Recently, I had the privilege of sitting down with three generations of the Abelow family. The reason? All three generations are involved in theater. I couldn’t get a hold of them all in one place, but I caught Peter, his wife Debbie, their daughter-in-law Rachel, and their grandson Yakir on the tail-end of a Hans Christian Anderson rehearsal to talk about their life in community theater and their personal, inter-generational legacy.
Where it all began:
When it comes to which production had the most Abelow family members participating, Esther was the first one with multiple relatives, with Rachel, Elana and Debbie in the production. However, since Raise Your Spirits is an all-female theater company, the male half of the family could not have been in Esther, and in that case, there could not have been complete family involvement. Rachel and Elana Abelow Kronenberg both played prominent roles in Esther; Rachel played the title role and Elana played Ahashveirosh.
When Peter auditioned for Fiddler on the Roof, he did not expect to get a role but he did. He expected it to be a one-off, a dabble in theater but it led to other stage appearances. He came back, and a fellow cast member was the one who predicted it.
Whether it was seeing Peter on the stage or seeing him in a shtetl-era beard, what inspired the theater bug is still up for debate. But soon afterward, Peter and Debbie’s grandchildren appeared in Carousel, for a total of five Abelows in a show together, while the second generation watched from the audience. All three generations were present in Oliver, bringing the number to eight Abelows in a single show.
Decisions were made on a very individual basis, each person deciding on their own if they wanted to be in a specific show, followed by calls to various family members, figuring out if they were also interested, setting up rides to rehearsals and making other plans. Some shows became inter-generational affairs, while others featured only a few members. It was almost a sure thing that Debbie and Peter were involved in a show, and often, the filmed shows would later appear on Avi Abelow’s YouTube Channel. Recently, Peter branched out into non-musicals as well, debuting at the AACI in J-Town’s production of Hannah Senesh (much to this author’s delight!) and Elana has taken command backstage, directing and producing two musicals (Mary Poppins, Annie) with Orot Etzion Banot.
An Enduring Legacy
Involvement in Jerusalem shows has changed the way Peter sees musicals abroad—on Broadway and The West End. “I’m much more highly aware of the polish that goes in, how the scenery moves. How actors move. The relation to each other.” He also developed an appreciation for how much effort goes into the supporting cast; “With 20 people on stage, I used to watch the lead. Now, I’m much more focused on all the other actors on stage; to see what they’re doing in these moments when the leads are in the focus, but they’re on stage. And they’ve got to be acting too. I’m much more aware of that now.”
Yakir mentioned a personal example from his most recent show which he starred as the title character of Hans Christian Anderson. Act I ends with complete confusion, and a large amount of people are involved in creating “organized chaos.” Coordinating a chaotic situation was a large undertaking that only lasted moments in action, but took hours to choreograph beforehand.
Then there’s the fun. There are also family members who come to see you, like that uncle in the audience who spends the entire show trying to make you crack up and break character. There is an added pressure when people you know and fellow actors are watching you. You want to be the best you can be. Then there is that euphoric, joyous feeling you share with cast and audience alike on a night that went well and the behind-the-scenes stories you share of the things that–noticeably or not–did not go to plan. Rachel said it well: “It’s exciting to know that they’re there and you’re having that experience together.”
Each person counts. Not just as a role on stage, but as part of a larger community. You see it when you are hard at work on a project with family or friends and you have those moments where everything comes together or when you’re all singing a song and connecting with the audience, or when you deliver a line to the Burgomaster and you both smile, knowing he is also your grandfather, it’s a special moment. “The end of the show is the highlight when everyone comes together,” Yakir maintained. “I start tearing. I don’t know about you,” Debbie concluded, “I agree.”
I asked the Abelow family what makes them keep coming back.
Rachel started with “The togetherness.”
Debbie added “The memories together.”
Yakir added “The cast.”
Peter added, “the privilege to be part of the efforts of presenting quality English language theater to audiences in Israel.”
It is a mix of all those things. It is special arriving as a new oleh or olah and having a community waiting for you that speaks your language, that entertains you in your language. Meeting people with whom you are going to put together a show, connect with, work with, and make friends with. “I was just helping Ronny who is the stage manager [of Encore] put things in the car, and I was like ‘do you know that you met me eight years ago and I used to be that annoying kid that always wanted to press the curtain?’ He’s like, ‘You still are.'” remembers Yakir. “You grow up with these people. It’s kind of fun.”
And within the nuclear family it happens as well. “It’s really special that we have this shared experience together, and then it’s also special that we talk to family from the audience and they share their experience. What they saw and how they saw. It all goes around.” remarks Debbie.
It’s the experience that brings us all back. Today’s children debuting in the ensemble are tomorrow’s lead roles. For the Abelows and many others, theater is in the family. For some of us, theater becomes our family. Whether it’s all we’ve known, or a new love we’ve discovered along the way, it’s an enduring legacy, the gift we all give to each other each time we take on a new role.