In the booklet for the Magic Theatre of San Francisco’s production of Joshua Harmon’s “Bad Jews” (dir. Ryan Guzzo Purcell), dramaturg Dori Jacob includes one of the most popular, enduring fables of Hassidic Judaism:
Whenever the Jews were threatened with disaster, the Baal Shem Tov [Hassidism's founding figure] would go to a certain place in the forest, light a fire and say a special prayer. Always a miracle would occur, and the disaster would be averted.
In later times when disaster threatened, the Magid of Mezritch, his disciple, would go to the same place in the forest and say “Master of the Universe, I do not know how to light the fire but I can say the prayer.” And again, the disaster would be averted.
Still later, his disciple, Moshe Leib of Sasov, would go to the same place in the forest and say, “Lord of the World, I do not know how to light the fire or say the prayer but I know the place and that must suffice.” And it always did.
When Israel of Riszhyn needed intervention, he would say to God, “I [no] longer know the place, nor how to light the fire, nor how to say the prayer; but I can tell the story and that must suffice.”
And it did.
It is a perfect introduction to Harmon’s play, which concerns itself with the question: What does it mean to be a Jew in the modern world? Embedded in that question are several more universal questions: How do we, living in an age of globalization and multiculturalism, honor the cultures and traditions that gave us birth? How do we transmit them to future generations? Or do we? What does it mean to be a person of faith, both product and re-interpreter of centuries-old traditions, in the 21st century?
Each character in Harmon’s play answers that question differently. For Daphna Feygenbaum (Rebecca Benhayon), her Jewish identity is primary. She’s a proud Zionist, constantly referencing her upcoming move to Israel and (putative) Israeli boyfriend, highlighting at one point the fact that 20% of Nobel laureates have been Jewish, and generally rubbing her Chosen-ness in the face of anyone who spends more than five minutes in her presence. Her cousin Liam Haber (Max Rosenak) proudly describes himself as a “bad Jew,” celebrating Christmas instead of Hanukkah and eating leavened bread at Passover just to piss Daphna off. When Liam and Daphna are forced to share an apartment with Liam’s younger brother Jonah (Kenny Toll) and (non-Jewish) girlfriend Melody (Riley Krull) for their grandfather’s funeral, sparks are bound to fly. The situation is further complicated by the fact that both Daphna and Liam want “Poppy”‘s gold Chai, the traditional Hebrew symbol for “Life” – and the symbol of Poppy’s survival of the Holocaust.
And fly those sparks do. Benhayon and Rosenak shine in their respective roles, unleashing virulent monologues as bitingly funny as they are squirmingly unpleasant. Much of the play’s humor–and it is very funny–derives from the appalling depths to which both Liam and Daphna are prepared to sink in their castigation of one another. But those questions run as threads throughout their respective diatribes. Liam’s suggestion that Daphna’s religious zeal is really a defense mechanism, an attempt to retreat to an idealized childhood as a way of dealing with her own loneliness and discomfort, rings uncomfortably true. On the other side, Daphna’s pointed criticism of Liam’s assimilationism points up the dilemma of the “self-hating Jew.” After surviving diaspora and ghettos and pogroms and death camps, will Judaism ultimately wither from the inside, rejected by its modern-day inheritors?
A Hebrew Chai (“Life”) necklace.
Daphna points to Melody as the apotheosis of cultural homogenization. She’s “Delawarean,” a blonde Caucasian Christian with seemingly no ties to her ancestry and an obliviousness to history. What the admittedly air-headed Melody has going for her is her genuinely good heart. She may not have much of a sense of cultural identity, but her simple, deep-seated belief in the basic goodness and equality of all peoples contrasts starkly against Daphna’s holier-than-thou tribalism and Liam’s pomposity and latent antisemitism. Meanwhile, hapless Jonah finds himself in the unenviable role of mediator, repeatedly declaring, “I don’t want to get involved” in his brother and cousin’s game of offensive one-upmanship. At first it seems as though he is simply unwilling to address the questions that so occupy Liam and Daphna, preferring to float through life in the sheltered bubble of his parents’ affluence. By the end of the play (I won’t spoil it for you), though, he reveals that he is grappling with Jewish identity and memory every bit as much as Liam and Daphna are.
In the midst of all the tongue-lashing, the play’s key moment comes in a recollection of a dinner party with Poppy from the cousins’ childhood. Sharing memories of their beloved grandfather is the only thing that truly brings Liam and Daphna together, that finds them laughing with one another rather than at one another. Harmon doesn’t definitively answer the question of how to be a modern Jew–how could he? But this short sequence, I think, points a way forward. We no longer know the place, nor how to light the fire, nor how to say the prayer; but we can tell the story, and that must suffice.
Bad Jews: Comedy. By Joshua Harmon. Directed by Ryan Guzzo Purcell. Through Oct. 19. Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center. S.F. 90 minutes. $20-$60. (415) 441-8822. www.magictheatre.org.