Broadway has been dark for over a year, but Tovah Feldshuh keeps busy.
The four-time Tony nominee and star of Broadway productions like “Yentl,” “Golda’s Balcony” and “Irena’s Vow” adds the role of author to her resume with the release of her memoir, “Lilyville: Mother, Daughter, and Other Roles I’ve Played.” The book tells the story of her life through the evolution of her relationship with her mother, Lillian Kaplan Feldshuh, who died in 2014.
“What I hope the book does is engender hope in every child of every parent that you can bend toward each other,” Feldshuh, 68, said.
“Anything can be healed,” said Feldshuh, who has appeared in the television series “Law & Order,” “The Walking Dead” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”
The titular Lily was born on a dining room table in the Bronx to Russian and British Jewish immigrant parents in 1911. After marrying Sidney Feldshuh, she becomes a quintessential housewife in Scarsdale, New York, completely dedicated to her family and embracing American culture.
Feldshuh writes that while her mother provided her children with a stable upbringing and shepherded them to their school events and social activities, she was not an affectionate parent. She preferred to show her love by trying to “improve” her daughter through criticism.
“Maybe if she said ‘I love you’ a million times I wouldn’t have gone into the theater,” Feldshuh said. “I wouldn’t have had to create an artificial universe where I would be the beginning, middle and end of a story.”
When young Tovah decides to pursue an acting career, her desire to stand out confounds her mother’s desire to fit in. Their generational tension comes to a head when the author decides to change her first name from the hyper-American one her mother chose, Terri Sue, to Tovah, the name she used in Hebrew school.
This decision isn’t intended to be a rejection of her mother — it’s inspired by a love interest who tells her Tovah is a better fit for her than Terri Sue — but it will change her destiny and attract Jewish roles that help build her career. She finally gets her big break on Broadway in “Yentl,” a play about a woman in an Orthodox shtetl who disguises herself as a man in order to study in a yeshiva.
As Tovah matures, she and Lily begin to strengthen their bond. They plan Tovah’s wedding to attorney Andy Levy in a six-week time crunch and rejoice in welcoming her children into the world. Although Lily remains critical of some of her daughter’s roles and decisions, she’s still in the audience when she takes the stage.
Their relationship reaches a turning point when Tovah’s beloved father falls ill, and she and Lily become closer than ever.
“If, God forbid, Andy precedes me in getting ill and beginning his death process, whenever that happens,” Feldshuh said, “I am incredibly equipped to take care of him because I watched my mother and how she was a gladiator to keep my father alive.”
“Lilyville” will thrill fans of Feldshuh with anecdotes about her iconic performances, from Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in “Golda’s Balcony” and trapeze-flying grandmother Berthe in “Pippin” to controlling Jewish mother Naomi Bunch in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”
In addition to getting behind-the-scenes glimpses of Broadway theaters and Hollywood sets, readers will realize how much Lily Feldshuh’s influence shines through in her daughter’s portrayal of strong women, Jewish and non-Jewish.
“When I would feel defeated, my mother banged on my chest,” Feldshuh said. “She didn’t hurt me, she just gently would say ‘Remember who you are.’ Well, this is the way to give that gift, l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation, to other Feldshuhs, to other Levys, and hopefully more than that, to all children of all parents.”
Feldshuh is looking beyond the pandemic to future projects, including starring as sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer in a play about her life — as well as taking “Lilyville” to the small screen.
“I have written a television series based on ‘Lilyville,’ and I plan to play both my mother and myself,” she said. And if they make her choose between the roles? “I’ll be playing my mother, because she’s got all the punch lines, honey!” JN
Sophie Panzer is a staff writer for Jewish Exponent, a Jewish News-affiliated publication.