Holocaust-ed: How the Defining Event of American Jewish Identity Plays Off-Broadway
Two fine one-act plays, ‘Bad Jews’ and ‘The Model Apartment,’ tackle the Shoah with unflinching dark humor
We know these characters, as Harmon hilariously describes them in his play notes. Diane Feygenbaum, or Daphna, as she now insists on being called, is “2/3 body, 1/3 hair.” And not just any hair. But “thick, intense, curly, frizzy, long brown hair. Hair that clogs a drain after one shower. Hair you find on pillows and in corners of the room and in your refrigerator six months after the head from which it grew last visited. Hair that could not be straightened even if you had four hours and three hairdressers double-fisting blow driers. Hair that screams: Jew.”
She takes pride in her whiney New York accent, her humble origins, her new-found sense of being Jewish following a Birthright trip to Israel. The 22-year-old daughter of stingy schoolteachers who have clearly sacrificed to send her to Vassar, she intends to move to Israel and marry Gilad, her Israeli boyfriend. She deserves to inherit Poppy’s chai, she tells her younger cousin Jonah (Philip Ettinger)—who has “less brain, more brawn, more heart” than elder brother Liam—because she, and she alone, cares deeply about being Jewish—just like Poppy. His chai is a symbol of survival. Daphna reveals that Poppy kept his father’s gift to him under his tongue in the camps and then later gave it to their grandmother in lieu of the ring he could not afford to buy when he proposed marriage. Stubborn and annoying, Daphna is determined to have it.
Liam, 25, is equally determined that she will not. Described in Harmon’s play notes as a “U of Chicago Asian studies Ph.D. student” with “as much of a sense of humor as an overdue library book,” Liam tells Jonah that he intends to give the chai to his non-Jewish girlfriend, Melody (Molly Ranson), whom he has brought along to the studio apartment on the upper West Side to be with him as he sits shiva. Having missed the funeral while skiing in Aspen, a $1,500 snowboard tucked casually under his arm as he enters the stage with Melody, Liam offers no apology for his absence. He is cousin Daphna’s archenemy, her physical and intellectual bookend—a wealthy, assimilated Jew with horn-rimmed glasses who sneers at all things overtly Jewish.
Daphna instantly loathes sweet, pert, pretty Melody, whose blonde, stick straight page-boy hair is perfectly coiffed and fastened—for extra cuteness, Harmon notes—with a barrette. The treble clef tattoo on her leg, her accent, manner, and clothes—she “dresses like she was conceived and fucking live-water birthed in a Talbot’s,” Daphna later denounces her—scream “shiksa,” which, as Daphna believes, is why intellectually arrogant, self-loathing Liam so loves her.
Liam and Daphna go at each other mercilessly for 90 riveting minutes, using black gut-wrenching humor to explore what it means to be Jewish in contemporary America. Daphna yells that Liam may not have lit a menorah since the ’90s and may call himself an atheist who looks down on such tribal Jewish rituals, but he will suddenly discover his Jewish roots “the second anyone starts a little Israel-Palestine discussion,” she says. “It’s like, find me a stopwatch and let’s count to 10 because it won’t even take that long before I hear, ‘As a Jew … ’ ” because then you’re a Jew, but only when you can use it to bash all things Jewish.” Distancing himself from his tribe, she accuses him (not inaccurately), enables him to “to stand a little taller” and “puts a little pep” in his step.
The play’s last 15-minutes are an utter surprise. But Harmon’s small jewel raises huge questions about what it means to be Jewish in contemporary America. Has being Jewish come down to showing up at the funerals of relatives who survived the Holocaust? Does it require the invention of new rituals and benchmarks? Knowing Hebrew? Does it mean weeping at Schindler’s List and laughing at Mel Brooks movies? Are you a “Bad Jew” if you don’t observe Jewish traditions? If you marry outside the faith? If you are a racist, and cruel and indifferent to the plight of the poor and less fortunate? If you remain indifferent to injustice? Are you a “Bad Jew” if you think that Israel can do no wrong—or as Liam would have it, specializes in oppressing hapless Palestinians? Is being Jewish synonymous with eating lox and bagels on weekends, Chinese food on Sundays, taking a day off on Yom Kippur, and referring to Rosh Hashanah as “the holidays”? By that measure, half of New York would qualify as Jewish.
One thing is clear, though: You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s—or to love Bad Jews. Don’t miss this play.
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The late critic, my father, professor, and bon vivant is the unwitting star of a Berluti ad campaign