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Hanukkah Play Features Vegetable that Heals Family's Sadness - 2003-12-10

The Odd Potato, an unusual musical performance about a common root-vegetable that heals a family's pain, is performed annually at this time of the year. Originally a children's book, the stage performance is about a raw, misshapen potato that eases the sadness of two children mourning the loss of their mother on the eve of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights.

The Odd Potato is performed each Hanukkah season. The show started this year in New York City and will travel to theaters throughout the United States until the end of December.

It tells a story that traces the efforts of a young girl to find her late mother's Hanukkah menorah, so that the family can once again celebrate the Jewish holiday. But a brooding, uncooperative father stymies her determination to find the religious candelabra.

A menorah is lit nightly for eight days to commemorate the victory of the ancient Maccabees over the Syrians and the rededication of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. It also celebrates the miracle of a lamp that had enough oil to burn for one day, but burned continuously for eight.

Although the story is about a Jewish holiday, Eileen Bluestein Sherman, the show's playwright, says the lesson of The Odd Potato is universal. "Everyone, no matter what religion, what race, what age you are - they identify with the problems, the love, the hope of family and tradition," she said."

In The Odd Potato, the character of Rachel Levy cannot find the family's menorah. So she carves a menorah out of the very last potato available in the corner grocery store, and rekindles the holiday spirit in her family's grieving hearts.

It is only after the potato-turned-menorah is lit that her younger brother, Sammy, persuades his father to join him in his school's Hanukkah talent show - dressed as a tap-dancing potato, no less.

The Odd Potato was first published as a children's book in 1984. Ms. Sherman's inspiration for the story came from her late father, whose own father died when he was a little boy during the U.S. economic depression of the 1930s.

"His parents both had been immigrants from Austria and he had grown up very, very poor," explained Ms. Sherman. "And when he went to my grandmother, who was then by herself, a single mother now raising three children, and he wanted to light the Hanukkah menorah, there was no money for a real menorah. My grandmother managed a small mom-and-pop grocery store in those days, really a hole-in-the-wall, and he always told me that the cheapest commodity that they sold was a potato, and so she took a potato and made a menorah for her six-year-old child."

Stage and television actress Charlotte Rae, who portrays the jolly grandmother in the show, says a number of Broadway theatrical stars agreed to take roles in the The Odd Potato because of its powerful message.

"It has a nice feeling about it, about tradition and holiday, and that's something that's always very endearing to everybody," said Ms. Rae. "The message is that we should honor each other, and honor our children, and try to respect them. The father was unable to get out of his grief and move on, and to respect his daughter's desire for her mother's menorah. He just surrendered to his grief and couldn't move on."

But the sheer act of lighting the candles, using a modest potato as a menorah, broke the cycle of pain, said B.J. Crosby, a noted American jazz singer, who plays the character of grocery store clerk Millie Harris. "It also gives you the thought of hope that your dreams are livable," said Ms. Crosby. "You can live your dream. And you know, nothing is greater than family. You get that there, you get that family. But you experience within that piece, you experience laughter, you experience sadness, you can see the pain in the father because the father is missing his wife. And you see that the children loved their mother and value the things that their mother taught them."

The Odd Potato has been performed in theaters throughout the world, including Australia, Israel and the United Kingdom.