Musical called ‘Jew Store’ making world debut locally this weekend

Based on the memoir by Stella Suberman, “Jew Store (The Musical)” follows the Bronson family as they try to make it in a small Tennessee town where nobody has seen a Jewish person before. CONTRIBUTED

Combined ShapeCaption
Based on the memoir by Stella Suberman, “Jew Store (The Musical)” follows the Bronson family as they try to make it in a small Tennessee town where nobody has seen a Jewish person before. CONTRIBUTED

Theater fans who’d like to see a Broadway show before New Yorkers do will have their chance with the world premiere of “Jew Store (The Musical),” at the Aronoff this weekend.

“Jew Store (The Musical),” is based on the slightly fictionalized memoir by Stella Suberman, whose parents, both Russian-Jewish immigrants, moved from New York (their original destination) to a small town in Tennessee in the early 1920s. Unfortunately, the Ku Klux Klan had a significant presence in Concordia (the name of the town was changed), and the Bronsons (ditto) were the first Jewish people they had ever seen.

“I don’t think the KKK saw them as white people, per se,” said Jay Kholos, director of the show. “I think they saw them as Jews, another class.”

Nevertheless, Aaron Bronson, the family patriarch, opens a dry-goods store in Concordia, thereafter referred to by residents as “the Jew store,” and the Bronsons ultimately become de-facto members of the community, tolerated if not entirely accepted.

“There’s a song called ‘Our Jews,’ ” Kholos said. “As in, ‘We like our Jews, but not so much those Jews over there.’ It’s about how we all have built-in stereotypes, and how that can change when you get to know someone on a personal basis.”

Kholos is the president of Orchard Street Productions, a company that gravitates toward Jewish-themed works. His previous productions include “The Book of Esther,” “Old Jews Telling Jokes” and “A Stoop on Orchard Street.” It was during a theatrical run of the latter that he met Suberman, who is now 95 years old.

"She asked to see me after the show, and we had dinner together with our spouses," he said. "She asked if I'd be interested in adapting her book. I read it and thought it would make a great musical. It reminded me of 'Fiddler on the Roof,' with the main character, Tevye, fleeing the pogroms. Those Eastern European shtetls are a lot like the tenements of New York."

Kholos implied he could also relate personally to “Jew Store.” A California native who came east to Nashville to work on a made-for-TV production with Loretta Lynn, Kholos wound up staying when he met his future wife, a Cincinnati native, but he said he often felt like a member of a conspicuous minority.

“Although I’d traveled a lot, living here was still a culture shock,” he said. “The prejudices weren’t overt, but every once in awhile, you’ll hear cliched expressions like, ‘Some of my best friends are Jews.’ ”

Despite Kholos’ enthusiasm for “Jew Store,” he was involved in other productions and tours, and the project languished for a few years, during which time Dolly Parton acquired the rights to the book but never exercised them. Throughout it all, Kholos and Suberman kept in touch, and when the rights to “Jew Store” became available again, Kholos grabbed them and started adapting it to the stage.

“I certainly took dramatic license,” he said. “And I was worried about how Stella would feel about that. I added some drama here and there. The challenge is to bring the story to life in a way that keeps the audience’s attention. You can put down a book at any time, but a musical has to keep moving or else people get bored and start thinking about being somewhere else. Fortunately, Stella loved what I did.”

Contact this contributing writer at aaronepple@gmail.com.


How to go

What: “Jew Store (The Musical)”

Where: Aronoff Center for the Arts, 650 Walnut St., Cincinnati

When: May 27-28; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday

Cost: $39.75-$69.75

More info: 513-621-2787 or www.cincinnatiarts.org

About the Author