Empathy works. Tovah Feldshuh is coming to Philly, "a town I love," where she's sung and acted many a time, for a special reading. On Nov. 14 at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, she'll play Joe "Yussel the Muscle" Jacobs in a reading of Dancing with Giants, a play by Tovah's brother David Feldshuh. It's part of the synagogue's yearlong celebration of its sanctuary's 90th year.
It's midnight in Vienna, and Feldshuh is all bubbly from seeing "the most wonderful Eugene Onegin" at the Wiener Staatsoper. "This reading ain't chopped liver," she says, irrepressible as ever. "It's for 1,000 people."
Who was Yussel the Muscle? "He was the manager of Max Schmeling, the German boxer," Feldshuh says. "He was a real Bronx [Jew] and a real optimist. It's really a play about three friendships: Joe Louis, an African American; Max Schmeling, a German who didn't want to be a Nazi; and Yussel. And then, on the other side, you have Joseph Goebbels, this bent soul, the chief publicity officer for the Third Reich."
Tovah played Yussel when the play debuted in February at the Illusion Theatre in Minneapolis. "We wanted to get Mark Rylance," she says, "but we couldn't, so it was my brother who came up with the idea of gender-bending it. I really have to walk like a man and carry myself like a man."
It's hardly lost on her that the play's friendships, among black, German, and Jew, cross social lines: "Considering how some of our leaders are using exclusivity, closed doors, gates and walls, this is a play that knocks all that down and says, 'Empathy really works.' "