I Wrote a Play That Encapsulates the Multitudes of My Jewish Identity

In “Esther Made Me Do It,” we didn't aim to provide answers; we wanted our audience members to think more deeply about their own identities.

Sunday bells ring out, reaching every corner of Cincinnati. Across the street from a prominent Catholic Church and its adjoining pro-life pregnancy center, three queer Jews gather in an empty studio. Rehearsals are just beginning for “Esther Made Me Do It,” a heart-felt comedy about best friends Ruth and Naomi auditioning for their local Purim spiel. It will soon premiere at the Cincinnati Fringe Festival.

The dissonance is not lost on me.

I flash back to the sound of church bells in another town of historic Catholic influence: Scranton, PA. It’s mid-September of this past year. I’m there working on a piece for The Nosher all about Abe’s Kosher Deli. Elizabeth, a dear friend from college, eagerly drives the four hours from Northampton to Scranton to meet me for a sampling of Abe’s delights. But we end up chewing on much more than kosher meats.

Elizabeth and I have both always created art. We grew up as obnoxious Jewish theater kids, finding comfort on stage and in our imaginations. At Abe’s, we discussed what it would mean to make art for a larger audience, not just as a way to interrogate our inner worlds. We knew we could make art for ourselves, for the versions of us that played unnamed orphans in “Annie” or were constantly asked how our parents’ conversions were going. We knew we could write a show for the Jewish girls that never got the lead, but were nevertheless undeterred, relentless in the pursuit of their dreams, or for the patrilineal Jews who understood their religion deeply even when others questioned their validity. We were confident tapping into our roots, our self-discovery and the comedy of taking things so seriously when time had shown things would often work themselves out in spite of our angst.

But what if we made a show that would be seen by a much wider audience? How would it really go, knowing that if we made a popular show, we wouldn’t be able to choose who was in the audience — and maybe we didn’t even want to? If we wrote a show for queer Jews, would they come see the work? And if non-Jews came to see the show, would they understand it? What if everyone, Jews and non-Jews alike, saw the play and shook their heads in disapproval? We sat with those questions, and then we decided to write the story we wanted to tell anyway.

What came out of that afternoon was a rough sketch of the plot of a one-act comedy that would soon become “Esther Made Me Do It.” Naomi, gunning for the part of Esther, hopes to kick start her theatrical career while Ruth questions her feelings for Naomi and how long she’s willing to put Naomi’s desires before her own. It felt natural, obvious even, to write a show like this  — and to try and get it produced. Despite the unknowns of audience reaction, universal threads emerged that had to be followed. Elizabeth and I have always relied on art to figure out how bubbling aspects of our identity would impact who we already were. We are constantly doing little vignettes or bits, often poking fun at ourselves in some capacity — and what is a play if not a long form bit?

But what unfolded over the course of this year as we worked on this play was more than an extended version of one of our inside jokes; it was a deep and caring collaboration between a production team of queer, Jewish women, all united in telling the same story.

“Esther Made Me Do It” offers a rigorous examination of different spheres of Judaism, the interplays of childhood Jewish education and friendship, and queer adolescence, all through the mouths of two opinionated and fabulous, theater-obsessed teenage besties. The show tackles themes of growing-up and devotion. Its core relationship — a committed friendship between a rabbi’s daughter and the child of a convert — transcends the version of  Jewish culture that traditionally values blood kinship and legitimacy.

In a recent conversation Elizabeth confessed, “In a time in which I frequently feel reduced to my Jewish identity, it was nice to think of myself as Jewish and

Helen Sher, who is both our friend and the dazzling actress who played Ruth also commented that this reduction doesn’t always come from the outside: “I reduce myself to my own Jewishness all the time, constantly worrying what people assume we believe, what people think of us, solely because we are Jewish.”

Elizabeth said it best. We are Jewish and. Jewish and queer and thespians and women and young women and figuring it all out.

Historically, comedy has always been a Jewish expression of pain, loss and confusion, going all the way back to the tradition of the Purim spiel, which our play centers around. If “Esther Made Me Do It” is about anything it’s about confusion. What’s more Jewish than not being sure of anything and making fun of yourself because of it?

When I applied to the Hey Alma College Writing Program back in 2021, and was asked to reflect on my Jewish identity, I wrote this: “Though there is something undeniably beautiful about Shabbat, I find the form of spirituality that best suits me is a well-crafted joke, the theater, or art of any kind… There’s something very Jewish about being dramatic and something very Jewish about the theater, where I have always felt at home.”

Three years later, so much else has changed, but not this. When I am lost or confused or seeking community, I turn to the theater — a place where searching, asking difficult questions and accepting others for who they are is inherent to the culture of the space.

And perhaps that is why the theater feels so inherently Jewish to me. Being a queer, Jewish young woman is also about asking difficult questions, about celebrating the act of seeking. In “Esther Made Me Do It,” we don’t aim to provide answers; we wanted our show to be a catalyst for audience members to think more deeply about how Jewish and queer identities intersect and are performed.

During the course of the play’s run, we found that audiences — Jews and non-Jews alike — responded to the and, to the all of it, not to one singular theme apart from the rest. It’s a feeling that resonates; we are all so much more than just one thing.

Nell Adkins

Nell Adkins (she/her) graduated from Smith College in 2023 where she studied government and the arts. In her spare time, Nell can be found eating kosher dill pickles and listening to Barbra Streisand’s entire discography.

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