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By Phyllis Steinberg
Jewish Journal - Broward Central Edition

February 28, 2008

“Audiences loved it,” Mittelman said.” “It is the perfect vehicle to celebrate Jewish culture.”

The production is the joint venture of two new theater organizations.

The American Theater Festival was formed to extend the theatrical life of productions with a Jewish theme. The National Jewish Theater was created to celebrate and preserve Jewish culture through the performing arts. Both organizations are being led by Mittelman.

Mittelman said he wanted to start the National Jewish Theater because of an absence of a national Jewish theater in America.

He also wanted to start the Jewish theater because of his experiences as a Jewish child loiving in non-Jewish neighborhood.

Growing up in Jersey City, Mittelman said he was the only Jewish child in his school except for his sister.

“The kids were very anti-Semitic and I was drawn to the theater and acting as a vehicle to communicate and be noticed,” Mittelman said. “I was lucky because I was successful at it. I produced plays in New York for 20 years before being recruited to relocate in Florida to head the Coconut Grove Playhouse.”

“There is a Yiddish theater in New York, but no national Jewish theater,” Mittelman said. “Ironically, many performers, singers and songwriters in the early part of the twentieth century were Jewish.”

“Gershwin, who died at the age of 38 and wrote operas and symphonies as well as blues and jazz, was greatly influenced by the music of the Yiddish theater and klezmer music,” Mittelman said.

Actor Theodore Bikel also inspired Mittelman to start the National Jewish Theater.

“Theodore was the keynote speaker at the World Congress of Jewish Theaters in Vienna, and when I heard him speak about Jewish theater, it was crystal clear to me that the role and identity of Jewish theater relates to the American Jewish experience,” Mittelman said.

In a phone interview, Bikel shared his reasons for the formation of a national Jewish theater in the United States.

“There are several little Jewish theater groups across the country and in Canada, but no national Jewish theater group,” Bikel said.

“It just makes sense to have one. This way the various smaller Jewish theater groups can pool their resources.”

The can also exchange information and casts and produce a higher-quality Jewish theater.”

Mittelman also said he received encouragement from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.

“I formed a tax exempt corporation and began to reach out to the community to see what support there was for the idea, and I was pleasantly surprised with the outpouring of interest and donations I received,” Mittelman said.

Although, the first production of the National Jewish Theater is taking place in Fort Lauderdale, Mittelman hopes to take the company to New York and other venues in the United States.

Joseph Vass, musical director and author of the production, said his impetus for writing “The Soul of Gershwin,” was to show the Jewish connection in Gershwin's music.

Vass will be in Fort Lauderdale when the production opens as he is music director and plays the piano in the show.

“The Soul of Gershwin” celebrates the Jewish connection in the great American songbook.”