Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another


‘Imagining Heschel’ In the Wrong Places

An evening with the great rabbi and his daughter

Print Email
Richard Dreyfuss as Abraham Joshua Heschel.(Imagining Heschel)

Last night, I attended a staged reading of a new play called Imagining Heschel with my friend Susannah Heschel, the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth as well as Rabbi Abraham Joshua’s only child. Richard Dreyfuss played Heschel, the great theologian, and as I watched his performance, I asked myself what was going through Susannah’s mind. (Also, it had to be terrifically difficult even for a fine and seasoned actor like Dreyfuss to know Susannah was in the audience.) Heschel has been dead for 38 years; Susannah adored him and he her. What does she even remember, after so much time? Would he come alive in this performance?

I never met her father, but I have seen videotapes of him many times and studied them closely. I noticed that Dreyfuss frequently punctuated utterances with a “Ja?” which I gather Heschel did, because I know Susannah does it. A couple of other things seemed right: An inflection here, a hand gesture there.

But by and large this portrayal missed the mark, I think. The principle characteristic of Heschel was his warmth, an intense warmth; Heschel engaged fully when he talked, and his good humor shone like a sun. I didn’t see any of that here. (And really, Richard Dreyfuss, I know you are an Oscar-winning actor, but would it be too much to expect a veteran like you to muster a credible Polish accent?)

What struck me as most profoundly wrong was the actors’ sense of unfamiliarity with the material—they read their lines from notebooks. An uncertainty pervaded Dreyfuss’ performance, and if there was one thing Heschel was not, it was uncertain. From what I have seen on video (in the filmmaker Steve Brand’s excellent documentary Praying With My Legs), Heschel’s speech flowed like a powerful river. I saw none of that power, and so regrettably the rabbi who had become a beloved hero to me over the years remained elusive.

At intermission, Susannah stood up to greet some friends and schmooze in the aisles, and her bright smile, sparkly eyes, and radiant warmth bespoke both her father and her gracious mother in a way that made my breath catch in my throat. Watching her interact with well-wishers, piercing them with her sharp yet loving gaze, I realized I’d been looking for Heschel, imagining him, in the wrong place—on stage—when all the time his very human legacy of love had been sitting right there in the dark with us.

Siân Gibby is Tablet Magazine’s copy editor.

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

allan buchman says:


When a play has not yet opened and press previews have been postponed there is a presumed trust that formal opinions will not be prematurely published Audience response including that of Ms. Heschel have been overwhelmingly positive. In our opinion it is indeed a rare privilege to observe actors of the caliber of Mr. Dreyfuss and Mr. Eckert explore rich material and the essence of their characters before an intelligent audience

this type of jounney while perhaps not for everyone can be far more stimulating than the mechanical product that is all too often nothing more than fodder for polite dinnner conversation

Great tips ! really i am enjoying reading your blog ! it’s a lot of information i wouldnt know ! and i really love read your articles, very helpful !

I’m not into working out. My philosophy: No pain. No pain.


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

‘Imagining Heschel’ In the Wrong Places

An evening with the great rabbi and his daughter

More on Tablet:

Obama: Denying Israel’s Right to Exist as a Jewish Homeland is Anti-Semitic

By Yair Rosenberg — The president draws a line in the sand in his latest interview