeping the tradition alive — resonates. It’s called the Gefilte Fish Chronicles, but it’s really not about being Jewish, it’s about family. We say it celebrates the power of family.
Q: Was it difficult to write a musical, given that you had no previous experience doing so?
A: Well, I’ve written two books and a cookbook, but I had no experience writing a musical. I love the theater, it’s always been a passion for me. So, it was my intention to produce the show, but not necessarily to write it. I don’t want to say it was easy because it’s taken us a very long time, but the stories just kind of came naturally. We laughed and we cried, and we created characters who are combinations of my mother and my aunts – and even Matty’s mother. One character is three of my mother’s sisters, and one is another three, and then one is Matty’s mother combined with my Aunt Sarah and my Aunt Betty. It kind of just went. Not that it was easy, but it just all made sense to us.
Q: And the Warner Theater production will be the first time the show is presented on stage? How did the show find it’s way to Torrington?
A: We did a reading in New York and a reading in Montreal, but the production at the Warner Theater is going to be the first time with costumes, sets, etc. The actors who were involved in the readings weren’t all Jewish and they’re all young people in their 20s and 30s. It’s great to see how excited they are with the show. I was afraid our audience was going to skew very old. But the kids loved it and they loved the music. So that’s very exciting. My former partner is the executive producer at the Warner Theater and that’s how we made that connection. The Jewish Federation of Western CT got word that the show was coming and they wanted to co-produce it. So the Jewish Federation and the Warner Theater are producing it.
Q: What do you have planned following the show’s run at the Warner?
A: We have people who we’re meeting in Florida, Seattle and Los Angeles, as well as other theaters who are interested in presenting it. Our philosophy about this showis much like our philosophy about the documentary, which is that we want as many people to see it as is possible. We didn’t produce it with the intention of taking it to Broadway – though it’s certainly Broadway quality. But we really want to take it all over the country. We’re hoping to interest investors to help that happen. It’s all very exciting.
For more information or to purchase tickets, call the Federation at (203) 501-7642 or the Warner Theatre (860) 489-7180 www.warnertheatre.org.