Among the Simchat Torah celebrants Oct. 9 at Chabad of Phoenix were "The Chosen" — more specifically, cast members of an upcoming Arizona Jewish Theatre Company production.
In preparation for the show, the cast of the company's season premiere — of which only one member is Jewish - participated in the celebration to gain a better understanding of a Hasidic community, says Director David Ellenstein.
"It was wild, it was really fun," Ellenstein says. "I was expecting it to be more conservative than it was." He said in the play, which is set in Brooklyn in the 1940s, the Hasidic group portrayed is a more conservative group, and at Chabad, the group was "lively and fun and spirited."
The cast, which includes Jewish actor Robert Grossman of Detroit, was able to see how Hasidim dressed, but more than that, they "got the spirit," Ellenstein says. "The Hasids are particularly known for finding the ecstasy of life through the religion. We certainly got to see some of that." He says there are no celebration scenes in the play, but for the actors "to witness that kind of internal joy that then gets expressed was great."
Although Ellenstein's most recent projects have been as director, he has also acted for several years. "(I have) played all kinds of parts in my life," he says. "That's one of the great things about being an actor - to learn about other people and other things that you don't know."
Janet Arnold, producing director of AJTC, adds "The neat thing about that is all the non-Jewish actors get to learn about what it means to be Jewish. They all wear their Jewish theater company T-shirts with pride and they love when they learn a Yiddish word they can throw in."
In addition to Grossman, the actors in "The Chosen" are Mike Lawler, Michael Tassoni, Christopher Williams and Matthew Zimmerer.
Rabbi Mendy Deitsch of Chabad of the East Valley served as a technical advisor for the production. Topics the actors wanted clarified included the nature of studying Talmud and the pronunciation of Yiddish words, Deitsch says.
"The Chosen," written by Chaim Potok, is a story about two boys and their fathers who live in two very different Jewish communities - five blocks away and a world apart - in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y.
The play is based on the book, but there are several differences from the 1982 movie, Ellenstein says.
In the play, there are only five actors - the two sons and fathers and the narrator, a grown-up Reuven Malter who recounts his own story and portrays several different characters throughout the play.
The play was adapted from the book in 1999 by Potok and Aaron Posner, and this is only the third production of the play, Ellenstein notes. It has previously run in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
He says the play is very relevant today since it deals with understanding and tolerance, an acceptance of differences and an examination of tolerance within beliefs.
"Here we are in this world where there's conflict going that, at least on one level, is based on religious beliefs," he says. "A lot of wars in this history of mankind have been fought over that and I'm always attracted to theater pieces that are about tolerance and our understanding each other better and being willing to accept differences."
He says that with the climate of today's world, the need for theater that makes a difference is more important than ever. "I think this play definitely has the potential to make a difference for people and have them look at things in a kinder and more understanding way," he says.
AJTC hopes to spread this message of tolerance to younger audiences.
In addition to the regular performances of "The Chosen," AJTC will offer a student matinee for Valley schools, which include Genesis Academy, the Jess Schwartz Jewish Community High School, Pardes Jewish Day School, Seton Catholic High School and Valley Christian High School.
With this production, AJTC also introduces an audio-described performance for the vision-impaired, which will be offered 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 8.
In addition to his acting and directing, Ellenstein, with a partner, recently founded a theater company in Los Angeles, the Southern California Jewish Repertory Theatre. He is working to obtain a space in Santa Monica and hopes to open next year's season with "The Chosen." Ellenstein, 44, lives in the Hollywood Hills in California with his wife Denise.
His connection to "The Chosen" goes back several years, he recalls.
When he was an actor in Los Angeles, he had two callbacks for the lead role of the film version, in which actor Robby Benson was eventually cast. "Here we are 22 years later, and I'm directing it," he says. "The world is serendipitous."
What: "The Chosen"
Who: Arizona Jewish Theatre Company
When: Nov. 3-18; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m., 7 p.m. Sundays
Where: Playhouse on the Park, Viad Corporate Center, 1850 N. Central Ave., Phoenix