You don’t have to be Jewish to play a part in the stage production of The Diary of Anne Frank. But it helps. Mark Friedlander played the role of Henk Gies who, with his wife Miep, hid the Frank family from the Nazis. Most of the cast was not Jewish. So when they got to the scene where Mr. Frank leads the group in a Hanukkah celebration, Mark had to explain the holiday to his peers.
“The scene required them to light a menorah and sing the prayer,” he says. “I got to teach them not only the words and the tune, but the meaning behind it all, the history, and the hope it would have been to the characters they were playing.”
Mark, 28, has already played a broad spectrum of roles with the National Theater for Arts and Education and Connecticut Free Shakespeare, including Jonas in The Giver, Ponyboy in The Outsiders, Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, and Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing.
Currently Mark is acting with Only Make Believe (OMB), a non-profit organization that performs interactive theater for children in New York City hospitals. OMB was founded by Dena Hammerstein, daughter-in-law of lyricist and libretto writer Oscar Hammerstein, and is run by influential members of the Broadway community.
Mark was raised in a Jewish home, but not a typical one—both of his parents are Messianic Jews, that is, Jews who believe in Jesus. His father, David, raised an Orthodox Jew, came to faith in Jesus in his early thirties.
Jews are rare in Gorham, Maine, the small town outside of Portland where Mark grew up. So it was an even stranger experience for Mark’s gentile friends to attend Shabbat dinners at the Friedlanders’ home. They’d learn about Jewishness—and Jesus, too.
“Most of what I learned as a child about being Jewish came through celebrating the holidays and Shabbat,” Mark recalls. “I remember having non-Jewish kids sleep over when I was a kid. Because of school, the only night that was usually available was Friday, which meant they joined us for Shabbat dinner and kiddush. I remember being so aware of simultaneous feelings of self consciousness in front of my friends mingled with overwhelming pride in my heritage and beliefs.”
Each holiday had its highlights and unique memories.
“Growing up for many years in New England,” he says, “meant bundling up in full winter gear before taking your morning bowl of cereal to the sukkah and eating it quickly before you or the milk froze.”
And every holiday was wrapped in a lesson.
“My father always stressed what he was taught growing up not knowing Jesus in contrast to his understanding of the Scriptures and traditions in light of Yeshua [Jesus],” says Mark.
Visits from his bubbe, his father’s mother, added to Mark’s childhood insights into his Jewish roots.
“One unforgettable evening after dinner,” Mark remembers, “she recounted the story of a family, ancestors of ours in Eastern Europe. She told us of the intense persecution they faced as Jews, and how, as their persecutors closed in, the children escaped by holding onto the back of a family friend as he swam them one by one across the river to safety. After the last child was across, he returned for the parents, only to find he was too late. The children escaped and survived but never saw their parents again. I had heard all the Bible stories about the persecution of the Jewish people, but it really hit home when I heard that story about my family, only a few generations before.”
When Mark was ten, his family made aliyah and lived in Israel for three years.
“I am so grateful for that experience and opportunity to live in the Promised Land, learn Hebrew, be immersed in Israeli culture and perhaps most of all, have my bar mitzvah on the shore of the Sea of Galilee,” he says.
Mark fell in love with acting while attending high school in South Portland. He went on to study theater at the University of Southern Maine. He received a scholarship, several acting awards and performed plays both on campus and at local professional theaters.
After graduating in 2004 with highest honors, Mark toured with the National Theater for Arts and Education. He moved to New York City in 2008 and continued to act there and at several regional theaters. His role as Claudio earned him entrance into the Actors’ Equity Association, the professional stage actors’ union. Then an unusual opportunity presented itself.
“I did three shows in a row where somebody in the cast worked with this company called Only Make Believe,” says Mark. “I was fascinated and inspired by the work they did. After a month-long audition/interview process, they offered me the job, and I have been working with them ever since.”
OMB believes that freeing a child’s imagination is part of the healing process. All money comes through donations, so the performances are free to the hospitals. Each show has three actors and is about an hour long. Each team of actors performs a different show once a week for six weeks. This gives the actors and children the opportunity to bond.
“You never quite know what the kids are going to throw at you!” says Mark. “We’re there to do a show with the kids, not for them. Throughout much of the week, a lot of attention is paid to the children’s weaknesses, but for the hour we’re with them, they take their eyes off their struggles and focus on their strengths.
“During one of my first shows, we were inviting kids to come up one at a time and sing along to a song. After one or two kids came up, a deaf child eagerly volunteered. I thought, How is he going to sing along to music he can’t hear? But he came up front and started dancing, and he was beaming with pride that he got to contribute his talents! Never again will I think about what a child can’t do.”
Mark’s acting life is not without challenges.
“The world of theater is so liberal,” he says. “I have been part of many productions where, in the first couple of days of rehearsals, somebody makes an anti-God remark, and it is usually met with resounding agreement and support from the cast. I have never been good at biting my tongue in those situations. Once I share my beliefs, people have generally been very accepting and even curious.”
Some of those people are Jewish, which doesn’t prevent Mark from speaking up.
“I can’t talk to anyone very long without my Messianic faith coming up,” he says. “The reactions vary immensely. Some people get quiet and uncomfortable. I’ve had several people say, ‘Oh, you mean like a Jew for Jesus?’ And I say, ‘Yes, exactly! That’s actually a specific organization of Messianic Jews!'”
OMB provides Mark with steady, ongoing acting work, yet allows him the flexibility to do other acting. He has done a lot of Shakespeare recently and would like to do more. He’d also like to branch out into film and television.
“Wherever the path leads, I keep in mind Psalm 37:31: ‘The law of his God is in his heart; his feet do not slip.'” Mark says. “God has challenged me to just keep my eyes fixed on him, because he is the one who opens doors and closes them.”