Modern Orthodox, Daniel Goldfarb’s new play, dramatizes an implausible episode in the life of a secular New York couple. Ben, a sweet, sensitive financier, buys an engagement ring for Hannah from a prying, self-righteous Orthodox diamond merchant. Ben winds up bullying him into removing his yarmulke before he will buy. When Ben tells Hannah what he’s done, her reaction is, Why would you do something like that?
Something about Hannah was vexing. It wasn’t quite stereotypes; by repeatedly balking at the size of the diamond, she cuts against the JAP image. But the reviews picked on her, either because she was “the least filled out character” or because actress Molly Ringwald “can’t keep up.”
Interviewing Daniel Goldfarb didn’t help. He told me he loves What Makes Sammy Run? so I read him the passage I consider The Passage, the one that articulates my own confusion: “What is a Jew? The anthropologists have proved it is not a race…. And if it were merely a religion, all Jews like me would have to be excluded. And if it is only a unit of national culture it is withering away in America.” But Goldfarb didn’t offer any deep answers about what makes a Jewish person Jewish.
I finally realized what was bothering me about Hannah: She wasn’t very “Jewish.” The three other characters somehow telegraphed their identity, but with Hannah all I knew was that her last name was Ziggelstein, she was considering a bris for her son, and she was in a play about Jewish people.
So maybe Goldfarb succeeded. He held up a mirror and said, This is what you look like, this is how you behave. The more I think about Hannah, the more I wonder what he was trying to say. Was he, like the critics, picking on her, too?