“Bad Jews” is a full-blooded modern comedy. Long Wharf Theatre’s new production of the 2012 play by Joshua Harmon runs through March 22 and turns a sharp script into a comic tour de force.
For 80 uninterrupted minutes, “Bad Jews” gives the domestic melodrama a humane and uproariously funny update: Four characters sprawl, walk, lounge and lunge across three futons in a studio apartment. The simple set plays host to an intra-family showdown over prized heirlooms and religious identity.
The show’s outrageous turmoil is absent from the opening sequence, which introduces Jonah (Max Michael Miller) and Daphna (Keilly McQuail). They’re Jews, we learn. They’re cousins. They’re college students. They’re in his apartment in Manhattan. They’ve just come back from their grandfather Poppy’s funeral. For this stretch, “Bad Jews” is basically a one-woman show, as Jonah, catatonic, plays video games and says nothing, throwing into relief his cousin, a Vassar student who regales him with her newfound Jewish fanaticism. Daphna plans to become a rabbi, find a vegan mentor, make aliyah to Israel, join the army, marry her Israeli boyfriend, and on, and on, and on.
The force of McQuail’s performance easily sustains the play: She’s an archetypal Jewish-American princess, at once vain, overbearing and sympathetic. She kvells, she kvetches, she pontificates, all with exaggerated Orthodox-Jewish enunciation. Her long, icy glares at Jonah elicit peals of laughter from the audience. She extracts humor from throwaway lines like, “I’m not even saying, I’m just saying!”
Daphna’s presence is a dramatic conflict in itself, capable of keeping the play’s gears in motion, but the impending arrival of Jonah’s brother Liam promises to raise the stakes. Daphna is furious at Liam (Michael Steinmetz) for skipping Poppy’s funeral to go skiing in Aspen with his girlfriend Melody (Christy Escobar).
Also, she wants Poppy’s gold necklace, inscribed with the Hebrew word for “life,” which he carried through the Holocaust. As it happens, Liam intends to propose to Melody with the same necklace.
Murmurs passed through the audience as Liam and his blonde, blue-eyed girlfriend entered. A strong-willed and hardheaded Daphna finds her match in Liam, and from the moment he walks in, the two bicker. She harangues him for missing the funeral; he sneers at her religiosity; she mocks his doctorate in “contemporary Japanese youth culture” and his pert, goyish girlfriend. The stage is set for an epic showdown.
When the men leave for some fraternal bonding, Daphna doesn’t disguise her skepticism of Melody, whom she proceeds to interrogate. The result is an incredible comic bit that touches on Melody’s calf tattoo of a treble clef and moves on to her cultural heritage. Daphna asks what the derivation of the name Melody is, to which Melody replies, “Caucasian.” Prodded about where “her people” are from, Melody offers “Delaware,” setting Daphna on a tirade that ends with: “I’m asking, where did your family come from before they came to Delaware to perpetrate genocide?” It’s a warm first impression for the future in-laws.
(Full disclosure: My dad is Jewish and my mom, originally Episcopalian, is from Delaware. The older woman sitting next to me had recently lost her father, known as Poppy, who had willed his gold “Chai” necklace to a grandchild. We agreed that between us, we could have written the play.)
When the brothers return, Daphna and Liam’s antagonism explodes into a full-fledged screaming match, and the play becomes a glorified exchange of insults. Liam’s five-minute-long verbal takedown of Daphna met with the audience’s sustained applause. When Daphna has her turn to retort, she accuses him of being a self-hating Jew who preys on bimbos.
The male characters’ apathetic, teenage-y mode of social interaction rings true but doesn’t make for gripping theater. The women are more dynamic and fortunately get the lion’s share of stage time.
Everything builds toward the most dysfunctional marriage proposal imaginable, but the play’s underlying tensions over the family’s property and heritage find no real resolution.
Liam and Daphna both command sympathy: Shouldn’t he be free to marry the girl he loves? Isn’t she right to value her culture and religion? Their depth, the cousins’ grief and the recurring mentions of Poppy’s Holocaust experience lend the play moments of seriousness and elevate it above farce.
