By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
The best actors and actresses become one and the same with their parts, allowing their audience to see no distinction between often-powerful off-stage-or-screen personalities and their characters.
Keen research and spending time with the person you’re playing is the usual prep for the studious. But if you’re Anita Silvert, you’ve already got two legs up on her upcoming starring role.
Skokie native Silvert has lived her part playing a classic Jewish mother, having grown up with one in her own household and amid a neighborhood of such archetypes.
“I know these women,” she said. “They are our mothers (including mom Charlene Salzman).”
But even more important as she finishes rehearsals for the latest revival of fellow Skokian Jim Sherman’s “The God of Isaac,” Silvert’s family was at Ground Zero of the firestorm of the planned Nazi march on Skokie that serves as the backdrop of the play.
Silvert is one of three daughters of Richard Salzman, village attorney for Skokie who knew he was on flimsy First Amendment grounds in trying to prevent the tinhorn, half-Jewish Frank Collin and his small band of dress-up fascists from staging their march.
Although she was away at the University of Iowa much of the time of the legal showdown, Silvert has a special perspective from the inside-out, not to mention personal motivation, in playing her part. And any time she wants to time trip to a key moment of the Salzman/Silvert family timeline, she merely has to flip through pages of her late father’s legal briefs from July 12, 1977. The four decades have flown by quickly.
“I’m very proud of my father. I’m very proud of Skokie,” said Silvert, taking a rare break from rehearsals and her day job at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.
“I remember when my dad told of the time the Nazis were on the Edens Expressway about to get off at Dempster. He was at the Village Hall with the judge on one phone and the National Guard on the other.”
The Nazis never did set one jackboot on Skokie pavement, peeling off and staging a rally in Chicago instead.
Millennials can’t imagine the tinderbox of a large Jewish community with the huge number of Holocaust survivors, debating whether to violently resist Collin’s little band and its swastikas, or simply ignore them. The more vocal group in demonstrations included a young, bare-chested, rabble-rousing Rahm Emanuel, fated to be on the other side of protests in future employment.
But the younger folks can get an entertaining two-hour course in Judaism 101 in “The God of Isaac,” first performed at Victory Gardens Theater in 1985, and up and running again from July 8 to Aug. 27 at Piven Theatre at Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St. in Evanston. Playwright Sherman crafted practically an autobiographical tale on several Jewish levels.
The Nazi march, of course, provides a framework for “The God of Isaac” storyline, and has relevance today in an inflamed Trump era of political and religious conflict – without Sherman needing to tweak the script. The classic conundrum of how a young person pursues his Jewish identity is carried throughout the play. The more traditional Jewish identity is channeled through the older characters, such as Silvert’s “Ma.”
The revival features a reunion between Sherman and Silvert.
“Anita and I have known each other since high school at Niles West, when we were in ‘West Side Story’ together,” Sherman said. “She’ll be great in the role (partly) because of her unique knowledge of the times.”
The Piven Theatre version is truly a family/old neighborhood production. Sherman’s son T. Isaac Sherman plays the title role.
Heightening the Jewish sensibilities of “The God of Isaac” is the production by Grippo Stage Company. Sherman staged “The Ben Hecht Show” with Grippo in the summer of 2016. He is the right man with the right ensemble. Specializing in giving voice to Jewish playwrights, Grippo approached him to do the revival as part of its focus on exploring Jewish themes and heritage, and fighting anti-Semitism.
Sherman’s classic remembrances weave both nostalgia and stark truisms of 1977 or 2017 through “The God of Isaac.” But Silvert is the living, breathing example of its back story on stage, in a performance that in many ways honors her father, elevated to a Cook County judgeship after the Nazi imbroglio. Richard Salzman left his family too soon, dying suddenly in his chambers at 65 in 1987 after only five years on the bench.
“I think there’s a couple of messages in the play, and they’re just as relevant as 40 years ago,” actress-turned-folk singer-turned-actress Silvert said. “One is the strength of the First Amendment. I think this country’s strength is its ability to hear the things we don’t agree with as well as the things we do.
“The message of the power and sanctity of the First Amendment is just as relevant today as it was then. Today, you’re dealing with a lot of questions about what constitutes free speech, what can we tolerate and how much light can we shine on things we don’t agree with? The character of Shelly, Isaac’s wife, articulates that very well.”
Writing about the recent past when he penned “The God of Isaac,” Sherman likely did not project his words and characters’ relevance well into another millennium with its implications on a national scale, not just “the world’s largest village” – Skokie’s longtime nickname.
“When I opened the play in 1985, the idea of a Neo-Nazi group marching in Skokie was deeply disturbing, particularly since the community was heavily populated with Holocaust survivors at the time,” said Sherman. “I never imagined that 30 years later the questions raised in the play would suddenly feel so resonant and topical, with white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups once again making news headlines nationwide.
“It does stand on its own. There was no change needed in the script. One hopes when he writes a play it deals in an honest and truthful way about personal relationships and characters the audience can relate to, and it has a timelessness to it. The play was a tremendous hit in 1985 and I believe it will be a tremendous success again. The fact that events in the play took place in the late 1970s were understandable to people then and I am confident they’ll be understandable to them now.”
Richard Salzman was close friends with fellow Skokie counsel Harvey Schwartz, the most quoted legal official at the time. Interestingly, they were Skokie’s only major Jewish official advocates against the Nazi march. Longtime Mayor Al Smith, always close with his Jewish constituents, was Catholic.
“We adored him,” Silvert said of Smith. “He was at all of our bat mitzvahs.”
Silvert said no Jews served on the Village Board at the time despite the residency of up to 40,000 Jews, including 5,000 Holocaust survivors, in the village then. No matter their religious background, they stood together in ecumenical harmony trying to head off a potentially dangerous confrontation between Jews and Collin’s group.
