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‘What is a Bad Jew?’ New Play Asks

‘Bad Jews’ is a bitingly funny depiction of young American Jews

Chavie Lieber
October 16, 2013
Tracee Chimo, Michael Zegen, and Molly Ranson in Bad Jews.(Joan Marcus)
Tracee Chimo, Michael Zegen, and Molly Ranson in Bad Jews.(Joan Marcus)

Nothing ignites a heated family debate quite like an inheritance.

Bad Jews, the off-Broadway show produced by New York City’s Roundabout Theater, radiantly tells the story of two cousins battling over their recently deceased grandfather’s chai necklace, managing to present a fair portrayal of both sides in less than two hours and in just one act.

Playwright Joshua Harmon provides ferocious, below-the-belt humor in his production, which sold out last fall before being reissued with a promotion to the Roundabout’s upstairs theater. The play offers a rare glimpse into the lives of two grandchildren of a Holocaust survivor, at each other’s throat’s over their beloved Poppy’s heirloom.

Daphna (Tracee Chimo) is a nagging, self-righteous, Jewfro-sporting college student, high on Judaism after a recent trip to Israel. Annoyingly devout, she’s the headstrong relative we all have and hope we never get stuck sitting next to at a family affair. Preying off our collective Jewish guilt, the play opens with Daphna telling her cousin Jonah (Philip Ettinger)—in a high-pitched New York accent, no less—that she’s entitled to the necklace because she cares about religion more than anyone else in the family. Poppy, who we’re told kept the necklace under his tongue during the war, would surely want her to have it. She thinks she’s above everyone, even in her own family.

Liam (Michael Zegen) is Dahpna’s first cousin and archenemy. Determined to very visibly cast aside all aspects of his Judaism (Pew study, anyone?), Liam alienates his family by (accidentally?) missing his grandfather’s funeral and bringing home his non-Jewish girlfriend, Melody (Molly Ranson). He’s the culturally patronizing relative with whom you never want to get into an argument about literature. Self-centered, disrespectful, and often downright cruel, he sneers at all aspects of religion and, in his own distinct way, think’s he’s better than the rest of his family.

Liam happens to be in possession of the coveted Chai necklace, insisting his grandfather gave it to him—though it’s unclear whether Poppy was in the right state of mind to hand over such an important family heirloom. Liam plans to propose to Melody with the necklace, since Poppy had proposed to their grandmother with it after the war. Melody—sweet, ditzy, and blonde—is the production’s token “shiksa,” a role played so well that the entire audience gasped in unison upon hearing Liam’s plans for the necklace.

Daphna and Liam get stuck staying in the same Upper West Side studio apartment the night before Poppy’s shiva starts. The cousins scream, taunt, and go on hurtful, noticeably similar, rants against the other’s lifestyles and ideals. They both fight for the support of Jonah, Liam’s younger brother, who barely says anything throughout the entire play, except that he “really doesn’t want to get involved.”

The plot and humor behind Bad Jews are nothing short of brilliant. With lines like, “Oh Daphne, don’t Holocaust me!” and “my Holocaust gold chai will never go near her Christian neck!” it’s clear Harmon knows how to strike a nerve with American Jews today, affiliated or not. The play touches on one of the most heated debates within the Jewish community: what happens when someone marries outside the faith. It also prods the audience to reconsider how we understand and deal with the Holocaust today, as the grandchildren of survivors begin the process of creating their own legacies.

Bad Jews is the perfect Jewish guilt trip, but it also asks a very relevant question: what exactly makes someone a bad Jew? Is it shunning the religion, or misrepresenting yourself to fit the image of a gung-ho Zionist? Are you a bad Jew if you speak to your cousin in a disrespectful and downright appalling manner after a family tragedy? Or if you watch your cousins wage war against each other and merely sit idly by? Are you a bad Jew if you don’t practice the religion because you never believed in it? What if your faith consisted of picking and choosing the things you find suitable, and easy?

The play manages to make you roar with laughter and break your heart at the same time. I couldn’t help but wonder how sad the character of Poppy must have been, looking down to see his only three grandchildren tangled in a complicated web of judgement and hostility.

I won’t spoil the ending, but the last 10 minutes of the play left most of the audience sobbing. The fight escalates to the point where you can no longer figure out whose side you’re supposed to be on, a skillful narrative flourish.

By the end of the play, it’s clear that all of the characters have morphed into bad Jews—and they know it. As the curtains close and the house lights turn back on, you might find yourself wondering how you would approach such a situation, and how you would treat your family should a similar conflict ever arise. Honestly, there’s a good chance it will.

Bad Jews is in production through December 22, 2013. Click here for showtimes and tickets.

Chavie Lieber has written for The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Daily Beast, the Huffington Post, Business Insider, the Times of Israel, and more. Follow her on twitter @chavielieber.