New play spotlights a different kind of ‘rite of passage’

Jonathan and Izzy Salant open up about moving beyond tragedy with the latter’s new play

Sitting in the living room of their home in Rockville, Md., earlier this month, Jonathan and Isaac “Izzy” Salant were all smiles; a bookshelf and an inflatable matzah ball were in full view behind them as the father-son duo settled into a single Zoom window for an interview with Jewish Insider, a situation both are used to being on the other side of — Jonathan, 69, a longtime Washington reporter for the The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., recently began a position as assistant managing editor of politics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Izzy, 25, who is based in Los Angeles, holds dual degrees from UMass Amherst in theater and journalism.

It’s clear the two are close; they laughed and built off each other’s answers even when the conversation veered toward a painful time in their lives: 15 years ago, Joan Friedenberg, Izzy’s mother and Jonathan’s wife, died unexpectedly. Izzy was 10, up late watching “Home Alone 4” in his room, when Jonathan came in to tell him that “Mommy died today.” That moment, and those shortly after, inspired Izzy’s new stage production, “Rite of Passage,” which premiered on Thursday evening at the Windhover Center for the Performing Arts in Rockport, Mass.

The semi-autobiographical play follows 12-year-old Harold as he prepares for his bar mitzvah amid the sudden loss of his mother, Maura, to suicide. Now a single parent, Harold’s father, David, struggles with telling the truth of what happened to his mildly autistic son, while also dealing with his own grief. Maura’s sister, Loraine, the family’s rabbi, and David’s eventual love interest, Sue, all help the pair to move on.

“The show itself is based on the true story. We all felt these things; we all had to deal after Joan’s death,” Izzy told JI. “We all had to live our lives with this completely newly acquired trauma, but the way it fully went about is dramaticized, I would say, with a lot of semblances of truth.”

The play has been seven years in the making. Izzy wrote “Rite of Passage,” originally titled “From the Point of View of a Journalist,” during an undergraduate playwriting course that he had ironically tried to drop only a few weeks earlier.

“At the beginning of the semester, we were reading other people’s plays, reading other plays, and I felt so dejected because my work was not very good,” Izzy said. He told his professor his concerns, but she wouldn’t let him quit. “She goes, ‘Do you think everyone who’s great at what they do started being great? No, you have to work at it, you have to learn.’ Then she said, ‘Let’s get through the next exercise, if you still want to drop out by the middle of the semester, do it.’” He didn’t. 

With the help of production company Punctuate4, the show evolved to become “Rite of  Passage,” a name Izzy felt encapsulated more of the truth behind the story.

“Not only becoming a bar mitzvah is a rite of passage, but learning to live without your mother becomes a rite of passage, learning to move on and raise a son is a rite of passage,” Izzy said. “Everyone’s going through this transformation, and what’s a bigger transformation than becoming an adult in the eyes of Judaism?”

Izzy also took great care in modeling his characters after the real-life individuals they were meant to represent. In small ways, such as having Sue work at Macy’s much like Jonathan’s current wife Bonnie Cole, and in larger ones, like in the inclusion of certain pieces of dialogue that were pulled from real conversations, Izzy put in the work to set his fictional story in reality.

“I guess the only person that really isn’t based on anyone is the rabbi. I wanted there to be a person in the show that was very big on, ‘This is what religious law is saying, this is this aspect of it,’ because it is an unapologetically Jewish play,” Izzy said. “I wanted there to be a character that was firm and strong in their beliefs, but wasn’t a villain and wasn’t an antagonist, just someone who’s like, ‘This is what I believe, these are my convictions,’ and a rabbi is the type of person that comes to mind when I’m talking about those types of religious ideologies.”

The decision to write Harold as neurodiverse was twofold: for one, it allowed Izzy to bridge the gap that was created by making the character 12 rather than 10 years old, and secondly, it spoke to some of his own experiences growing up. “I went to a lot of therapy to learn a lot more social cues, and today I live a relatively normal life,” Izzy said. “But I wanted to be somewhat true to life, and I also wanted to really encapsulate what life was like when I was 10.”

The production itself is fully sensory-friendly — there are sound effects and an option to get up and walk around if need be — which was important to Izzy after hearing of far too many plays that advocate for inclusivity yet lack proper accommodations for their audiences.

“I always tell the story of this time that I saw a show where the lead character is a woman in a wheelchair, and to get to the theater you had to walk up two flights of stairs,” he recalled. “Like, you know, it’s nice that they’re doing a show, but then people who can’t get upstairs can’t see the show.”

Intentionally, the circumstances surrounding Maura’s death are withheld from Act 1— suicide specifically is not mentioned once during the entire show — because Izzy wanted the audience to find out at the same time Harold did: accidentally and in the last moments before intermission.

Like David, Jonathan had trouble sharing every aspect of his wife’s death with his young son, coming clean fully only years later. “We finally told him parts of the story, but it wasn’t until his bar mitzvah, that’s three years later, that he read her suicide note that she had written to him,” Jonathan recalled. “I did keep that from him.” 

Hearing the play for the first time, which had a handful of readings in the years prior to its stage debut, Jonathan was apprehensive that it would force him to relive the trauma, but in the end his fears did not come to pass, partially due to Izzy’s decision not to fixate on what happened, but on what happened next. While Maura is her own character — a “manifestation of grief” as Izzy put it — the real focus of the show is not on her, but on how everyone else learns to cope, and on the bond that is reinforced between David and Harold.

“Part of the thing that I wanted to do with this show, is I wanted to make it about moving through grief; not having to relive everything that we went through leading up to Joan’s death,” Izzy said. “It was, ‘now that she unfortunately is gone, how do we live our lives?’”

Despite the difficult and deeply personal storyline, there are moments of humor woven throughout the play — David and Sue’s entire courtship is filled with wholesomely cringy dad jokes, and Harold, in a fit of anger after learning his father withheld the truth from him, tells the rabbi that, “the Torah said, ‘Honor your mother and father,’ it said nothing about liking them.” Coping with tragedy through comedy, Izzy explained, is a concept that’s “ingrained within Jewish identity.”

“At the end of the day, you know, unfortunately, life doesn’t stop for everybody else when you have something traumatic happen to you,” Izzy said. “Everyone is still living their life just now with a completely new added aspect to it, and some of life is funny.” 

While Harold and David’s journey in “Rite of Passage” is reminiscent of Izzy and Jonathan’s own healing process, both see a larger message that audiences can take away: hope.

“Right now the world is full of so many awful things that are going on,” Izzy said. “There’s a lot of things that are continuously happening, and sometimes it really doesn’t feel like it’s going to be OK, especially if you’re in a marginalized group that is continuously dealing with a lot of things that make it not OK, but at some point something is going to be OK, and I just want people to leave feeling a little bit of hope.” 

“Rite of Passage” runs through July 30 at the Windhover Center for the Performing Arts in Rockport, Mass. Tickets can be purchased at punctuate4.org, use code: FAITH for $5 off.

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