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An actor riffs on Judaism with a Memphis beat
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An actor riffs on Judaism with a Memphis beat

From Elvis to Jacob, Jonathan Adam Ross creates Torah theater

Jonathan Adam Ross on stage in “Walking in Memphis: The Life of a Southern Jew.” Photo courtesy Jonathan Adam Ross
Jonathan Adam Ross on stage in “Walking in Memphis: The Life of a Southern Jew.” Photo courtesy Jonathan Adam Ross

He can turn Torah into theater, make use of his childhood as a Jew from Tennessee, and even create a fanciful work called “Elvis Does Chanukah.”

Many of Jonathan Adam Ross’ creations will be on display Nov. 12-13, when the actor-playwright will serve as scholar-in-residence at Congregation Beth El in South Orange.

“On Friday night after services, I will be doing a theatrical exploration of biblical characters with members of the congregation,” Ross told NJ Jewish News. “It will be an audience participation activity — a theater game if you will — but I don’t want to reveal much about what I’m doing.”

During Saturday morning services, at 11:15 a.m., he will assume the character of the patriarch Jacob as he enacts the week’s Torah portion. Then, at 12:45 p.m. following services and a kiddush luncheon, he will lead an interactive discussion on the relationship between synagogues and theater.

Ross’ grand finale will come that evening at 7:30 p.m., when he will perform his one-man show, “Walking in Memphis: The Life of a Southern Jew.”

“It’s about growing up Jewish in Memphis,” he said. “A lot of people hear ‘a Jew from Memphis; that’s going to be exotic.’ But by the end of it, hopefully, they will sense that this story is universal. I wouldn’t characterize it as a Jewish play.”

But the work is clearly autobiographical.

“If you’re growing up a Jew in New York or New Jersey, you’re not a minority. There are plenty of kosher restaurants and plenty of shuls to go to. You don’t have to try so hard,” Ross said. “In Memphis you have to ship in kosher meat and you are definitely a minority. Not that there is anti-Semitism — I never experienced anti-Semitism in Memphis.”

But there were moments.

“I used to wear a chai around my neck, and a kid asked me why I was wearing a cow. I got upset. Then I looked down at my neck and realized it totally looked like a cow. How was he to know it was a Hebrew letter?”

Ross grew up in a Conservative Jewish home and attended public schools before leaving his hometown to study acting at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

He began his acting career way before then, however — on the stage of his local JCC at the age of five.

“I performed in a Hanukka play and I haven’t stopped since,” he said. “I did not set out to make Jewish theater; I set out to make great theater. It just so happens that I’m from a Jewish background, so the theater I create tends to be somewhat Jewish in nature.”

His “Elvis Does Chanukah” — a work commissioned by the Solomon Schechter Day School of Memphis — was an adaptation of Presley’s songs for a holiday play and includes such titles as “Heartbreak Kotel.”

Although he does not consider himself to be a musician, music plays a role in his presentations. In such works as “Walking in Memphis,” Ross sings and accompanies himself. “I’m an actor who happens to play piano,” he said. “I do a lot of songs from my childhood. Because I’m from Memphis, I love the blues, and I also love Motown.”

Although he performs most of his work on commercial stages, Ross said he enjoys performing in religious and community venues as well.

“This is a real privilege I have been given,” he said. “Not only to work in theater but to work in the Jewish community as well.”

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