'Dinner with Simcha'

The country’s first English-language dinner theater provides entertainment from the haredi world.

Haredi play 520 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Haredi play 520
(photo credit: Courtesy)
What do visitors to Israel think of the haredim they see and encounter? Yerachmiel Weiss and his wife, Rivka, hope to change any negative perceptions via a medium most people can relate to: theater.
Their Jerusalem-based haredi production company Simcha Inc. launched their new concept of haredi dinner theater for the general public at the Prima Palace Hotel earlier this month with preview performances of the play Dinner with Simcha, a humorous telling of the life story of haredi Jerusalemite Simcha Kolzman.
Except for Hebrew blessings and songs and occasional Yiddishisms, Dinner with Simcha is performed in English and is aimed at gentiles and secular Jews. The play is served with a fullcourse dinner, making it the only English-language dinner theater production in Israel, says Weiss, 30, an immigrant from Irvine, California.
“Dinner theater is an American medium, and my observation is that there is nothing here meeting that standard,” he says. “There are other places that have dinner plus entertainment, but not dinner plus traditional theater.”
The chicken dinner, made by a home-based caterer, was very tasty and reminiscent of a typical Orthodox family dinner. The atmosphere also added to the family dinner feel. Audience members were seated around tables and could talk with the others at their tables during intermission.
The cast members were clearly having a good time, which made the show more enjoyable to the audience. All the cast members are haredim except for Jordan Zell, who plays Simcha’s friend Levi Yitzhak. Israelis may remember Zell from his role on the TV series Candy Can Do It, which taught Israeli children how to speak English.
Weiss, who made aliya from New York four years ago and studies at the Derech Hamelech Yeshiva in Jerusalem, sees a market opening for English-language, haredi-themed productions.
“We didn’t find a lot of entertainment from the haredi world that appealed to a mass audience,” he says. “We thought there would be an interest because when [non-haredim] come to Israel, they see people wearing funny clothes and hats and peyot [sidelocks], and they wonder what that’s all about. We can educate them in a comfortable medium: theater.”
Yitzhak Shlomo Krepel, who narrates the play as the older Simcha, tries to break the ice with the audience just before the start of the show and during intermission by walking around to different tables and joking with audience members.
As the younger Simcha, Yonatan Pachas manages to make his character endearing – a mischievous child who, as a young adult, inadvertently makes hurtful comments during a series of dates with prospective spouses.
While the show is entertaining, its cast doesn’t include women, a fact that is especially conspicuous during the wedding scene. Weiss says that originally a woman played Simcha’s beloved, but the wedding scene, which includes authentic wedding prayers and traditions, made the presence of a woman awkward for the male cast members. Her presence also went against Orthodox tradition, which forbids women from performing for men.
Dinner with Simcha also breaks the non-Zionist stereotype about haredim. The character Simcha Kolzman is born in Brooklyn in 1948, the same year as the establishment of the state, and makes aliya with his family just before his bar mitzva.
“There are haredim who are supportive of Israel and Zionism, and that sometimes gets lost,” says Weiss.
Beginning this summer, the producers will be putting on more shows in Jerusalem and other parts of the country. Tour organizers working for Birthright Israel and other organizations have expressed an interest in Dinner with Simcha because they find the show entertaining and like the emphasis on Jewish culture, Weiss says.
Most of the audience members at the preview performances were Orthodox, but the secular Jews who attended seemed to enjoy the show, including David Friedman of Yavne, who attended the performance with Orthodox friends.
“I had a wedding and a bar mitzva, but it’s not the same” as the ceremonies held by haredim.
Friedman says he learned more about hassidic traditions, adding, “I don’t know their life.” 
For more information about Simcha Inc. and its shows, visit www.simchainc.com.