Tony Kushner, Ann Toback, Jeffrey Wright



By Myra Chanin


For over a 100 years the Workmen’s Circle has promoted Jewish identity through cultural programs, teaching Yiddish and promoting social justice with the intention of connecting Jewish families (of all affiliations) with their heritage and encouraging them to build a better and more beautiful world for all. During their existence the Workman’s Circle not only survived Hitler, Stalin, etc. but they also triumphed over less publicized calamities like my retarded-educable-on-the-verge-of-expulsion class at the Philadelphia Workman’s Circle Middle School.

I was there because my mother nurtured the impossible dream of my learning to decipher the Yiddish words I spoke so fluently when I perceived them as groups of peculiar letters that needed to be read from left to right, but I was a minor-league miscreant. Our trump student, in every variation of that word, was POS. The black sheep youngest son of a Workman’s Circle teacher, POS had reinvented himself in adolescence and answered only to his self-dubbed moniker, also the initials of his favorite beer, Philadelphia Old Stock, which hopefully he’d someday be old enough to buy. POS occupied himself in class designing, constructing and hand-lettering POS, on paper airplanes which he whizzed overhead while our long-suffering teachers read mystical stories by I. L. Peretz, Sholem Asch and Joseph Opatoshu to us in Yiddish between POS Airline flights. Oddly enough, my Workman Circle classes rewarded me with a passion for Yiddish theater and literature and fondness for the minor key Yiddish melodies I sang at the Workman’s Circle, children’s summer Camp Hofnung, which drew me to attend the Workman’s Circle 2018 Winter Benefit – Setting the Stage for Change, where Playwright Tony Kushner, was being honored for uniting social activism and Jewish soul in his plays, films, etc. I’d been intensely moved by the recent Tony-winning revival of Kushner’s Angels in America, and was curious to see and hear him in the flesh. He was even more riveting, beguiling and just plain nice than I could ever have imagined.


Tony Kushner


The program began with two instrumental and vocal duets performed by Klezmatics Frank London and Lorin Sklamberg of songs composed by London with lyrics by Kushner, created for musical dramas that have yet to be produced. Succinct welcoming remarks by Workman Circle Executive Director, Ann Toback and President, Richard Rumult were followed by a heartfelt tribute to Kushner by his friend, Jeffrey Wright, the Tony and Emmy-Award Winning Angels in America actor who recently became The Boss of Westworld.

When Kushner stepped up to the lectern and smiled, sunshine flooded the room. By their honorees shall you know them, and I can’t imagine a more deserving, articulate and honest writer alive today than he. His speech was only 14 minutes long but packed with insights, so I’m including some of the highlights word for word.

“One of the first awards I received, after Angels in America opened in London and then arrived on Broadway forced me to leave the insecurity and obscurity into which I was born and to which I’m proudly convinced I am best suited and to which I will surely return someday, was a lifetime achievement award, which seemed ridiculous inasmuch as I was still in my thirties, from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. I always include that award when my bio needs to be printed because it seems like an effective repost to those who accuse me of being anti-Israel. I am not anti-Israel. I am seriously anti-Netanyahu. I’m not a Zionist. I’m not an anti-Zionist. I am a Diasporan Jewish American homo who has an award from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.”

The bonus for that reward was meeting his co-honoree, the Poet Stanley Kunitz, whom he admired, but felt intimidated by. Kunitz’s response? “I’m 92 years old and no one is intimidated by me.” But after Kushner quoted lines written by Kunitz to Kunitz: “In dangerous times, the heart breaks and breaks, and lives by breaking,” Kunitz replied, “If you’re using poetry to change the world, you’re using poetry as a tool and poetry will resent being used that way. We don’t want poets who write to conquer the world. We want poets who only want to conquer some part of themselves.”

At their next encounter Kunitz told Kushner about his mother Yetta, who was uneducated, worked in a dry goods store and still managed to find the time to speak to her son about Schopenhauer. “She’d never read Schopenhauer or much of anything, yet she had ambition that was ferocious and a hard-headed fatalistic sense of the way the world worked and what it cost to be alive. Her mantra was, ‘Why Should it be easy when it can be hard?’”

Yetta Kunitz was like Kushner’s grandmother. “Tough and funny and spectacularly crazy particularly when she thought I was being spectacularly crazy which was often. She wasn’t what you would call political, except in one sense. She was ferociously pro-union. If you crossed a picket line, you were dead to her forever. I never knew where her pro-union bias came from until I discovered that when she came to America she worked as a seamstress in a sweat shop located around the corner from the Triangle Shirtwaist factory … in 1911 when the Triangle Fire killed 146 people. And that explained everything. She had a first-hand knowledge of brutality and criminal neglect and an expectation of social and economic justice based on her understanding of the social meaning of good and evil which served as the basis of her ironclad pro-labor progressive views.” His remarks about these two powerful women felt like an outline for the first act of a future play. Could Act II concern the interaction of two of their progenies. A poet and a playwright? Only sayin’.

I must include a story that Kushner told about “an artist hired to paint the ceiling of a very famous synagogue in Kovna. He climbed up on a very tall ladder with his brushes and paint and began working when a lunatic came in and started to shake the ladder. ‘What are you doing?’ the painter cried. ‘I’m going to pull your ladder away,’ the lunatic answered. The painter in mid brushstroke shouted, ‘I’ll fall to my death if you do that.’ ‘So, hold on to the paint brush,” The lunatic replied.” Kushner applied that story to the current state of our political affairs, adding, “I wake up most mornings thinking that if I had written better plays, Donald Trump would not be in the White House.”


The Workman’s Circle Winter Benefit – Setting the Stage for Change

Activism and Jewish Culture Award Honoring Tony Kushner

Monday December 10th, 2018, The Prince George Ballroom