BY HIS OWN admission, Motti Lerner was not the obvious choice to adapt an Isaac Bashevis Singer short story into a play. True, it probably made sense on paper; Lerner is a celebrated playwright and screenwriter in his native Israel. But there was one rather significant obstacle to overcome: Lerner didn't care for Singer's work.

Or so he thought.

"A little background," Lerner begins. "I was born in Israel and I belong to a generation that was educated that everything that has to do with Jews in the Diaspora [i.e., Jewish exile from Palestine] is not to be considered seriously. Literature that had to do with the Diaspora is bad literature. The image of the Jews in the Diaspora is bad." Singer was a Polish Jew who wrote in Yiddish (the language of European Jews) and, according to the 55-year-old playwright, therefore didn't jibe with the ideology of the nascent Israeli state: "In Israel, we should be a different nation that has nothing to do with the Diaspora. We should be living with a totally different set of values."

Lerner admits he never questioned his literary bias until approached five years ago by Singer's son, Israel Zamir, to write a play from the Singer short story "Two." "I thought, you know, 'I'm not going to do a Bashevis Singer story. I'm a born Israeli; I wouldn't do such a thing!' " Lerner recalls. "But he told me a few things about the story and, when I read it, I was shocked how wonderful the story was." In Singer's tale, a sexually confused young man poses as his lover's wife so that they can live together. The notion of love transcending gender reminded Lerner of Shakespeare's gender-swapping comedies, and, intrigued by the theatrical possibilities, he accepted the assignment.

The resulting play, "Passing the Love of Women," bears only passing resemblance to the source material. "I needed to have a plot which is developing from the relationship -- the short story didn't have it," Lerner says. "Also, when Bashevis Singer wrote the story in the '50s, there was no homosexual discourse. Today, it's a different era, and there is a homosexual discourse and we can't ignore it. So the main issues of the play do not appear in the story: For example, the struggle of Ziesl [Karl Miller] and Azriel [David Covington] to keep being Orthodox Jews and to find a solution [for] how to be Orthodox Jews and practice homosexuality." (Lerner's modifications were approved by Zamir, officially listed as the play's co-writer.)

The story's religious content required a lot of research for Lerner, a self-described secular Jew with "a strong Israeli identity and a weak Jewish identity." While Lerner believes the Old Testament provides little wiggle room on the topic of homosexuality (it's a no-no), the Jewish mysticism of the Kabbalah lends itself to novel interpretation. "In the ideas of the mystics," he says, "souls are created underneath the throne of God with no gender, and the matchmaking is done there. Only when they go down to Earth, only then [do] they get their genders." In "Passing," Ziesl argues that his soul was matched with Azriel's in heaven and is carrying out that match in the gender that God assigned to him, which cannot be considered a sin.

Lerner's provocative ideas helped make "Passing" a hit in Israel, where it has run in repertory at the national theater for the past three years. But the playwright says the experience has given him more than just another success on his resume: It has reacquainted him with the traditions rejected by his great-grandparents when they emigrated from Europe to Palestine. "At the age of 50, I was mature enough, for the first time in my life, to read literature written by these 'abroad' Jews," Lerner says. "I began a journey into a culture which I always refused to recognize. Suddenly, I felt Jewish again."

David Covington, left, as Azriel and Karl Miller as Ziesl play Jewish lovers grappling with their devotion to their religion in "Passing the Love of Women" at Theater J.