Particular or universal? ‘Bad Jews’ dramatizes an old cultural and religious dilemma
From left, Lila Hood, Austin Rogers, Jeanette Deutsch, Noah James / Enci Box

LOS ANGELES—In the brutally, savagely dark comedy Bad Jews, now playing at the Odyssey Theatre here, playwright Joshua Harmon puts a contemporary spin on a very old question that haunts any community that seeks to preserve its culture throughout the millennia. Does our tradition exist exclusively for ourselves, or can we share our most transcendent values with the entire world?

Sages from ancient times have posed that same question in different forms. The scholar Hillel, who lived in the century just before the birth of Jesus, is popularly known for asking, “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” In these few words that seem to encapsulate the whole human condition of the individual living in the world, Hillel demands constant “criticism and self-criticism,” a continuous process of checking in with oneself, and with the community with which one identifies, to see how well we are doing.

Hillel is also famous for formulating the ethic of reciprocity, sometimes referred to as the Golden Rule: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah” (the five Books of Moses). “The rest is commentary: Go and learn.” Jesus restated Hillel’s principle in the affirmative, which may be more familiar to some readers: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” (Personally I like Hillel’s version better because it specifically reminds you of what you wouldn’t like done to you, but I leave further comment on this point to the theologians.)

Another Biblical quote applies in this play as well, one which is reiterated no fewer than 36 times, more than the command to love God or keep the Sabbath. In Leviticus 19:34 we read: “The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as a native from among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God.” As Yoram Dori has written rather pungently in the Jerusalem Post, “Judaism is a way of life and not a theatrical show in which a small number of disgusting people wrap themselves in prayer shawls, pretend to be immersed in learning from holy books but close their hearts to these important words.”

Bad Jews ricochets between its two leading characters: The rude, manipulative, overbearing, arrogant self-declared “super-Jew” Daphna Feygenbaum (Jeanette Deutsch) with an unseen boyfriend in the Israeli army; and her more secular cousin Liam Haber (Noah James), a University of Chicago grad student focusing on youth culture in Japan who has a Gentile girlfriend Melody (Lila Hood). They’re back in New York City after their grandfather’s recent death, uncomfortably all camping out at the small but pricey apartment belonging to Liam’s brother Jonah (Austin Rogers), and are grappling ferociously over possession of a treasured family heirloom with deeply felt family significance, trying to determine who is more deserving of inheriting it.

Bad Jews, Harmon’s first play, a fast-paced 90-minute romp across the secular-religious divide, quickly took off both in New York and in regional theatre, including a 2015 run at the Geffen Theatre in L.A. It combines a similar mix of high-strung personalities with the familiar (though dated) Jewish nebish type as we saw in his Significant Other, also now playing at the Geffen.

(Bad Jews and Other Stories is a well received collection of short fiction by Gerald Shapiro unrelated to this play.)

Cultural historians have often remarked on the tenacity of the Jewish people, never very numerous in any period of its history, holding on when virtually all of the civilizations from the Middle East of 3000 years ago are now but subjects of anthropological study. One explanation for this phenomenon is the Darwinian necessity to adapt: To discard or de-emphasize certain beliefs and practices (animal sacrifices, to take an obvious example), while incorporating ideas and customs from the surrounding peoples that the Jews encountered (such as languages, diet and music). Starting with Moses’s wife Zipporah (or Tzipora), who was the daughter of Jethro, the Midianite priest and the spiritual founder and ancestor of the Druze, there has always been genetic exchange with other peoples. There is no such thing as a Jewish “race,” although there are certain concentrations of genetic features among many Jewish communities.

Intermarriage is one of the themes in Bad Jews. Daphna doesn’t seem to recall that passage about the “stranger” from the Torah she claims to love so well. It is also one of the most controversial themes running through contemporary Jewish life: Is it a “pollution” of the Jewish people to create “half-Jewish” children (and then one-fourth Jews in the next generation)? Daphna actually uses the word “inferior.” There are congregations and organizations still today that refuse membership to intermarried Jews: It is reason enough in some Jewish sects for expulsion from the family. A Jew and a non-Jew cannot legally marry in Israel.

Yet in modern times a contrary view has emerged. Given the high intermarriage rate that is not going to vanish overnight, perhaps a better approach would be to welcome the “stranger” (what a concept!) and see if over time the beauty of Jewish life, in any of its variegated forms, might offer an attractive home for them. Voilà! Another Jew (by choice) and Jewish children!

The particular excludes: Judaism, Israel, the Holocaust, and family heirlooms are only for Jews according to strict definitions—which notoriously shift according to the criteria or psychology of the judge. The universal includes: Judaism’s spiritual treasures and historical experience belong to the world. “If I am only for myself, what am I?” There is much in the interpretation of the Holocaust slogan “Never again!” and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that illustrates this essential dichotomy in thinking.

Harmon recalls an especially unmoving Holocaust remembrance event that he attended, full of inauthentic, sterile clichés, and he wondered “how my generation would remember the Holocaust, and whether or not we’re prepared to handle that responsibility.” That, he says, “probably laid the groundwork for this play.”

Bad Jews suggests that there is a pluralism of bad Jews here: It’s not just the intermarrying Liam, and not just Daphna who makes no secret of despising the “stranger” Melody, and perhaps it includes Jonah as well, who resents being placed in the middle of this fight to the death and who indifferently expresses no claim on the item of jewelry in question until he is finally forced to choose. Curiously, in terms of Jewish values of tolerance and acceptance, maybe it’s Melody, stemming from many generations of Northern Europeans of different nationalities who settled in Delaware, who, although she has her own phobias, comes off the best!

The particular vs. universal dialectic plays out in almost every culture in similar ways: Indigenous peoples trying to preserve their identity against assimilation by majority encroachment; Europeans raising questions about welcoming war refugees—Jews, Syrians, Muslims; Make America Great Again, translating into racist, misogynist, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ policies.

Dana Resnick directs these three cousins and the non-Jewish girlfriend in an often hilarious farrago of words and emotions, passions and mattresses. Brought up in a many-sided Jewish atmosphere, she understands what it means to be a “bad Jew”: when “we don’t fast on Yom Kippur or our children don’t know Hebrew,” for example. Opening night of the play, indeed, occurred on a Saturday night (April 21) just around sundown as the Sabbath was ending. You’d have to be a “bad Jew” just to drive and get to the theatre on time!

“This is the second time I’ve directed this play, and it triggers my own questions about where we should draw the line in the fight for what we believe. It’s riveting to watch how far people will go when their authenticity is being challenged.”

“If we could be little less vicious to each other and judge a bit less,” she told the local Jewish Journal, “we’d be better Jews.”

Bad Jews features set designer David Offner, lighting designer Tom Ash, sound designer Marisa Whitmore, costume designer Vicki Conrad, prop master Josh La Cour and dramaturg Arnab Banerji. They’ve created a fine, engaging production that is particularly successful and universally understandable!

Performances of Bad Jews take place on Fri. and Sat. at 8 pm and Sun. at 2 pm through June 17. Additional weeknight performances are scheduled on Weds., May 9; Thurs., May 17; Weds., May 30; and Thurs., June 14, all at 8 pm. Talkbacks with the cast follow the performances on Weds., May 9; Fri., May 18; and Sun., May 27. There will be three “Tix for $10” performances on Fri., April 27; Weds., May 30; and Thurs., June 14. The third Fri. of every month (May 18 and June 15) is wine night at the Odyssey: Enjoy complimentary drinks and snacks and mingle with the cast after the show.

The Odyssey Theatre is located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles 90025. For reservations and information, call (310) 477-2055 or go to OdysseyTheatre.com.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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