“The Matzo Ball Diaries” salon series explores the cultural significance of food

By Jessica Koslow

Most Jews have fond memories about food. Throw some funny stories in the mix, and you’ve got a recipe for a great show: the latest Salon Theatre Series from Jewish Women’s Theatre, “The Matzo Ball Diaries.”

Sitting in the back office of The Braid, JWT’s home base in Santa Monica for the past 2½ years, artistic director Ronda Spinak spills some of her own Jewish humor: “I was home from college for my family Seder at our friends’ house. The daughter of my mother’s friend whose house it was brought home, for the first time, her Orange County, Southern-born WASP boyfriend. He never probably met Jews before. He definitely had never been to a Seder. The Gefilte fish got put down. He took a big bite and said, ‘Probably taste really good if it were barbecued.’ We just all laughed.”

Spinak explains that the aim of JWT’s show is to explore on stage stories that connect us to food. The salon-style theater performances are done in homes around Los Angeles, with the opening night kicking off at The Braid on Jan. 21. Paired with the salon series is an art show, titled “Nourishing Tradition,” which also opens at The Braid and runs through March 5. This is the first year JWT has scheduled the opening for both the theater and art show in one night at the same place, and a Q&A will follow.

The third part of JWT’s “It’s So Chewish!” theme is Bagels & Bestsellers, featuring Judy Zeidler at the Skirball Cultural Center on Jan. 29. Brunch is served with hearty discussion, a cooking demonstration with Zeidler making her famous biscotti and a copy of her latest book, “Ciao Italy.” Zeidler owns Cora’s and Capo in Santa Monica, among other eateries.

“One of the things I say is in the cold month of January, we warm our souls with Jewish food,” says Spinak. “It’s art as a way to warm the soul.”

For the theater and art shows, JWT reached out to the larger community for submissions and tapped artists they already knew, like Harriette Estel Berman. Spinak asked Berman, who she’s known for 30 years, to share a piece: Berman picked “Toast to the Bride.” A miniature-sized bride is physically standing inside of a toaster that’s split open — a social commentary on the roles of women and the value and influence of consumer goods in our society.

“The Matzo Ball Diaries” will play out in peoples’ homes. It’s the way JWT has always done it.

“We got our business going three weeks after Bernie Madoff,” says Spinak. “All the arts funding dried up. The Jewish world was not giving to arts and culture. People were hurting. We had no overhead. We had no space. So, our policy was to not pay for places to perform.”

People usually volunteer their homes after seeing a performance or are referred. JWT brings the chairs, stage lights, stools and black curtains, when necessary. They offer a community table of home-baked treats, which is included in the ticket. And there’s always a post-show Q&A.

Many of the home-baked treats come from JWT’s Project Manager Rose Ziff, who also manages their website, or Suzanna Kaplan, JWT’s Literary Manager and culinary expert. Others are courtesy of JWT’s Patron Bakers, members who have been subscribers for one year or more — and love to bake. They bring their goodies to the table, and JWT places a card in front of them with their name and the name of the goodie — and maybe even whose recipe it is.

JWT will also hold a food donation drive at each performance.

“I noticed a lot of our submissions were about abundance, the fullness of their table,” says Spinak. “It was hard to find material about Jews being hungry. So we wanted to acknowledge food scarcity and people being hungry. All patrons are being asked to bring one food item, a can or box, and everything will be donated to SOVA Community Food & Resource Program
to its food bank. It’s a way to engage patrons with a personal connection.”

The stories that make up “The Matzo Ball Diaries” range from how the International House of Pancakes was started to how, in the Persian culture, one is supposed to accept food when it’s offered.

Spinak explains: “The first time food is offered you must refuse. But the person must offer again, and again you must refuse. The person must offer a third time and the third time they take. It’s a piece about the ritual around food and guests, being in someone’s home, being a host.”

Just as universal as the subject of food, Jewish Women’s Theatre is for everyone. Some of the writers and actors are men.
It’s something Spinak feels strongly about.

“We have a strong, dedicated male audience,” Spinak says. “These stories are universal: about love, betrayal, loss, yearning. We can all feel empowered because they are human stories.”

“The Matzo Ball Diaries” opens at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 21, at The Braid (2912 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica) and continues at Westside or South Bay homes on Jan. 22, 23, 24, 30 and 31. Call (310) 315-1400 or visit jewishwomenstheatre.org for ticket and venue information.