What's in a name? In the case of Tovah Feldshuh, a career, an identity, a cause—and possibly more.
Born Terri Sue Feldshuh, this self-confessed "cheerleader from Westchester," now starring in Irena's Vow
on Broadway, took her Hebrew moniker, Tovah, as her stage name years ago without giving much thought to the consequences. "I was holding spears at the Guthrie when I got 14 lines in Cyrano: The Musical
with Christopher Plummer, which went to Broadway. So I get to New York with this name, Tovah, and I'm given this attribution at this wonderfully knowledgeable Jewish American. Well, I'll tell you, I became one, because of the parts I got as a result."
To wit: Legendary producer David Merrick, who had first told her she should needed to change her name ("I said, 'You probably asked Streisand to change her nose!' "), later hired her for the short-lived comedy Dreyfus in Rehearsal
. Her name, in fact, is what cinched the deal, in fact: Merrick told director Garson Kanin about a "girl named Tovah Feldshuh, and Garson said, 'With a name like that, she's got to be right.' "
Thence followed roles in a stage version of Yentl
, Helena Slomova in the TV miniseries Holocaust
, hard-driving Law & Order
defence attorney Danielle Melnick, roles in the films Walk on the Moon
and Kissing Jessica Stein
and, perhaps most famously, the role Feldshuh calls simply "the Prime Minister."
She's talking, of course, about Golda's Balcony
, the popular solo show about Israel's historic Golda Meir, which Feldshuh turned into the longest-running one-woman show in Broadway history. "I've played Katherine Hepburn, Queen Elizabeth, Anne Boleyn, a lot of the classic roles," Feldshuh says. "But a lot of my breakthrough roles have been Jewish roles."
is a breakthrough of another kind: It tells the amazing true story of Irene Gut Opdyke, a Polish Catholic maid who, during World War II, managed to hide 11 Jews in the home of her employer, a German officer. While the story is suggestive of some of Feldshuh's signature roles, the role itself marks an illuminating departure.
"I always say, 'It ain't my group but it's my subject matter,' " Feldshuh quips. "With Golda's Balcony
, it's almost like two different points of view on the same subject. Golda was born in 1898, and Irena was born 1918."
But rather than the steely wisdom and gravity that Meir brought to her historic position, Irene Opdyke had what Feldshuh calls "a rural intuitive intelligence. What's brilliant is that she's an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances, doing extraordinary things. She's a religious Catholic who did absolutely the right and sublimely heroic thing."
Poland's history in the Holocaust is uniquely problematic: Though ethnic Poles suffered exceptional depredations of their own at the hands of the Nazis, and while the notorious concentration camps on Polish soil (Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka) were not built or run by Poles, Poland's policy and attitude toward its Jewish population has been mixed.
"Helping a Jew escape was punishable by death in Poland," Feldshuh points out. "We should remember that Miep [Gies] was not put to death when he was found out for hiding Anne Frank, for instance." Score one for the Dutch, then—and an extra moral point for Irena's against-the-grain courage. It was a courage enabled in part by her isolation.
"If you helped a Jew during the war, they would hang you and your family in the town square," Feldshuh says. "But Irena was separated from her parents. She was a lone agent, a free operator. If she helped the Jews, she could die, but only she would die. She was able to do the right thing, and it did not spell out the immediate and unequivocal death of her sisters or parents."
Feldshuh also traces Irena's moral integrity to a thoroughgoing upbringing among the best of her kind.
"She was brought up by people who were true Christians, in the best sense of the word," Feldshuh says. "She spent a lot of time at Czestochowa, the seat of the Catholic church in Poland. And her mother used to take care of stray animals. When she was a little girl, Irena was given a stork whose wing was broken, and she took care of it all winter and nursed it back to health by the spring. From that, to becoming a nurse and saving lives in a hospital, to saving Jewish lives—it's a comprehensible path, albeit an extremely brave one. A lot of people would not have done what she did."
Irene is an inspirational figure, in short.
"Irene Gut Opdyke has taught me to have faith—not in a specific God but in a power beyond oneself," Feldshuh says. "Maybe it's just what Jung calls the collective unconscious." Her brother David, an emergency room doctor and the author of the play Miss Evers' Boys
, "is around people who die in the emergency room, and he sees their spirit leave their bodies. Playing this woman has taught me that maybe, just maybe there are angel forces in the universe that we can't see."
So is Feldshuh moving on from her Jewish roots—or simply building on them? Maybe both. As she puts it, "I look forward to a new era of playing wonderful, righteous characters."
Click here for more information about Irena's Vow.