Does “Bad Jews” trade in stereotypes? Not more than any raucous comedy might. Besides, the characters feel substantial and unpredictable, even when they’re telling jokes and espousing big ideas. (Apparently you don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate “Bad Jews” — out of hundreds of audience members, I was the only one to laugh when Daphna sassily enunciated the Hebrew word for “sorry.”) Daphna and Liam may be bad Jews, but they’re also young people doing their best to grapple with the questions of growing up.
In a whimsical sermon to his extended family, the Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke of Thomas Pynchon’s “Mason & Dixon” states that “History is not … [Remembrance], for Remembrance belongs to the People.”
The past is typically observed from the macro level, taught and discussed in terms of nations, empires and governments. General history charts the clashing of armies, the rise and fall of states and the sweeping effects of natural events. Most individuals discussed in textbooks are Great Men and Women whose actions have altered in dramatic ways the path of the human species. Rarely are the stories of the so-called ordinary people remembered, let alone recounted.
“No One Remembers Alone: Memory, Migration and the Making of an American Family,” currently on display at the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, highlights the courtship of two young lovers, Abram Spiwak and Sophie Schochelman, and their experience as Russian Jewish immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century. Curated by Patricia Klindienst, “No One Remembers Alone” is a love story told through the couple’s postcards, a batch of which were rediscovered by their family in 2008, and many of which still have their original one-cent stamps.
Between 1882 and 1924, 2.6 million Eastern European Jews came to America, among whom were Sophie and Abram. In Russia in 1905, the Jewish people were blamed for a failed coup to overthrow the Romanov dynasty. A horrific pogrom ensued, and refugees poured across the border into Europe, where they were likewise unwelcome. Sophie and Abram, who had met just months before in the Russian city of Odessa, were separated in the chaos, as Sophie and her family made the 1,000-mile journey across the Atlantic. After Abram himself arrived in New York, he found her living in an apartment in the Lower East Side and immediately set about wooing her a second time.
The exhibit begins with a postcard sent August 8, 1907 and covers their relationship over the course of the next several years. Sophie and Abram’s story is a universal one — that of two young people caught in the sweep of history, bolstered by each other’s love. The postcards illustrate their relatively difficult financial situation. They squeeze in as much writing as possible to capitalize on paper, writing in tight, compressed font and scribbling messages in the margins.
The exhibit’s chief accomplishment is in illustrating Abram and Sophie’s humanity while illuminating and commenting on their time. It treats them as they are — human beings — rather than turning them into historical monuments. Over the course of their correspondence, the pervasive anti-Semitism of the 20th century remains in the background (on one occasion Abram reveals that he has been passing as a Christian to circumvent his landlord’s policy of barring Jews). Major historical events are rarely discussed. It is easy for one to envision oneself in either Sophie or Abram’s shoes.
The exhibit also does an admirable job of highlighting their love for each other — the love that sustained them through a difficult time in a strange land and that eventually spawned a family. The poignancy of the exhibit comes chiefly from one’s awareness of the trials that they faced in setting foot on American soil. Their correspondence is a typical one. They arrange dates, passionately express their affection for each other and pester each other to write more frequently. One can always sense the emotion and feeling in every one of the words they write, even when they discuss trivial matters.
On many of the postcards, Abram and Sophie sign off “I am always yours.” Thanks to “No One Remembers Alone,” their mutual promise holds true, 100 years later.
When we wear T-shirts, we don’t tend to think much about the message on them, much less how that image, slogan or trendy graphic design can be used to understand a group’s cultural identity. But the collection in the exhibit “T-Shirt Talk: The Art of Reimagining Cultural Jewish Identity” at the Slifka Center does just that. Through its presentation of a variety of T-shirts from Jewish and non-Jewish organizations alike, the exhibit explores how what we wear can be understood as a representation of ethnicity more broadly. Each T-shirt depicts a separate aspect of the Jewish identity: Most of the slogans rely on punny plays on words, certain stereotypes about the Jewish culture, or that one font that looks like it’s Hebrew but isn’t. In doing so, the exhibit not only dissects the larger meaning of these messages, but also how they’re informed by modern culture.