Salzman was a “very adamant First Amendment guy…He could have argued the other side,” Silvert said.
“Dad and Harvey both knew there was scant constitutional grounds to keep (the Nazis) out. So they wrote an ordinance that you couldn’t march in Skokie if you were in uniform. The issue of the court case was what was protected speech, and can a symbol (like a swastika), something visual, be considered hate speech? I remember him telling my mother, and my mother telling us that he just stomped on the First Amendment.”
“The God of Isaac’s” background, Silvert said, accurately represents the opinions of Jews at the time. Some wanted to meet the Nazis with bats, clubs and other weapons. Others simply wanted to close the windows and drapes, and ignore them, figuring the marchers would come and go. Silvert’s own family was of similar mindsets.
“There were members of my family who wanted to meet them with bats,” she said. “My mother was of the opinion to ignore them and starve them of the publicity they wanted.”
Skokie and its attorneys lost all appeals going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the ACLU, representing the Nazis via civil-rights attorney Burton Joseph, drew criticism from many Jews for employing a Jewish lead attorney in the case.
The real-life drama, portrayed a few years later on a CBS made-for-TV movie starring Danny Kaye, spurred Sherman’s creative juices. Watching its original run at Victory Gardens Theater was a fan named Charles Grippo. Three decades later, forming his own Jewish-advocacy theater group, Grippo “chose” Sherman, according to the playwright. He first penned the Ben Hecht play with Jewish angles that were not commonly publicized about the famous writer. Then came the request from Grippo to re-stage “The God of Issac.
“Sometimes plays are in better hands,” Sherman said. “Grippo is a smart guy, experienced as a producer and is a good friend. He puts together good people. It’s a good company.”
In 1985, Sherman did not just do a play-by-play of the Nazi controversy. Instead, he’d frame a Jewish family story around its implications.
“I did not sit down with intent of writing a play about the neo-Nazi incident,” Sherman said. “That was a dramatic device to serve my purposes of craft. I’m a playwright, not a journalist. While it was important to get facts of the play right, I’m not retelling the story. As a playwright, I’m more interested in the human characters.
“It resonates with Jews because it also explores a search for a connection to Judaism. Part of what I explore is different entryways to connect to Jewish identity — religious, political, social, historical. The audiences respond to it because it provides a lot of food for thought. I also do it as a comedy.
“My philosophy about playwriting has been to deal with serious issues, but also to present entertainment. It’s a way to engage an audience. Comedies (usually) have happy endings.”
While “The God of Isaac” needs no updating, Sherman is rattling around a political satire about George W. Bush he wrote in 2005 for an update to reflect the Donald Trump era.
An Illinois State alum armed with a masters in fine arts degree from Brandeis University, Sherman has authored other plays including “Magic Time,” “Mr. 80%,” “The Escape Artist,” “Beau Jest,” “This Old Man Came Rolling Home,” “Jest a Second!,” “Romance in D,” “From Door to Door,” “The Old Man’s Friend,” “Affluenza!,” “Half and Half,” “Relatively Close” and “Jacob and Jack.”
Meanwhile, Silvert has a chance to really flesh out her part and its message in rehearsals with T. Isaac Sherman, Annabel Steven (who plays Shelly) and Jolie Lepselter, cast as Chaya. If Sherman wants a narrative about a connection to Judaism, Silvert is eager to oblige, on stage and in philosophy.
“The second thing that’s important (in the play) is finding your own path to your own identity,” she said. “I think the ability to question who you are and start your journey to find it out (is crucial). You can’t be just someone’s else way. My character at the end of the play says ‘maybe our way of being Jewish wasn’t the best way for you.’ You need to find your own path to who you are and what your identity is.
“How do I act when I get up in the morning? How do I act with people I do business with? How do I act with my family? Judaism is a ‘verb’ religion. We are verbs. ‘Do’ It’s how you do. The message of that journey to your own identity is through knowledge.”
So ideally, aren’t there 1,000 different good ways to be Jewish?
“I think there are,” Silvert said. “It’s not just a matter of being a good person and treating others with respect. It’s knowing where that comes from. What do you use as your source of why you’re acting that way.”
Silvert’s path ranged from majoring in voice at Iowa, then pursuing music gigs before taking jobs in Jewish education. She now is director of enrollment at Spertus Institute. Along the way, SIlvert returned to acting on the side, eventually starring in another “Beau Geste” revival with daughter Rachel, a dancer.
Richard Salzman’s daughters all had their distinct paths.
Jan Salzman became a rabbi who established a Jewish Renewal synagogue, Ruach HaMaqom, in Burlington, Vt., Bernie Sanders’ home base. Batya Salzman teaches English as a second language at a mental health facility for youth in Haifa, Israel.
“Ultimately, you can’t decide who you are without doing the study, without the learning,” Silvert said. “You can’t know how to define yourself as a Jew – as anybody – if you haven’t done the work that brings you to that point. It’s a life of learning.
“What’s important about Isaac is that he comes to his awareness about his identity because he’s learned it. He was never taught it as a kid. One of the failings that my character did was we didn’t teach him.
“We thought (Isaac) was going to be Jewish just because he breathed the same air we did. ‘You’re Jewish because I’m Jewish.’ That didn’t translate. He needed more. You can’t just transmit air. You have to transmit doing and learning and knowing, and then you come to your own identity.”
“The God of Issac” at Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St. in Evanston. will stage previews at 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, July 8, and 3 pm Sunday, July 9. Friday, July 14, to Sunday, Aug. 27. Curtain times are 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets at $39 are available at grippostagecompany.com or by calling (800) 838-3006.