But for a man who spends a lot of time thinking and talking about things of the spirit, it wasn’t too surprising when an errant spirit provided him with the opportunity and inspiration to take on this new artistic and intellectual enterprise.
The Gospel According to Jerry, co-written by Kula and Richard Krevolin and premiering at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company on April 16, came about quite by accident.
The New York-born and based rabbi (son of the longtime cantor at Minnesota’s Adath Jeshurun Congregation, Morton Kula) spends much of his time in airports in transit between various professional commitments. It was in just such a random airport that Kula and Krevolin, who had taught screenwriting at the University of Southern California, struck up a conversation, a friendship and then a collaboration that became The Gospel According to Jerry.
“We found we had a commonality,” recalls Kula. “And I was looking for some kind of renewal, as I was going through what might be called a ‘mid-career crisis.’”
The Gospel According to Jerry is a true 21st century creation. The two collaborators had but three phone conversations before committing to writing the play, followed by only two face-to-face meetings. The rest was electronic communications.
The play is yet another way that Kula has found to promote the mission of Clal: to make Jewish wisdom accessible and usable in the marketplace of ideas. He’s taken that mission on the road and on the air on TheOprahWinfrey Show. He brought Jewish wisdom about cheating in school and the workplace to her vast audience during one appearance; another time, the subject was forgiveness, especially forgiving those who’ve brought us grief through horrible accidents and mistakes.
His thoughts on spirituality have found their way to a vast non-Jewish audience through his blog on the Huffington Post Web site, as well.
Kula’s play, like all his work in Jewish thought and spirituality, reaches out beyond the Jewish community. The title character, Rabbi Jerry Silver (portrayed at MJTC by the indomitable Ryan M. Lindberg), is also experiencing a mid-career crisis. He is trying to work it out and fill his spiritual void, in part by moderating an Overeaters Anonymous group that meets at a synagogue.
“Using O.A. as a setting was a good tool for me,” Kula admits. “Food plays such a central role in Jewish culture; it made it easier to set up jokes to loosen up a serious subject.”
Jerry is surprised to find a spiritual fountain outside of Judaism to replenish himself. That fountain is embodied in Nia, a member of the OA group. She is a devout, church-going African-American woman (Twin Cities favorite Greta Oglesby, star of the Guthrie’s production of Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change). In return for what she gives Jerry from her unseen heart and spirit, Nia gains new self-esteem regardless of her eating problems. Their relationship unfolds to reveal a contemporary look at spirituality, bias, stereotypes and Jewish-African American connections.
Kula relishes coming to the Twin Cities, having visited here many times during his father’s service at Adath Jeshurun. To maximize the opportunity here to advance Clal’s mission and concepts as introduced through the play, he will be a panelist for two MJTC Doorways programs: On April 17, following the 1 p.m. matinee, he will be a panelist in a discussion on “Racism and Tolerance” with Krevolin and Rowzat Shipchandler, racial equity manager at the St. Paul Foundation. “What is Spirituality?” will be explored by Kula and Donald Ottenhoff, executive director of the Collegeville Institute of Ecumenical and Cultural Research on May 4, following the 7:30 p.m. performance.
Just as the exploration of Jewish spirituality is a never-ending search, Rabbi Kula proves that, in his own (and Jerry’s) personal journey, there are still new paths to follow. The Gospel According to Jerry, Kula says, shows that “crossing boundaries is important in broadening our spiritual lives.”
The world premiere of The Gospel According to Jerry, presented by the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, runs April 16-May 8 at the Hillcrest Center Theater, 1978 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul. For information and ticket reservations, call 651-647-4315 or go to: mnjewishtheatre.org.
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