The exhibit is located in the airy expanse of the Slifka Chapel room. A sign that reads “Self-Awareness” introduces the first part of the exhibit, which seeks to showcase art that reflects an awareness of the Jewish culture and tradition. This portion of the exhibit displays T-shirts with slogans like, “Happy Hanukah Channuka Hakuna Fuck It,” with a Star of David at the bottom, or “I’m Jewish, wanna check?” followed by an arrow pointing downwards. I’ve never known much about Jewish culture outside of having attended maybe two bat mitzvahs. Probably because of this, I was unsure how to interpret the T-shirt; was it offensive to print “fuck” right before a picture a picture of the Star of David? If I’m being honest, I never knew how to spell Hanukah (?) either. I used to attribute that to not belonging to the culture; I had never considered that people who identified as Jewish would share my confusion.
The tone of the T-shirt was cavalier — “fuck it,” because it doesn’t matter anyway. Overall, however, it artfully spoke to larger cultural issues, like how to reconcile tradition with modern, secular American society. I found that the circumcision reference had a similar effect. After briefly entertaining the idea that someone would read the shirt and decide to actually check, I realized through referencing the cultural commonality that is circumcision, the shirt could create a sense of unity that surpassed its surface, humorous quality.
The second half of the exhibit is entitled “Cultural Appropriation.” Through this theme, the exhibit explores how aspects of Jewish culture and religion have been ingrained within pop culture today. I was surprised to see that cultural appropriation did not seem to be defined, in the context of the gallery, to be necessarily a negative thing, but rather a way of blending the understanding of Jewish culture with that of mainstream, secular/gentile culture. On this wall are shirts that display such slogans as “Get Lit,” accompanied by a picture of a menorah. Another selection is a frat tank that reads “Purple Drank” with pictures of Manischewitz, a type of Jewish wine. Purple drank references Lil Wayne’s favorite drink, which, plot twist, is not Manischewitz, but Sizzurp. In spite of this discrepancy, including Manischewitz in the picture was “a clever replacement,” according to the placard.
A third shirt had printed, again in the pseudo-Hebrew font, “I’m so” followed by the Hebrew word “chai”, pronounced, “high”. Besides understanding a general enthusiasm for both marijuana and the Hebrew alphabet, I didn’t glean much cultural meaning from the shirt’s message, and I felt that the negative connotation of cultural appropriation could categorize it. In contrast to the first half of the exhibit, which had a clearly translated cultural message, some shirts left me unclear as to their larger implications.
On the whole, “T-Shirt Talk” is an interesting and accessible foray into Jewish culture and its place in modern society. After chuckling at the cheesy puns and Googling things to understand references I was not savvy enough to understand immediately, I felt that I had gained greater insight into Jewish culture through a wholly unexpected lens.
Every year, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry hosts a holiday-themed exhibition called “Christmas Around the World.” The tradition began in 1942, when it was then meant to commemorate the efforts of the Allied powers. Today, the exhibit features over 50 unique Christmas trees in a single hall, each one decorated to represent the holiday traditions of a particular ethnic community in the city. In the center of the main rotunda, a 45-foot-tall tree stands as something of a singular attraction, but its presence is hubristic and somewhat out of place. The whole thing is meant to be interpreted as a celebration of multiculturalism.
As a child, I viewed the Christmas exhibition as particularly larger than life. To me, it was almost exotic. The blinking processional of Christmas trees was certainly more captivating than the lunar rover in the museum’s Henry Crown Space Center, or even the blinking miniature sprites that light up the Colleen Moore Fairy Castle. But that was natural, I guess — in that place of all places I was an outsider: a tiny Jewish girl from the suburbs juxtaposed against a 45-foot tree. This holiday business was new to me. In fact, “Christmas Around the World” was perhaps my first real exposure to the diverse and rightly romantic traditions of the Yuletide season.
