A Holocaust Tale, Set to Music


How a heroic story made its way to the musical stage
by heather stein

Written by and starring Shira Ginsburg - whose day job is as a Cantor at a Manhattan synagogue -- “Bubby’s Kitchen” is a one-woman musical about Ginsburg’s grandparents.

The show chronicles their work as resistance fighters against the Nazis as they survived for years in the forests of Belarus during World War II.

More than 30,000 Jews emerged from the forests at the end of the war, and the show details their fight against the Nazis, their liberation, and their eventual move to America.

Ginsburg talks about the show -- scheduled for the Manhattan JCC in April -- and what it means, along with musical director Rick Bertone and lyricist Jonathan Comisar.

What is Bubby’s Kitchen about?

Shira Ginsburg: Bubby’s Kitchen is about the most special place on earth to me – my grandparents’ home and kitchen, a little brick house on a little sweet street. On the outside, it was nothing particularly unique, but on the inside was the center of my world, and the Jewish world of Troy, N.Y. It’s about the journey of learning how to process all of the people, stories and experiences swirling around you when you’re a child and how those things synthesize in you as you figure out how to become your true self. It’s at once poignant, lighthearted, heartbreaking and hilarious.

Rick Bertone: Bubby’s Kitchen is a glimpse into the family of holocaust survivors and how that life experience shaped future generations of the Ginsburg family. To me, it is a story of hope, love, and faith set against one of mankind’s darkest moments.

Jonathan Comisar: It’s about Shira Ginsburg’s special relationship with the women in her family, emphasizing the influence her remarkable bubby Yudis Ginsburg has had on Shira’s life. As Shira tells us in one of her monologues, all the lessons of life and love and Jewishness, she learned in her grandmother’s kitchen.

How did the show take shape?

Ginsburg: As soon as I decided I would tell this story, it basically wrote itself. Choosing just a few stories to highlight out of the hundreds that I had swirling in my mind was the challenge. Directly after the first performance, audience members came up to me telling me how much it resonated for them, and asked if I would come perform in their communities. In that moment, Bubby’s Kitchen took on a life of its own and has traveled to over 25 communities, entirely on word of mouth.

Bertone: I came on board in 2013 with the previous director, a colleague of mine from “Spamalot” and a classmate of Shira’s from undergrad.

Comisar: Shira and I met through the Cantor world. I too am an ordained Cantor. Shira had an inkling that my musical backgrounds and composition style would be good fits for the show she was developing.

When Shira approached me and asked if I would consider writing original music for this, I gave her an open-ended response: ‘Let’s sit together in a room with a piano and see if we can come up with something together. Let’s see if the chemistry is there.’ And after we wrote our first song together, we both were proud of our collaboration and realized we were a match.

What message in the show is critical for a New York audience to hear now?

Ginsburg: We are so polarized as a nation politically, I think it is crucial that we take time to appreciate that the diversity of our neighbors and our ability to live together in such close proximity of each other in such a peaceful way is precisely what makes us so great. New York City is exemplary in so many ways. I hope we can serve as a model to our nation of tolerance and unity as we stand at this crucial political precipice.

Comisar: New York is a Jewish city, over 10% of the city is Jewish ... And whether you are Jewish or not, Jewish ethnicity, humor, and food are part of the lifeblood of this city. The genre of the musical is a New York phenomenon. New Yorkers of all races and ethnicity can step into the world of Bubby’s Kitchen and feel right at home.

What was most challenging about working on Bubby’s?

Bertone: Being raised Catholic, grasping some of the musical styles definitely came as a challenge in the beginning. Now, the challenge lies in having the strength to access these dark moments in history for each performance.

Comisar: The most challenging thing for me has been striking the right tone in the creating of the music and lyric-writing.

A musical that involves the Holocaust is a huge challenge. How does one write music that touches the darkness without wallowing in it? How to be poignant without crossing over to maudlin? It is a balancing act. And knowing that the show has moments of darkness, how do we find the right places to bring in comedy and levity.

What part of your own background fed into this story?

Ginsburg: I grew up on my grandparent’s dairy farm in Troy, N.Y., and spent every day of my life in their home. It was an incredible gift. As a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, my cousins and I were brought up as if we were siblings. We are an incredibly tight-knit, close, and wildly colorful family that has been brought up to value the bonds and connections to family, friends and community as the most valuable thing in life. Professionally, I have my BFA in drama from Syracuse University and was a professional actress, singer and songwriter here in New York before going back to Hebrew Union College for my Master’s Degree and Cantorial Ordination. I just celebrated my tenth year as Cantor at East End Temple in Gramercy, and I have been traveling Bubby’s Kitchen around the country for the last five years. Marrying my two greatest passions in life and being able to work as both Cantor and actor carrying forth the same messages and missions from two different platforms has been more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.

Bertone: I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and studied music at NYU. I am a professional musician working in the theater industry in NYC and have played keyboards and/or conducted for numerous shows either here in town or on tour.

Comisar: I am not the grandchild of a Holocaust survivor, but the stories of the Shoah were hauntingly formative to me in my growing up years. I have distant relatives who were murdered by the Nazis, so the stories of the partisans are not immediately familiar to me personally. But my consciousness of the Holocaust and the imperative of memory and storytelling are at the very core of my Jewish self.