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The Jewish Fringe

A look at four plays from New York’s Fringe Festival

Ari M. Brostoff
August 17, 2009
Left to right: Ruby Joy (Chaya), Melanie Zoey Weinstein (Lili), and Sarah-Doe Osborne (Or) in Sex and the Holy Land(Joshua Z. Weinstein)
Left to right: Ruby Joy (Chaya), Melanie Zoey Weinstein (Lili), and Sarah-Doe Osborne (Or) in Sex and the Holy Land(Joshua Z. Weinstein)

This year’s New York International Fringe Festival, which opened Friday and runs through the end of the month, offers several explicitly Jewish-themed offerings. Among them are a one-woman show about a Viennese modern dancer who fled the Nazis, a musical about the Baal Shem Tov, a comedy about college friends spending their junior year abroad in Israel, and a satire about leftist Jewish academics. (We missed Jesus Ride, a one man-show about a secular Jewish dude who takes a job designing a motion simulation ride about Jesus’ life and, in preparation, sees 33 movies about Mr. Christ.) Here are Tablet Magazine’s brief reviews. Information and tickets are available at the festival’s website.

A Time to Dance
Lafayette Street Theater, four remaining performances

“I am a dance therapist!” Libby Skala, portraying her real-life great-aunt Lisl Polk, announces ecstatically in a German accent at the beginning of her one-woman show about Polk’s life. In a previous solo show, Lilia!, Skala played her grandmother, the Oscar-nominated actress Lilia Skala. Here, Lisl, the vivacious little sister in Lilia’s shadow, steps into the limelight. Born in 1902, she’s a creature of those first years of the 20th century when Europeans believed in progress rather than doom. Her father is “the largest distributor of women’s notions in the Austro-Hungarian empire,” who makes his fortune as the first mass-marketer of a new-fangled kind of button, “the shnap.” We don’t learn right away that he’s also Jewish—though Lisl and her sisters are raised with their mother’s Catholicism—but, given the era, it’s hard not to dread two impending world wars. The play, however, opens with Lisl as an old woman in New York, about to retire from a long career in New York teaching dance to special-needs children. The gloom that’s about to settle over Europe, coupled with Lisl’s sunniness, creates suspense in a story whose ending we already know.

As it turns out, Lisl’s good luck—or is it hardiness disguised as good cheer, or, as she comes to believe, fate?—propels her through historical calamity with relative ease. During World War I, she is sent to Denmark on what she calls the “program for the starving Austrian children.” At the end of the war, her father calls to tell her that by law she must return, but he can’t even afford to send her train fare; his entire fortune is now worth nothing. But it turns out the woman she’s been staying with has been setting aside money for her each week, so she returns with a stash of Danish currency—which turns out to be the only currency in Europe that still has value. “I’m now the richest person in all of Vienna!” she exclaims triumphantly. Similar good fortune, though more precarious, gets her and her husband to New York after the Anschluss. Anne Frank believed people were really good at heart, but Lisl is more like Pollyanna, believing that everything’s just golly gee going to be fine. And for her, it is.

Sex and the Holy Land
The Players Theatre, four remaining performances

Melanie Zoey Weinstein, a 23-year-old playwright and performer, has pulled off an impressive feat with this play, which started as a senior thesis project at the University of Miami: she’s breathed new life into the trope of the Jewish mother. That old saw is as overused as they come (the phrase “Jewish mother” appears in the descriptions of at least two Fringe Festival plays this year), but in Weinstein’s hands the Jewish mother isn’t just pushy and overbearing—she also represents the entire Jewish past. (Indeed, it requires a mini-Greek chorus to portray her.) Lili, Weinstein’s alter ego, is a sort of ditzy female Alex Portnoy, who expects as a liberated young woman to be having lots of awesome casual sex, but can’t have an orgasm because she feels the “weight of the Jewish people on her shoulders.” So, like Alex—and accompanied by a couple of jappy childhood friends—she sets off for the sexual paradise of Israel.

Of course, traveling to Israel with your day school-educated friends Chaya and Or to hook up with soldiers isn’t, in the age of Birthright, all that rebellious, but this fact is lost on Lili and her friends. “We’re not with Birthright,” she tells a (Palestinian) crush scornfully. “We’re independent.” Some familiar types are well-lampooned as the friends continue their journey of self-discovery—a cute, narcissistic American who’s made aliyah and is full of stories from his IDF service; a Bedouin who calls Lili a “beautiful white flower” while trying to take off her blouse; and Lili’s own friends, who may aspire to be the chic ladies of Sex and the City but are actually more like a junior edition of the falling-down drunks on AbFab. At the end of the play—spoiler alert—Lili achieves orgasm with help from what Chaya has earlier referred to as “kosher cock,” while the rest of the cast breaks into a niggun. Whether this makes you laugh hysterically or cringe painfully is likely a good litmus test for your reaction to this play.