Up until arriving at Yale, Christmas was not something I understood. I grew up in a household proud of its cultural heritage. Out of a sense of tradition, if not obligation, my family refused to adopt even the most secular manifestations of holiday traditions that were not our own. We were the practitioners of sturdy Jewish winters that gave the Festival of Lights warm and modest acknowledgment; on December 25 itself, there was Chinese food and a movie. Because of this, most things Christmas were foreign to me. I did not see the movie “Elf” until years after its release. That itself seems like a minor data point, but it’s highly emblematic of a childhood in which my parents saw even the most secular iterations of Christmas as corrosive to my nascent sense of selfhood as a Jew. It really did seem like every other 10-year-old in America had seen that movie.
By college I was Kevin Bacon in “Footloose,” ready to break free. “Let’s dance!” It was overwhelming how much Christmas I had missed. I’d missed “Home Alone” and National Lampoon, an animated Grinch and a live-action Grinch. I’d missed dozens and dozens of classic holiday albums: The Beach Boys, Elvis, The Beatles. The Trans-Siberian Orchestra! The Mormon Tabernacle Choir! And that was only the canon: the Directed Studies of Christmas culture. I soon learned there were niche Christmases to satisfy any possible interest, hobby, pastime or pursuit. Jeff Foxworthy hosts a Redneck Christmas special. There are Christmas albums for Republicans and Democrats, Trekkies and Star Wars fans. Harold and Kumar have a holiday movie, as does (excuse me) Sasha Grey.
The culture of Christmas is not cohesive, and I mean that in the most complimentary and envious way. You have no idea how vast the Christmas industrial complex is until you step outside the shtetl of the greater Chicagoland area. What is most miraculous about the holiday is that it encapsulates a hodgepodge of traditions and entertains each one without invalidating the rest.
“Christmas Around the World” opened just yesterday, Nov. 14. I say that’s not early enough. After all, it is the most wonderful time of the year.
In two weeks, I’ll hit the obscure, awkward age of 19 — a little above adult, a step below maturity — and yet, I’ll have lived 19 times, at least, died 19 times, at least, to feel a bit above the whole birthday hoopla. As my pocketbook Hinduism would have it, reincarnation is what happens when our soul moves through desire, cycling from fantasies of fame, fortune and power to love and goodness and eventually nothingness. And so, I guess you can say I’ve tumbled through the cosmic washing machine, as we all have, reincarnating in my miniature way from Oral Stage to Anal Stage to Phallic Stage or what have you. The photo albums bear witness: I’ve changed, though not so much from rock to tree to shrew to cow to me as me to me to me.
Or not. At 3, I was Shirley Temple, all long, bobbing curls and thick, red lips. At 6, we moved to America, my father, my mother and I, and in many ways we were all reborn but Shirley died; the crew-cut kids at my new kindergarten refused to accept the long-haired thing as a boy, so my “golden locks,” as I eulogize them, got the snip-snip. (Now that’s what I call an original sin.) Newly crowned with a Jewfro, I set out to recast myself as the Jewish immigrant of a century earlier — one of those huddled masses yearning to be free. Because, really, what could be more boring, more bureaucratic, than a 21st century migrant to Pittsburgh, fleeing inflation rather than pogroms? So I kept a journal, fashioning myself — as nice Jewish kids are maybe wont to do — as a survivor’s Anne Frank; inside the journal I scribbled nervously in what I imagined as the hushed, tenement-gray tones of an Ellis Island newcomer.
By around the age of 7, some testosterone must have kicked in, because that’s the age I started trotting around in circles as the self-appointed emperor of ancient Thailand, then China. For that, blame the “Eyewitness” book series, which were all the rage, and taught me everything I’ll ever need to know about ancient civilizations. For my next career — as a photographer in the Brazilian Amazon — blame National Geographic, whose monthly covers graced the walls of a bedroom I tried to remodel as a natural history museum.
