Deborah Sternberg sings frequently.
She’s the cantorial soloist at Congregation Or Chadash in Damascus, and performs with the Washington Chorus and the Washington Master Chorale.
“What I had never done until recently was to be in a show,” Sternberg said.
Or, more accurately, a reading with music.
That changed when Rachel Stroud-Goodrich, member and choir director of Or Chadash, approached Sternberg about lending a musical component to “The Grunch that Stole Hanukkah.”
You heard it right.
This is a one-night, storybook reading that Stroud-Goodrich’s husband, Christopher Goodrich, adapted from the classic Dr. Seuss Christmas tale for the Unexpected Stage Company, which they co-founded.
Stroud-Goodrich hadn’t expected Sternberg to accept, given her busy schedule, but the cantor said an enthusiastic “yes.”
There’s much about the Grunch story that will be familiar from Dr. Seuss fans, including the ideas and some of the language, said Goodrich.
Only, for copyright reasons, it is the Grunch (a made-up word) rather than the Grinch who tries to walk off with the Festival of Lights.
And of course, the Grinch never sang Hanukkah songs.
“Deborah will lead a sing-a-long, as well as perform holiday songs in English, Hebrew, and in one case, a little bit of Yiddish,” Stroud-Goodrich said.
While Sternberg didn’t grow up speaking Yiddish, one of her grandparents did, while another spoke Ladino.
Regardless of what language she’s speaking, Stroud-Goodrich said, “Deborah has a gorgeous voice.”
Richard Goemann, a board member of Unexpected Stage and a friend, provides the textual part of the reading.
“The Grunch” came to life very easily, after the Goodriches decided to host a Hanukkah event. That was in September after the theatre had participated in the Page-to-Stage festival at the Kennedy Center.
“We scheduled the event, and then I wrote it,” Goodrich laughed. “We have faith in ourselves. Rachel is Jewish, and we wanted to do something that’s not Christmas-centric. I call it a joyful and loving parody.”
It was, Stroud-Goodrich added, “a lot of fun, a sense of ‘What about us, too? ’”
While the original “Grinch” decries the commercialization of Christmas, part of the idea behind his parody, Goodrich explained, is that the eight-day Jewish holiday “doesn’t have the same weight in Judaism as Christmas does to Christianity, but it became an echo of Christmas with heightened importance. It was not a big deal.”
For centuries Jews considered Hanukkah a “minor holiday,” compared with Rosh Hashanah or Passover, for example.
Waxing even more serious, Goodrich sees the story of the “Grunch” as a commentary on the larger struggle of the Jewish people and how they respond when something is taken from them. “It explores ideas,” he said.
In another example of his fan fiction, Goodrich composed “A Wake for Jacob Marley.” In the play, the characters of Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” – probably his favorite holiday story – are eulogizing Scrooge’s late business partner.
Aside from the Goodriches being husband and wife, “The Grunch” became a family affair in another way. When Goodrich needed a rhyme in Yiddish, his wife would consult with her mother, who “knows a lot more than I do,” she said. “She got really excited.”
The Hanukkah storybook reading will also be the winter fundraiser for Unexpected Stage Company and will include wine and holiday treats.
In addition to two specials based on the original Dr. Seuss story, a computer-animated film adaptation, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, is scheduled for release on Nov. 9, 2018.
The reading takes place Saturday, Dec. 16, 7:30 p.m., at the River Road Unitarian Universalist Building, Fireside Room, on 6301 River Road in Bethesda.