The Secret of Our Souls: A Kabbalistic Love Story
Minetta Lane Theatre, three remaining performances

The Secret of Our Souls opens promisingly with a caped, mustachioed villain introducing himself—in song—as The Adversary, otherwise known as Satan. When he sings an ode to good old-fashioned anti-Semitism, there’s a suggestion that Mel Brooks-style historical slapstick will follow. Alas, the musical, which tells the story of the pious marriage between Hasidism founder Israel ben Eliezer (later known as the Baal Shem Tov) and his wife, Chana, quickly turns out to be unbearably pious itself. A Fiddler on the Roof for the Kaballah Center era, it takes the fun, the humor, and the internal tensions out of Anatevka and replaces them with milquetoast spirituality and lyrics like, “Oy, oy, oy, it’s hard to be a Jew / Sometimes you feel so guilty, no matter what you do.” The Baal Shem Tov, in this telling, is the Jesus of the Carpathian Mountains, converting robbers who try to kill him to his path of righteousness, raising the dead, and even doing Christ one better by making peace between his ragamuffin followers and the Jewish establishment. Satan, meanwhile, is in league with a power-hungry, pogrom-provoking colonel, and they eventually come up with a convoluted plan: Satan will tempt the Jews away from the Baal Shem Tov’s path of righteousness by becoming a false messiah. Another spoiler alert: good wins out over evil.

Peace Warriors
The Players Theatre, three remaining performances

As the characters in this academic satire sit down for their first big fight, Scooter, an unsuccessful history professor, says to GW, the superstar academic who’s sleeping with his wife, “You found yourself in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Indeed. The dynamics of the play—one debauched, disastrous night shared between a warring academic couple and their overnight guests—owe a clear debt to Edward Albee. Scooter’s wife Darryl, a rising professor of gender studies, has invited the (ostensibly) Israeli and Palestinian peace activists who make up Solidarity Sisterhood, an anti-occupation theater troupe, to sleep at her home after a performance at Yale. GW, a famous professor at Columbia, uses this as an excuse to spend the night as well. Then the Israeli activist, Shlomtzion, turns up (actually, it turns out both activists in Solidarity Sisterhood are Israeli, and they hate each other) and begins flirting with GW, who runs a cliquish symposium she hopes to be accepted into. There’s also Scooter and Darryl’s daughter Gwen, who unlike the child in Virginia Woolf is a real 17-year-old, but is used so manipulatively by the adults around her that she may as well be just the product of their collective imagination. From there on in, it’s every professor for himself.

The merry band’s weapon of choice is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which for each character stands in for a particular psychodrama. Scooter’s resentment toward the academy has turned into disdain for what he sees as its knee-jerk pro-Palestinianism; Darryl uses Scooter’s move to the right as an excuse to break up her marriage with an academic loser; GW is a suave scumbag whose politics are as sleek and cynical as his ambitions; and Shlomtzion has ditched Israel for America, where she hopes being an Israeli leftist can advance her career. Some funny moments ensue—when Daryl flies into a rage against GW, who’s sleeping with every woman in the house, he patronizingly suggests that they recite together the mantra they learned at some long-ago coexistence conference. (It turns out to consist of repeating the word “Shalom.”) Later, Scooter yells at his wife, “I hope you get run over by a bulldozer in Gaza!”

For Scooter—and, perhaps, for playwright Doron Ben-Atar—the underlying culprit is an academic context in which, for Jewish professors, “the true test of assimilation is proving that you’re anti-Zionist.” It’s a compelling argument, though undermined a bit by the fact that both Scooter and Daryl have a tendency to sound implausibly like undergraduates. (Do gender studies professors in 2009 really accuse their husbands of phallocentrism or spout bumper-sticker rhetoric on Palestine?) Jealousy, ambition, and cynicism may be built into the fabric of the academy, sure, but so is intelligence.

Marissa Brostoff, a doctoral student in English at the CUNY Graduate Center, is a former staff writer at Tablet and the Forward.

Ari M. Brostoff is Culture Editor at Jewish Currents.