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Syracuse University play centers on Jewish joy

Pitsl Production

A Syracuse University senior's original play centering on a Jewish family during Hanukkah living in tenements in New York City during the 1930s is performing this week. The playwright wanted to create a piece focused on Jewish joy.

Alethea Shirilan-Howlett said she started writing Pitsl about three years ago. She's Jewish and wanted to get in touch with her Yiddish culture. Through her research, she learned the Yiddish language and began to focus on a story about a Jewish family during Hanukkah. She said her work was in contrast to a phenomenon she was seeing of Jewish trauma plays and Jewish death plays.

"I'm like what is going on here?" Shirlian-Howlett said. "Like, why are there no plays being put on about Jewish people being alive and happy? And so I wanted to write one."

Shirilan-Howlett said her play is about diaspora Jews grappling with their identity and their heritage and culture in the face of Westernization and capitalism and assimilation. She said some people have apologized to her about the timing of her play with the Israel-Hamas war happening but she stressed the play is about Jewish people — not the state of Israel.

"I think that unfortunately, like, you know, right now there's a terrible rise of antisemitism and a lot of people who are conflating Jewish people with the state of Israel," Shirlian-Howlett said. "And I hope that people can see this play and be reminded of alive Jews and diaspora Jews and Jewish joy and hope and light and peace."

Shirlian-Howlett said she hopes her play can be educational, saying the audience sees Jewish people's past, present and future living and being.

Pitsl will be performed as a staged reading Tuesday and Thursday at 7 p.m. in Skybarn on the Syracuse University campus. The actors are composed of several Syracuse students and Jewish community members from Shirilan-Howletts synagogue.

Ava Pukatch joined the WRVO news team in September 2022. She previously reported for WCHL in Chapel Hill, NC and earned a degree in Journalism and Media from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At UNC, Ava was a Stembler Scholar and a reporter and producer for the award-winning UNC Hussman broadcast Carolina Connection. In her free time, Ava enjoys theatre, coffee and cheering on Tar Heel sports. Find her on Twitter @apukatch.