Profile: Jason Schuchman

Joel Colodner, Jason Schuchman and Anne Gottlieb in a scene from "My Name is Asher Lev," Lyric Stage of Boston

Joel Colodner, Jason Schuchman and Anne Gottlieb in a scene from “My Name is Asher Lev,” Lyric Stage of Boston

By Robert Israel

When Jason Schuchman was growing up in a suburb of New York City, he remembers playing ball on the street with his brother while two Hasidic Jewish boys, around his age, watched with great curiosity from the opposite side of the street. The boys were quickly corralled by their mother who told her sons that engaging in this sport was hazardous to their health. And then he heard the boys counter, “But those boys aren’t getting hurt, they are having fun, and they can catch the balls in those brown leather baskets they are wearing on their hands.”

Schuchman, 35, drew from this recollection of the other-worldliness of separatist Hasidic Jews, as well as other experiences, for his role as Asher Lev in the play, My Name is Asher Lev, one of the most memorable productions that appeared at the Lyric Stage of Boston two seasons ago.

The play – which runs 90 minutes, without intermission – premiered four years ago in Philadelphia. The playwright, Aaron Posner, adapted the story from the novel by the late Chaim Potok for the Arden Theatre, where he was then artistic director. The play has since gone on to numerous productions nationally, where it attracted favorable notices. It tells the story of a young Jew from a fervently religious family who is torn between pursuing his artistic ambitions as a painter while remaining true to his family’s unyielding devotion to Orthodox Judaism.

“This is actually the fourth time I’ve played a Hasidic Jew,” Schuchman tells me. He has played the role of an undercover cop disguised as an Orthodox Jew in Third Watch, a television police show; as a 19th century garment salesman in Infinite Apparel; and as an Orthodox man in the play, Modern Orthodox.

Asher Lev explores a family’s reaction to art, which is looked upon negatively from the standpoint of how one should remain devoted to God,” Schuchman says. “Chaim Potok, who grew up Orthodox, actually had an interest in painting, but that interest was discouraged by his observant family. Becoming a writer was looked upon as favorable, because Jews have a devotion to the written word, so that is the route that Potok, who also became an ordained rabbi, took. The play it explores the dualities of life, the emotional strains, the push and pull that we all face in our struggles to become individuals, to pursue our identities unfettered and in ways that may be at odds with whatever the norm is in our respective societies.”

As he prepared for the role of the artist Asher Lev — torn between his painting, his religion and his family — Schuchman re-read Potok’s novel, looked at clips of modern abstract art, and drew from his many experiences.

“I was raised as a Reform Jew,” Schuchman says, “but my family has roots in Orthodoxy, from when my great-grandparents lived in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, during the era when it was a Jewish enclave. So I decided to approach the role from the inside looking out. I also know many actors and artists, as well as friends of mine, who have had turbulent relationships with their families over their identities, so I decided to bring this into my work, too.”

Schuchman, unlike those friends and fellow thespians, has not had to face those struggles in his own personal life. He says he “stumbled” into acting, after graduating from Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

“I thought, initially after graduating, that I’d go into work in the law,” he says. “It was during a chat with my mother, believe it or not, and she was the one who suggested I try acting. So, after that chat, I started looking into it seriously.”

He landed a few roles with local troupes, including a stint at the Huntington Theater Company in Boston, and then decided to try his luck in New York.

“Nicky Martin, the former artistic director at the Huntington, liked my work and offered to be of help,” Schuchman says, “and I went off to do work in the city.”

He’s been working ever since on stage, and on television, where he’s been cast on shows like Law and Order, and in commercials (including a stint hawking Johnny Walker scotch whiskey).

While there have been other portrayals of Hasidic Jews on stage – Anna Deavere Smith, in her one-woman show Fires in the Mirror, explored the tensions between the Hasidic community in Crown Heights, NY and the African-American community – this play, Schuchman believes, mines a deeper vein, that of the pursuit of one’s calling in the face of the dictates of one’s faith which may be at odds with that calling.

“I’ve been really curious about as to audience reaction in this show,” he says. “Sometimes they take the side of Asher’s father who is single-minded in his devotion to God. Sometimes they feel Asher’s conflict as an artist, and his struggle to be true to himself and his passion and his family. The play asks audiences to confront these hard questions and to ponder their reactions to both sides. These questions are not unique to the Hasidic Jewish experience alone. I believe they resonant with many groups, and many people.”

**
Robert Israel can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com. A previous version of this piece appeared in Edge Media Network (Boston).

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