Diaspora, a new off-Broadway play about Masada, spans millennia. It vacillates across time in the iconic Israeli fortress, from American college students on Birthright to ancient separatists gradually losing footing against the Romans. The residents of Masada, particularly the women, question their leader’s assurances that God will deliver them. The Birthright students question why they’re on the trip, and what it means to be Jewish, both independent of Israel and in the face of huge political controversy.
Or that’s the theory, anyway.
In the interest of full disclosure, I was ambivalent about seeing this play. The press materials were troubling as to an understanding of Jewishness, including dates labelled as A.D. (the play itself used C.E.), and an online poster that printed Hebrew backwards. The playwright, Nathaniel Sam Shapiro, is most known for his play about the Columbine massacre from the perspectives of the murderers. The idea of a provocateur taking on the entirety of Jewish identity and the politics of Israel made me nervous. So, to cover more perspectives, I brought a friend who’s both a theater professional and leftist activist, a self-described “non-Zionist.”
We both left angry, but it had little to do with the politics of Israel-Palestine.
At the show, a lengthy playwright’s note in the show’s program explains that Shapiro’s basis for the piece is the work of Josephus Flavius, and The Masada Myth, a book by Nachman Ben-Yehuda that alleges that for political reasons, the Israeli government softened the story of the mass suicide there to erase the fact that the rebels were extremists who, among other things, slaughtered other Jews.
Starting from that perspective, the play (directed by Saheem Ali) tries to engage in both nuances of American Jewish culture and the history and politics of Israel, but what it does instead is give brief mentions to a series of surface arguments. What it rather focuses on is who on Birthright has performed sexual acts on whom. Full of unlikable characters each representing a different half-baked perspective, the show is offensive to everyone and no one.
Perhaps the playwright meant to provoke when a character blithely discusses the thigh gaps of the photos of Holocaust victims from a recent Yad Vashem visit, or when one young woman excitedly calls her partner a kike during sex. And these moments were memorable, sure. But was it deliberate to depict young American Jewry as a privileged, thoughtless, monolith?
The playwright’s note emphasizes that the female survivors of Masada are the playwright’s heroes, and that he wanted to tell their story. It’s funny then, that these women onstage are wooden, and the Birthright female attendees are one-dimensional, sexist caricatures. To be fair, the men are horrendous too, but their stereotypes tend to be of white college bros, and not the specifically Jewish spoiled, entitled miasma that clings to the archetype of the JAP (a word I hesitate to use, but the play does). The Israeli soldiers (with terrible accents), suggest the complex situation of the nation they serve, but they’re mostly defined by their stoicism, and instead we need to hear young men declare that they would have brought guns to Masada and, like, destroyed the Romans, bro. Even the one leftist character, the only American who seriously considers politics at all, is ultimately self-centered, stuck in her own fantasy of Palestinian liberation and what it all means for her.
Recent plays about American Jewish identity all have the feeling of being trapped in a room with a shrill family with as little self-awareness as they have volume control. Bad Jews pitted the religious against the secular. If I Forget featured a resentful family bickering over everything from the Holocaust to Israel. Diaspora contains few characters intelligent enough to hold a reasonable argument about anything. It’s baffling to me to see the same broad stereotypes of sitcoms in what is supposed to be serious drama, time and time again.
I have yet to see an onstage reflection of the nuanced, thoughtful, complex approaches to Jewish identity that millennials espouse, across a huge range of observances, politics, and personalities. The common thread is always a struggle to develop deeper understanding and grow as a Jewish American. In short, self-deprecation as the focus of Jewishness feels dated. Yet, these playwrights (and at least the authors of the three plays I referenced are all men) tend to be closer to my age, and surely their experiences are valid. Perhaps introspective, boundary-exploring Judaism is a cultural bubble of its own. Still, I would invite these playwrights to visit it sometime.
Diaspora officially opens Friday, November 17, and runs at the Gym at Judson theater, 243 Thompson St., New York, through December 23rd.