Whitman and I, we contained multitudes. For those were brief, blazing lives — Shirley’s, the emperor’s, the photographer’s — each invested with the full rage and earnestness of a bourgeois childhood. With each I must have seemed to my bemused parents a pioneer of childhood, a creative monster with schizophrenic tendencies. All children are. But these double lives, these imitative fantasies, occupy the purely personal realm; on the outside, my friends and I all shuttled around banally from tennis lessons to math tutoring, where we fumbled and stuttered and missed. Yet I secretly settled into my many personae the way I settle into dreams, these days still: exquisitely, perfectly abiding my mother’s instructions to “think good thoughts.” I nitpick and obsess over the details, counting not sheep but the furniture of my dreamscape.
* * *
By the time I got bar mitzvah’d at 13, it seemed like a golden age had passed. According to Jewish custom I now counted as a full-fledged, adult member of the community, but I felt unmoored — bobbing, like the kid in the raised chair of a Hora dance. I was working so hard to keep up with my gawky, pubertal body, or waiting so anxiously for the height spurt that never came, that it was literally impossible to escape myself and literally impossible to not want to try. In one of my favorite books, “The Book of Intimate Grammar” by the Israeli novelist David Grossman, a 12-year old obsesses over both his body and Harry Houdini, whose body famously escaped spaces. The boy imitates Houdini and escapes from refrigerators, boxes, cars — but these are just rehearsals for the big break: the escape from the body. So that was kind of how I felt, except I couldn’t imitate Houdini, or anyone for that matter. I was too old for that. And that was the problem.
The trouble with adolescence is that, once you’re bound within certain contours, you have to color inside the lines. Your identity spasms for a few years, and cruelly enough, it’s predictable. Everyone else might gripe and shriek about your teenage barbarities, but at the end of the day they trivialize your condition as angst. It hurts when adults laugh off adolescents as self-obsessed when, really, you’ve got no clue what your self looks like (or smells like, or sounds like). Not to mention that you invariably fumble at focusing your so-called “self” for long enough to be able to fixate on it.
Everyone saw my so-called “identity crisis” from miles away. I couldn’t decide whether I was Israeli or American, or both, or neither. It wouldn’t have killed me to label myself an American. I could have done it long ago. English came quickly to me, and the warm multicultural embrace of my classmates would have made for a quick, painless conversion. But I’ve always insisted on being different, and remaining Israeli in America was one way to do that.
So, as a child, I parroted what I took to be my Israeli cousins’ Israeli sensibilities. I religiously followed the Argentinean telenovelas that swept the Israeli ratings. By satellite, I tuned in to Israeli TV shows to pick up the latest slang or the gesticulatory semiotics of that gesticulatory culture. During the long, dry summers I spent on a kibbutz — a Zionist twist on your classic socialist commune, where I still romp around barefoot in green hills — I conjured up some cult out of the place, and followed blindly. It’s embarrassing, now, to recall myself affecting the place’s imagined virtues: socialist stolidity, pastoral humility and swashbuckling charm — of which, of course, I’ve been disillusioned one by one.
Because I’m relatively sane, I had to stop imitating what wasn’t there. That was rough, and caused me no shortage of teenage angst. It felt lonely, too, to stop mimicking what was there — my cousins and their mannerisms — but I had my pride, and it struck me as humiliating to ape people without really understanding them. Understanding is one of those hefty philosophical concepts that lends itself to bullshit, but it’s intuitive, really. The moment my cousins started trickling into the army, which is mandatory in Israel, was the moment it hit me that there was an unbridgeable gap between us. I’ve never held a gun, or mobilized for any cause much larger than myself — my selves.
Some things you just can’t imitate.
* * *
My brother came up to campus this past weekend. He lives in Israel, where, seven years after snipping off the dreadlocks, he’s practicing corporate law. But that’s a different story. Anyways, Eyal, as he’s known, flew into New York to take the ethics component of the bar exam (which, as my dad likes to point out, sounds like an oxymoron). After spending the morning filling in bubbles in some dank auditorium at Pace University, Eyal met up with my dad and the two hopped on the Metro-North to see me in my natural habitat.
