Show about Heschel’s friendship with King comes to Alabama

Just after King Weekend, the Birmingham Jewish community will host a performance on Jan. 16 of a new one-man show about the close relationship between Martin Luther King Jr. and one of the 20th century’s leading Jewish thinkers.

“Heschel’s Passover Eve” portrays Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel a few days before the beginning of Passover in 1968, and the Seder to which he invited King. The preparations for the Seder include reflections on the universal drive for freedom, and the call to “let my people go,” and the show is a window into Heschel’s complex character.

The play was commissioned by the World Zionist Organization to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Heschel’s death, December 2022. A professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Heschel authored numerous influential works on Jewish philosophy, including “Man Is Not Alone,” “God in Search of Man” and “The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man.”

Born in Poland, Heschel studied in Berlin, becoming a rabbi. In 1938 he was arrested by the Gestapo, and managed to flee Poland six weeks before Germany’s invasion, leaving for London before making his way to the United States. He lost sisters and his mother in the Holocaust, and never went back to the lands of his childhood.

Heschel represented American Jewry at the Second Vatican Council, which led to the elimination of references in Catholic liturgy that demeaned Jews.

In January 1963, King and Heschel met at an interfaith conference on religion and race in Chicago, organized by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, with Heschel as a keynote speaker. Heschel’s book, “The Prophets,” was adopted by civil rights leaders for its message of being religious warriors for morality.

Heschel received a standing ovation for his speech, where he said being religious and being racist were mutually exclusive.

He became close friends with King, who referred to Heschel as “a truly great prophet,” and Heschel continued to participate in the Civil Rights movement. In 1965, he famously marched with King and John Lewis in the Third Selma to Montgomery March, just days after Heschel led a protest about Selma in front of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in New York.

Through his friendship with Heschel, King became involved in the causes of Soviet Jewry and Israel. Heschel also got King to finally speak out against the war in Vietnam in early 1967, and they linked arms in a Vietnam protest at Arlington Cemetery in February 1968.

Ten days before he was assassinated, King delivered the keynote at a Rabbinical Assembly event celebrating Heschel’s birthday. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. The first Seder that year was on April 12.

Yizhar Hess, vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization, had the original idea for the show. He said that outside the U.S., Heschel is not well known, and the play was intended as a way to introduce Israelis to a towering figure in Diaspora Jewry. The show was originally written in Hebrew and performed several times in Israel last year. The show was also performed in Buenos Aires and the United Kingdom.

The first English performance was on Nov. 30 in Baltimore. Eric Berger stars as Heschel.

The Birmingham performance is presented by the Levite Jewish Community Center, in partnership with Temple Beth-El, Temple Emanu-El and the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Hess will attend a pre-show reception, which starts at 6:30 p.m. at the LJCC. The play will be at 7 p.m., followed by a talkback. Adult tickets are $10, child tickets to age 18 are $5.