Elie Wiesel, who more than any other living writer built his international reputation on bearing witness to the Holocaust, complained back in 1989 about a recurring nightmare. “I wake up shivering,” he told me, “thinking that when we die, no one will be able to persuade people that the Holocaust occurred.”
He needn’t have worried. Twenty-five years later, Holocaust commemorations—museums, discussion groups, archives, documentaries, statues and works of art—have become, according to a recently released study by the Pew Research Center, the bedrock of modern American Jewish life, the glue that holds the community together. According to the scholar James Young, there are now more than 100 Holocaust museums, educational institutions, and “tolerance” centers throughout the country—many more than in any other nation, including Israel, to which many of the survivors fled. As a fundamental touchstone of American Jewish identity, the Holocaust has also become, for better or worse, grist for the theater. Two one-act, 90-minute, off-Broadway plays currently tackle the Holocaust’s impact on successive Jewish generations with unflinching, disquieting dark humor, with pathos and originality.
The less successful of the two fine works is The Model Apartment, partly because of its age. Written by Donald Margulies in the 1980s, the play opened in Los Angeles in 1988 and hadn’t been staged in New York in 18 years. A dramatic departure from the playwright’s better-known works—Dinner With Friends and Time Stands Still—Model Apartment is a surreal drama about an elderly couple who retire to Florida from Brooklyn. But they cannot leave behind them memories of their trauma, or the living specter of their aggressive, demented daughter.
Lola (Kathryn Grody) and husband Max (Mark Blum) have just moved to Miami, but they have been in full flight for years. Both are desperate to escape not only New York’s icy winters and memories of the Holocaust that they both survived, but the increasingly insupportable burden of caring for Debby, their obscenely obese, mentally deranged daughter. Now in her 20s, Debby (an exuberant Diane Davis) is a constant reminder that there can be no safe harbor. She dominates the physical stage and emotional space of the play as she terrorizes her parents. Debby, of course, is their creation, the embodiment of her parents’ Holocaust-driven fears, the repository of their guilt, of those terrible camp stories she’s heard ad nauseum. Like their tormented memories, Debby will not let go. She blames her parents for her own insanity and her grotesque physique, playing adeptly on her parents’ survivor’s guilt.
Debby’s obesity, her grossness, foul language, sexual aggression, and celebrity fantasies are supposed to be a pathetic plea for help, a response to her all-consuming loneliness, but it doesn’t make surviving her tantrums any easier for her parents, and at moments, for the audience. As she bounds, elephant-like, across the stage—a female Michelin man—the energetic, heavily padded Ms. Davis reminds Lola and Max that escape is futile. The “model” studio apartment by the sea in which the three of them are forced to co-exist for the night enhances their claustrophobia. They are constrained to spend the night there because the condo Max and Lola bought long-distance is not ready. But the model apartment is not what it seems to be. “The fridge is a fake,” Max complains. Candlesticks and even ashtrays are glued down to prevent their removal.
Max escapes only in sleep, which Lola complains he does all too well. “Where, where do you go? What goes on in there? You got some chippie in there with you, Max?” Lola asks her sleeping husband, who is hardly the wandering type. “Sleep is your mistress. With her you can be safe. She’ll tell you all the time how big and strong you are. I don’t tell you, right? No, she tells you. With her, you can talk. With me … no talk.”
Neil, Debby’s black, homeless boyfriend (Hubert Point-du-Jour), has never heard of the Holocaust. He has followed Debby to Florida just as she has pursued her parents. His cluelessness about Debby’s life and her parents’ past separates him from the three of them far more than race or poverty.
Max, Lola, and Debby are each haunted by the Holocaust in different ways. Max is guilty about having survived by hiding in the forest while his wife and infant daughter—now transformed in sleep to a soulful, beautiful young Deborah (also played by an unpadded Ms. Davis)—perished in a camp. The perfect daughter he lost appears to him now only in his dreams, which presumably explains his love affair with sleep. Lola, who survived Bergen Belsen, cannot sleep at all. Her recurring nightmare is the guilt she feels about not having looked back as her mother was taken away, presumably to a gas chamber. “I didn’t look,” she says. “She called me, her voice was torn up from screaming, but I walked, I kept on walking. I didn’t look back. Like my own mother was a stranger. I didn’t look. … I didn’t look .”
Lola’s most self-redeeming memory is a fantasy. She was in Bergen with “Anna,” yes, “little Anna Frank of Amsterdam,” who secretly kept a second diary at the camp, at Lola’s urging. Had the diary survived, the whole world would have known about Lola, Anne Frank’s muse, her heroine, just as they now know about Anne Frank. Lola would no longer have been an anonymous survivor among the 6 million. Her loss, her suffering, Little Anna’s death from typhus in her arms would not have been pointless. “She wrote about me!” Lola says. “I could’ve given people hope. But my story, Lola’s story, told by Anne Frank, went up in flames with her at Belsen. The Belsen diary. The other diary. The diary nobody knows about.”
Debby repeats the story verbatim, echoing, and sometimes finishing her mother’s sentences. She has heard this tale and others like it a thousand times before. Because of such stories, Debby, too, has memories of an event she never experienced. Twisted renditions of them have consumed her; she has internalized and populated them with Hollywood celebrities who are also being chased by Nazis. “They’re all inside me,” Debby wails. “All of them. Anne Frank. The 6 million. … When my stomach talks, it’s them talking.”
Margulies’ play must have been far more powerful when it was first staged and such themes as survivor guilt were less of a cliché. But despite terrific performances by the cast, a near-perfect set and costumes—kudos to Lauren Helpern and Jenny Mannis—and Keith Parham’s lighting, the work feels forced for 21st-century Americans, steeped in the culture of Holocaust centers and Spielberg’s Hollywood. Not so Bad Jews, a ferocious work first performed at the Roundabout Theater in New York last year about three young Jewish cousins who meet after the death of their grandfather, Poppy. Written by Josh Harmon, the script so takes for granted the Holocaust’s dominance in modern Jewish life that Liam (Michael Zegen) can insult Daphna, his obnoxious first cousin (Tracee Chimo) by accusing her of trying to guilt-trip him into giving her what she wants. “Don’t Holocaust me!” Liam chides Daphna as the two of them fight over who will be get to keep their grandfather’s chai necklace, the sole possession either of them desires. The proverbial elephant-in-the play—the Holocaust that beloved Poppy survived—is so omnipresent that using it as fodder in an argument is regarded by all three cousins as uncouth.
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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Judith Miller, Tablet Magazine’s theater critic, is the author of the memoir The Story: A Reporter’s Journey.
Judith Miller, Tablet Magazine’s theater critic, is the author of the memoirThe Story: A Reporter’s Journey.