My dad left for JFK before Eyal, so my brother and I spent a few hours walking around campus, just him and me, for the first time in years. You see, Eyal’s technically my half-brother, and he’s 13 years older than me, and we’ve spent most of the past 19 years living on different continents, so our impressions of each other are episodic. I know Eyal as a sequential stream of nouns — tennis champ, soldier, dreadlocked traveler, law student, married lawyer — and, being older, he probably remembers me more fluidly, but still as a pageantry of dress-up. Sunday, as we zigzagged our way up to the Divinity School, Eyal pointed out that I’d matured, because I seemed at ease with myself. As he heaped praise on what he’d seen of Yale — the students seemed so giddy, so poised — he observed that, maybe because of the atmosphere, I’d outgrown my erstwhile misanthropy. I seemed so comfortable in my own skin.
He was right in a way and wrong in others. It’s true that I’ve wrung all the proper clichés out of my time at Yale: I’ve made the best friends I’ve ever had — people with whom I seem to share a private language and an unabashed humor. They don’t begrudge me my long stretches of solitude and I try to not begrudge them theirs. I feel like I’m flourishing in a way that would have made Aristotle proud, not to mention my favorite high school teachers. Perhaps this is what it’s supposed to feel like to be Yuval Ben-David.
But it’s funny, because my friends and I spend long hours communicating by imitation, by constant comparison of ourselves — and of our circle — to other lives and other circles. The childhood bug has come back.
* * *
This spate of games is our current preoccupation: If we were characters in a TV show — “Weeds,” “Girls,” “The West Wing,” especially “West Wing” — which would we be and why? It sounds like a question from the back of some trashy magazine, but my friends and I take this seriously. I was actually a little hurt when the overwhelming consensus of friends (and eventually, of the strangers we started asking off the streets) pegged me as “The West Wing”’s Josh Lyman, the lovingly cocky deputy chief of staff. At first, I rationalized the pick — it’s because Josh and I both have curls, it’s because we’re both Jewish, I told myself — but eventually I embraced my double, and with him his negative baggage. It was easier being called “Josh Lyman” than being called out for cockiness. They’re the same thing, really, but one’s implicit and one’s explicit, and being called Josh instead of cocky suggests my friends see me past my flaws, as a total person. Nominating one another to “West Wing” look-alikes is cathartic; it’s a way of speaking about each other, sometimes furiously, in the most generous code.
Sometimes a game is just a game, and I don’t deny that ours has all the frivolousness of one of those freaky, buffet-style plastic surgeries, where people order up Angelina Jolie’s nose and Scarlett Johansson’s eyelids and Megan Fox’s breasts. A great deal of narcissistic indulgence motivates our banter about who’s who and which character we want to be. I’d like to say that we deploy imitation for entirely different reasons than we did in childhood, but at the end of the day it’s still a means to self-reinvention.
But something’s different. Something’s new. I recently wrote a midterm paper on the postmodern condition, how it’s all about simulacrum, or the representation of things that don’t exist — copies with no original. Think video games, or life-size architectural models that replace the real thing. At Yale, we stress a lot about our futures. Whether they’re there, waiting for us. Whether they’re original, or we’re just hipsters. Our dreams are copies with no original in sight. In a funny, postmodern kind of way, maybe imitating Josh Lyman, or Hannah Horvath, or even Hannah Montana, for that matter, is one way of testing out our uncertain potentialities. Maybe it’s healthy. We’re not erasing ourselves, or replacing ourselves with other people. We’re just gingerly looking ahead.
Let’s face it. It’s hard to dream big about our futures when there’s no time to dream. Few of us take gap years to trek around and soul-search. The Kerouacs are long gone; they’re too busy rushing from one achievement to the next. Our lives are such stiffened facts; they are so consciously narrative arcs — “timelines,” as Facebook tells us — that we cut ourselves no slacks in the cords from one stage of life to the next. The common gripe about contemporary life is that we lose intimacy with each other — “hooking up” takes on too many meanings — but really we lose intimacy with ourselves. Because our profiles are always in front of us, and in front of everyone else, we lose that self-pleasuring, sophomoric power to look in the mirror by ourselves: to dwell on who we are, and change it. To get comfortable enough in our skins and admit there’s room for improvement.
To do that, maybe we need to pretend someone else is in our skin.