How a mob hit at Rao’s restaurant changed the life of a Jewish actress

(New York Jewish Week) – On December 22, 2003, a Jewish actress and singer in her twenties named Rena Strober was doing what she did every Monday night: mingling with a celebrity crowd at Rao’s, a Notoriously exclusive Italian restaurant on East 114th Street. At the turn of the millennium, he was probably most famous for his unobtainable reservations.

Every week, Strober — as a guest of former NYPD detective turned movie producer Sonny Grosso, who “owned” a Monday night table at the restaurant — had fun with Billy Joel, former President Bill Clinton and Martha Stewart. After dining at the Clam Casino and Lemon Chicken, at one point in the evening, she stood by the jukebox and sang the “Funny Girl” song “Don’t Rain on My Parade” to thundering rain. ‘applause.

But this particular Monday night was different from all the others. Because this December evening, shortly after Strober finished what had become known among Rao regulars as “his song”, gunfire broke out: Louis “Louie Lump Lump” Barrone, 67, shot Albert Circelli, 37, a “made man” with the Lucchese crime family – allegedly because Circelli insulted Strober’s singing.

Overnight, Strober went from a rising Broadway actress — she had been part of the national touring company “Les Miserables” — to a front-page tabloid. “Reporters were literally knocking on my door, trying to get an exclusive with ‘a crowd-hit singer,'” she recalled. “Late night talk show hosts would make jokes about it in their opening monologues. I was hearing from people I hadn’t heard from in years. (Many of those people, she adds, wanted her help getting reservations at Rao’s.)

Now, 19 years later, Strober has turned that traumatic, uniquely New York experience into a light, musical, and very personal short, “Spaghetti and Matzo Balls!” Inspired by her off-Broadway solo piece of the same name, in this new 30-minute short, Strober taps into her Jewish roots, showcases her singing talents, and recounts how that violent night at Rao’s house led her down an unexpected path. of self-discovery. It premieres online on Sunday, October 2.

The violent evening and its aftermath proved traumatic and life-changing for Strober, who, as gunfire erupted, dove under the table. Fearing for her life, she found herself audibly saying the Shema, the foundational prayer of Judaism – although she rejected her Jewish identity at university because, as Stober, a theater student, puts it, “I pray Stephen Sondheim”.

Strober, who had grown up in a kosher family near the Catskills, put a stop to her Monday nights at Rao’s and, after struggling to get her life back in New York and on the ‘Les Miserables’ tour, she finally got through. rekindled his connection to his Jewish identity.

These days, Strober, an actress and cantorial soloist, is a mom of 5 and lives in Los Angeles — though, she says, “I miss New York every day.” She is currently at the Cantorial School of the “Transdenominational” Academy for the Jewish Religion. Before “spaghetti and matzo balls!” screening, New York Jewish Week caught up with Strober to discuss his Jewish identity, what Rao’s scene was like in the early 2000s, and how a single moment can change the course of an entire life.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

New York Jewish Week: Thinking back to that night at Rao’s, is there a clear “before” and “after” in your life?

Rena Strober: Yes, in many ways. Emotionally, there was a lot of post-traumatic stress. I was followed by the press — there was that. But then, after getting my bearings, I started living life a little differently. I was very cheeky after that. I was like, ‘You know what? Life is short. I’m just gonna do this. I’m not gonna be so worried about stuff.

I took the road again [with “Les Miserables”] because New York was very aggressive with me. It was very noisy. And every audition I went to, people just wanted me to talk about it, “Whoa, were you that girl? Oh my God.” And I was like, “But wait – I’m an actor.” So I left for a while, and that’s when I started going to synagogues and meeting all these people. And I didn’t suddenly become baal teshuva [newly religious]you know, but I kind of found my own way of being Jewish, because it brought me to a safe place.

Is there a direct link between this evening and the way you perceive your Jewish identity today?

One hundred percent… I read somewhere that after having a child, your little DNA changes – like everything in you, your or your cells change. And I feel the same [with my response] to the trauma – my cells have changed. Everything was different, how I looked at the world, you know? I really changed a lot and then when I sent the original script to [the film’s director] Stuart [Robinson], he replied and said, “It’s all about the Shema.” And I was like, “What?” And he said, “That moment, when you said the Shema, that’s the whole story.” I was like, “Oh, you’re right – that’s it.”

And then I realized, when I do morning tefillah [prayers] at my daughter’s Hebrew school, they say the Shema. And I always talk about what it means to listen – and not just to listen outward, but to listen inward. And that’s just crazy, when you think about it. These are the words I spoke that night and then what happened over the many years that followed.

How “Spaghetti and Matzo Balls!” going from an off-Broadway one-man show to a short film?

When I hit the road again [with “Les Miserables”] I was dealing with all this PTSD. And I was like, “Where do I put it?” And then it came to my mind: I was like, I have to tell my story… [Originally] it was a very different room. He had many of the same ideas. But it was more about my nights at Rao’s, the nice people – that very quickly glossed over the shoot.

What is the message of the film?

What it takes to reconnect to who you are – be it your religion, your sexuality, your identity, your belief system in general. It’s so cliché, but often times it can take cancer, or the death of a loved one, or trauma… I know a lot of people during COVID who have rediscovered their love of sourdough or rediscovered their love of music. So maybe it was this universal trauma. My trauma occurs in this crazy story. But I want people to be able to zoom out and then go back to whatever it takes. Maybe he doesn’t need to take something [traumatic] like this so that you spend a moment listening [to yourself]. It’s funny because “shema” means “listen”. Spending time, listening to what we need. We’ve all spent so many years in quarantine having to listen, and I think that’s why I wanted to do it now.

Union of Reform Judaism Hosts Free Online Premiere of “Spaghetti and Matzo Balls!” — written by and performed Rena Strober and directed by Stuart K. Robinson — this Sunday, October 2 at 7:30 p.m. Details and registration here.

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