‘Devil’s Arithmetic’ brings Holocaust lessons to Prime Stage
By Toby Tabachnick
Senior Staff Writer
Jane Yolen had already published more than 30 books for young adults and children — mostly in the genres of Arthurian legend and fairy tales — when she was approached by her editor, a rabbi’s wife, challenging her to try something different: Why not write a book based on Yolen’s experiences as a Jew?
Although she was not ritually observant, Yolen took the challenge laid down by her editor. The result was “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” a novel about a young girl unhappily sitting at a family Seder, who mysteriously gets transported back in time to the Holocaust.
Published in 1988, the book garnered critical acclaim, winning the Sydney Taylor Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries and the Jewish Book Council Award, among others.
The book has now been turned into a play for Pittsburgh’s Prime Stage Theatre and will premiere this weekend at the New Hazlett Theatre.
Yolen, who was raised in New York City, but who now lives in Hatfield, Mass., will be in town this weekend for the premiere. She will speak about how she wrote “The Devil’s Arithmetic” following the Sunday matinee performance on May 11. Her talk, “Remember, O, Remember: How I Wrote ‘The Devil’s Arithmetic,’” will include a book signing. The event is sponsored in part by Classrooms without Borders and presented in partnership with the Holocaust Center of Greater Pittsburgh.
“It was a defining moment for me as a writer,” Yolen said of “The Devil’s Arithmetic.” “I never denied being Jewish, but I had to learn. And it started me on another whole strain of writing.”
Following “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” Yolen went on to write other Jewish-themed books, including one about a boy who is bullied and creates a golem.
She is pleased, she said, with the script written by Barry Kornhauser, a prolific playwright who is on staff at Millersville University in Lancaster, Pa.
“I’ve read the script, and it’s very close to the book,” said Yolen. “They kept the heart of it, really. This play is very close to the core of my book, but it’s its own self. I have every expectation of it being very moving.”
The play, she said, will present an opportunity for the wider Pittsburgh community to learn about the Holocaust.
“I’m hoping it’s not just the Jewish community that turns out,” said Yolen. “You don’t have to convince the Jews there was a Holocaust. You have to make the other people understand. We have such short memories unless it happens to us.”
Kornhauser was commissioned by Wayne Brinda, the producing artistic director of Prime Stage Theatre, to adapt Yolen’s book into a play specifically for Prime Stage. He has been familiar with “The Devil’s Arithmetic” for years, he said, as it was enjoyed by his three children, who are now grown, and is a part of his home library.
“It was very important for me to honor Jane’s vision and her work,” said Kornhauser.
Kornhauser hopes to publish the play, he said, as well as see it produced by more theater companies in the future.
The fact that its protagonist is a modern-day teen should add to its audience appeal, he said. “I suspect the Holocaust is a hard sell because the topic is so heavy, but because it has a contemporary teenage protagonist, it will resonate with young audiences.
“There is also some humor in the play, to give it balance,” he continued. “I think it is a unique and special and very poignant take on the Holocaust.”
The play is directed by Lisa Ann Goldsmith, who has been instructing her cast of 16 — only one of whom is Jewish — not only about the Holocaust, but also about Jewish holidays, to give them the proper background to understand what it means to be Jewish, regardless of one’s level of observance.
“I’ve spent a lot of time as dramaturge,” she said, using videos and books to educate her cast of predominantly 13- and 14-year-old girls.
“I’m a secular Jew from New York City,” Goldsmith said. “I’ve explained to my girls something they didn’t realize: that even though I’m secular, if someone rounded up Jews today, that wouldn’t matter.”
Goldsmith is passionate about “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” stressing its relevance in today’s society, where anti-Semitic acts have been making headlines all too frequently. She cited the leaflets recently distributed in Ukraine — regardless of who created them — requiring Jews to register with the government; protests in the streets of Paris this past January, where thousands of people marched screaming, “Jews, get out of France!” and the rise of the anti-Semitic Jobbik party in Hungary, which also has called for the registration of Jews.
“There’s an amazing resurgence of anti-Semitism,” said Goldsmith. “People aren’t paying enough attention to what’s going on. It makes this play relevant.”
Remembering, she said, is a central component to “The Devil’s Arithmetic.” “I think the message of this play, this book, is we need to remember, not just so it doesn’t happen again, but to remember where you come from and to honor your family.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)