Johanna Gruenhut melds Judaism and theater

Johanna Gruenhut (Eli Flombaum)

Johanna Gruenhut’s Jewish identity has always been tightly interwoven with her art.

Even when she’s not directing a Jewish play, “Fingerprints of Judaism kind of find their way because that’s how I understand the world,” she said.

The Baltimore transplant has more than a decade of experience directing theater productions along the East Coast — from Washington D.C.’s The Studio Theatre 2ndStage to Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre.

She described moments within her shows that struck her as emblematic of Judaism.

“One of the characters was going through a very rough period,” she said. “It said in the stage directions, she slept for a week. … I said, ‘Oh, it’s like shiva.’”

Now, Gruenhut, 41, is the associate artistic director of Theater J in Washington, D.C., the nation’s largest and most prominent Jewish theater. She lives in Baltimore City’s Guilford neighborhood, with her husband Jonathan Flombaum, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University. She loves cooking, baking, crafting with her daughter and sewing homemade Purim costumes. Flombaum is active in Hopkins Hillel.

The family attends Beth Tfiloh Congregaion, and they send their three children, ages 12, 9 and 6, to Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. Gruenhut and Flombaum met at The Ramaz School during their high school years, so they both felt it was important to give their children the same experience.

Gruenhut shared how her early years as a Jewish pupil and thespian made her art what it is today.

Growing up in Manhattan, she attended Ramaz, a Modern Orthodox yeshiva day school on the Upper East Side. There, she poured over Hebrew and Aramaic texts in her Talmud class, finding sources, examining every interpretation and engaging in healthy debate.

In researching sources, authors and inspiration for her plays today, she is reminded of that foundation.

“That idea of turning over every page — all the nuances — and trying to understand turns of phrases,” Gruenhut said, “it’s fueled, in a way, of like what I really loved about Talmud class.”

When she landed a role in a touring show about the Crown Heights riots by renowned Jewish playwright and director Elizabeth Swados, that experience served to solidify her interest in theater and strengthen her sense of Jewish identity.

She was the youngest member of the cast at about 12 or 13 years old. Being there broadened her perspective of other cultures. She was able to explore her own background and beliefs apart from school.

“Being Jewish out in the world is different, and also figuring out what that means for you can be different,” she said.

Theater J provided her an opportunity “to meld these two forces in my life [theater and Judaism] that are so important and powerful to me in how they shaped my outlook,” she said.

In her daily role, she reads scripts, mans the literary desk and administers grants, including a new one that commissions seven Jewish playwrights to write new works representing ethnically diverse voices.

She is currently directing “Compulsion or The House Behind,” featuring a man driven — even to obsession — to adapt The Diary of Anne Frank into a play.

It offers a unique opportunity to delve into both the theme of Jewish identity and of the arts, she said.

This will be Gruenhut’s first production at Theater J since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“After two years of being away from the art form, it feels really beautiful to be able to come back with a play that celebrates the power of the stage,” she said.

The show premieres Jan. 26 (the day before International Holocaust Remembrance Day) and in the 75th anniversary year of the publication of The Diary of Anne Frank.


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