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Jen and I meet at Radici near Eastern Market for a late afternoon chat, the kind where suddenly you look up and it is dusk and you’re worried about the traffic on Rock Creek Parkway. A conversation: one of the better places to get lost [Editor’s note: My apologies — I also groaned out loud, writing that line]. Come wander into our sit-down with Jen and learn all about her experience as a freelance theatre artist, how she’s been “finding [her] own path” in Jewish DMV life, why Meryl Streep and Linda Belcher are coming over for Shabbat, and whether gluten-free bagels are good (or not)!
Samuel: Thanks for coming out this afternoon, Jen! What brought you to the DMV?
Jen: I’m from New Jersey. I graduated college in 2020…or, well, I had a Zoom meeting in 2020 where they put my picture up and my family went “Whooo!” from our living room. I applied to theater fellowships all over the country, including four or five in DC, and [was accepted] to Shakespeare Theater Company’s fellowship. It kept getting pushed back because of Covid. We got to the end of December 2020, and they were like: Why don’t we just do it all virtually? I was like: Hell no! I do not want to have this fellowship from my bubblegum-pink childhood bedroom. So, I actually moved here to Capitol Hill on East Capitol Street on January 10, 2021.
Samuel: Hell of a time to be bringing a U-Haul three blocks from the Capitol.
Jen: It was insane. I stayed inside for like two full weeks, watching TV, thinking that if the camera would zoom out just a little, I could probably see where I was living.
Samuel: What’s made you stay?
Jen: The theater community. Community is the most important thing for me in life, and a big part of why I choose to be a director and stay in theater is because it’s all about building community. [As a director], I’m a leader for a very specific reason for a short period of time. I bring in designers and actors; I get to mix and match and curate this super intense community that will kind of never happen again. It’s the best and worst part of the job.
Samuel: What is something about the DMV that you’d recommend? What don’t people know about?
Jen: I am a huge fan of picnicking, and one of my favorite places to do so is the National Arboretum. It’s not too far from the center of the city but feels like an entirely different world. Also, there is also a special Bonsai house there that I myself haven’t been to yet, but am really excited to check out. I also recently discovered what to me was a hidden gem called Dumbarton House in Georgetown – beautiful, expansive grounds and a fascinating collection of very old artifacts in their small museum.
Samuel: What does your Jewish community look like right now?
Jen: My brain immediately goes to three different places. The first is that I haven’t quite found it; I don’t know yet! The second: my group of friends and individual people keep me connected, because there are people in my life who are less, more, or equally as observant and we seek each other out. Holidays are obviously the easiest [times] to find that community and the easiest way to maintain connection. I have a dear friend I met working at Theater J and we have Shabbat together every once in a while when we’re both not crazy busy working. But that’s part of what makes it hard. I work at night most of the time and everybody else works during the day.
Samuel: How have you navigated that? Working in theater, you don’t really have much flexibility about when you’re “on.”
Jen: It means that I have to find the time, even if it doesn’t exist in the same time frame as the general public. It’s also about prioritizing things – I went home for Rosh Hashanah this year, because that’s really important to me. I had to get cover for my shows those days, but it was important for me to be with my family. It’s a give and take. I can’t have a ‘normal’ Shabbat every week. I choose moments that are most important to me to prioritize my Judaism. It’s hard. I’m working on an upcoming show where we have Christmas day off, but we didn’t have the High Holidays off. It sort of is what it is.
The exception to this is working at Theater J. Which is the third thing I thought of, thinking about Jewish community. It’s a huge part of how I’ve been able to combine working as a theater professional and being a Jewish person. Theater J strives to bring people in to talk about things – including stories and conversations about Judaism – through theater, and that’s why I really like having opportunities to work there.
Samuel: Is there a show that you haven’t seen produced in DC, but you’d love to direct here?
Jen: I’m laughing because my answer is so not Jewish. In college, I directed Godspell, this really immersive production taking place in a bar. [I]n a way, it’s not about religion, it’s really about storytelling and community-building. I would love to be able to do it on a larger scale in the city. [In college], I picked it to take place in a bar, because that’s where you meet people, right? They come in with all their baggage, and it’s almost like a bubble, and then you leave.
Samuel: What’s resonating for you Jewishly right now?
Jen: Food. Which is really funny, because I was recently diagnosed with Celiac disease. I called my mother, who also has it, and I said: How can I be a Jew if I can’t eat bagels? She told me there are gluten-free bagels, but I’m like…it’s not the same.
Also, as a community-builder, I hosted a Break Fast this year because I wanted to bring people into my home and provide a space. There were people who I only sort of knew, but who didn’t have a place [for Break Fast]. I was like: Come over!
Samuel: How has your Judaism changed over time?
Jen: The biggest change was when I went to college. Growing up, we belonged to a Conservadox [Editor’s note: a portmanteau of Conservative and Orthodox] kind of congregation. That was one frame of thinking but, coming to Vassar, there were a million frames of thinking, and a million ways of being Jewish, and a million things to deal with about being Jewish that I hadn’t quite been faced with before. It was mixed with being a human and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with myself and who I wanted to be; I wasn’t a huge part of the Jewish community there, [in part] because I didn’t know where I fit.
In a way, I’m still in that phase. But, I’m now starting to settle in DC and grow roots, and part of that is now being ready to ask: How am I going to fill that need? Where am I going to fill that need? That’s why, when you first asked about Jewish community, my answer was that I don’t know yet.
It’s a hard question because I also have, like, generations of people in my head telling me one thing – what I should say or do, versus finding my own path. In my opinion, though, what matters most to me is that I consider myself Jewish. Even though there’s a million voices in my head, if I am a Jew, I will continue to be a Jew as long as I choose to be. And I do choose to be.
Samuel: What does that look like, choosing to be Jewish?
Jen: What I come back to most are the ideas of tzedakah and mitzvah: giving back, and looking out for other people, no matter who they are, [respectively]. Those are the qualities that shaped me most, being open-minded and willing to see other people’s perspectives. We had the privilege to travel a lot as I was growing up, and my parents chose places specifically where we’d see people living lives that were completely different from our own. They wanted empathy, understanding, and an inherent willingness to give to be how we continue to live our lives. Making those my guiding stars of life is a big part of choosing Judaism.
Samuel: Okay, a few quick ones to close. We just passed Hanukkah. What do you always look forward to during the holiday?
Jen: Obviously, I love the doughnuts and the fried food. But I also really like lighting the candles. It feels like things just stop for a second.
Samuel: What are you feeling proud about right now?
Jen: I’m directing a few musicals with children and working with children. I’m proud of encouraging those future generations to love theater. Being an artist takes courage. It can be really hard, but I encourage people to be brave. Do the thing. Think about how much joy it brings.
Samuel: You can invite any three people to your Shabbat dinner. Who, and why?
Jen: My first is Nelson Mandela. I could have a lot to learn about being a leader and dealing with insanely difficult times. Second, Meryl Streep. She’s a legendary Vassar graduate, but she’s also just legendary, period. I would love to be on a first name basis with her. Third, I’d want to invite Linda Belcher from Bob’s Burgers. She’s so fun and brings great energy and I think we could be great friends.
Samuel: Last one. Finish the sentence. When Jews of the DMV gather…
Jen: There will be laughter.
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