Advent 4: Yeah, Yeah, Yeah

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-38)

About a month ago, one of my best friends at seminary and I found ourselves wrapped up in one of those rare and beautiful all-day conversations, wandering aimlessly and delightedly from coffee shop to coffee shop (and later from bar to bar) and from topic to topic, encompassing music, politics, spirituality, psychology, astrophysics, sex, literature, and the occasional meta-reflection on the incredible Berkeley-ness and seminary-ness of our hours-long discourse.

Somewhere around lunchtime, over a plate of sushi and a glass of sake, talk turned to the Beatles – a favorite subject. In particular, we were considering the Beatles as a cultural phenomenon. Why, we wondered, does their music mean so much to so many – even songs that, when looked at “objectively,” may not necessarily mean all that much (e.g., much of the White Album)?

Certainly, for me one of the Beatles’ big (non-musical) draws has always been the knowledge that there are literally millions of people all over the world to whom this music means every bit as much as it does to me, and that’s absolutely exhilarating. Seeing Paul McCartney live was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever experienced, and not just because I got to hear my favorite songs in the world played by the man who wrote them. The absolute, unconditional love that I felt radiating from 50,000 ecstatic fans, all directed at the same object, was exhilarating beyond words. It was, in the truest sense of the word, a religious experience.

Looking back at the 1960s, I get the sense that this kind of love and joy were, for all the Beatles’ mythic messiness, the primary energies radiating at them from the world for seven years straight. There was a very real sense in which these four young men from Liverpool could Do No Wrong – in which, after a certain point, they could put out literally anything they wanted, and the public would just eat it up.

That kind of implicit trust is not something a band often gets from its fans–certainly not a fanbase as huge and unfragmented as the Beatles’–and it’s potentially very dangerous. But the Beatles were remarkable in that they didn’t descend into torrid self-indulgence. Instead, they created completely freely, confident that whatever they came out with would a) be accepted and b) be damn good.

Or perhaps they did descend (ascend?) into self-indulgence after all. Perhaps the world simply gave them permission to indulge themselves, to be themselves, in a way it has never done for any group of musicians before or since. Through its love and adoration, the world opened up the space for the Beatles to create with complete freedom. In a way, the Beatles became a channel for all that overflowing trust and joy, the magnifying glass that focused the light of an entire generation’s loves and aspirations. The world said yes to the Beatles – and in return they gave the world music that, even at its most seemingly frivolous or spaced-out, speaks to our deepest hopes and dreams in ways we aren’t even capable of putting into words.

As I read the story of the Annunciation of Jesus’ birth, I am struck by the power of Mary’s yes. Once Gabriel makes his proclamation, she says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Read that again: let it be with me according to your word. As if it would not be, unless she agreed to it – unless she said yes! I see the yes that Mary speaks to God as much the same yes that millions of listeners the world over spoke to the Beatles: unconditional, radically open, spoken in the faith that our trust will be rewarded beyond our wildest imaginings.

When we give God (however we know and understand God) our permission, when we say with Mary “Let it be with us according to your word,” we open up space for new possibility, for new creation, for Incarnation itself. And suddenly all those things that we had once believed to be so distant and unattainable–peace, hope, contentment, justice, love–are within reach, growing within us like a child in her mother’s womb.

So as we light our fourth Advent candle this week and look to Christmas, to the imminent breaking forth of God’s New Creation into the world, I pray that we have the courage to say yes: yes to our deepest yearnings, yes to our loftiest dreams, yes to our most fervent hopes. And may it be with us according to God’s word, to the highest, the most compassionate, the most loving Word we are capable of speaking. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Amen. –Tom

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Advent 3: Boldness In Numbers

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,

    and the day of vengeance of our God;
    to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.

For I the Lord love justice,
    I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
    and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
    and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
    that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
    my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
    and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
    to spring up before all the nations. (Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11)

At this time of year, as many of us are traveling for the holidays, “Be safe!” is a common utterance from well-intentioned loved ones. Even if it’s just routine well-wishes, I appreciate the sentiment – especially having grown up in the fifth-snowiest community in the United States, where failing to “be safe” can land you upside-down in a ditch in an I-90 whiteout.

My colleague and Pacific School of Religion seminarian Caiti Hamilton. She, I, and more than a dozen of our fellow religious leaders were arrested in Berkeley, CA for protesting for racial justice on Monday, 12/8. (Photograph by Lacey Hunter.)

I also appreciated hearing it from my circle of care this past Monday night (12/8), as I set out with a contingent of seminarians and religious leaders from the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) to join the protests for racial justice raging in Berkeley and Oakland. Previous nights had seen protesters tear-gassed by riot gear-clad police, store windows smashed in, friends and colleagues physically brutalized with billy-clubs. Sensing the grief and the rage in the air, called by the words of the Prophet Isaiah to “bring good news to the oppressed,” we religious leaders went out, not to internally police so-called “violent” protesters, but to march alongside our fellow Berkeleyites in compassionate witness. “Clothed in garments of salvation”–that is to say, robes and stoles, obvious clerical garb–ours was a ministry of accompaniment, of standing with the people, especially people of color, and, God willing, helping to infuse a spirit of hope and peace by our presence. Knowing that our ministry called us to the front lines of whatever action took place that night, I could certainly understand why folks would urge us to “be safe out there.”

As I reflect on Isaiah’s prophetic call, however, I’m becoming more and more convinced that now is not the time to be safe. I will never forget standing five feet from an advancing riot line, arms linked with fellow seminarians, as police forced us off I-80 (which we had shut down through our action) and into a parking lot. I will never forget singing hymns and protest songs and Christmas carols for four hours straight to keep spirits high as the police slowly arrested, one by one, more than 200 protesters. I will never forget policemen shedding tears as we sang “Amazing Grace” so that their commanding officers had to replace them in the riot line. There was nothing particularly safe about what we did Monday night.

Indeed, our culture is unhealthily fixated on safety. This isn’t directed against the many friends and family who expressed their hopes for my safety on Monday – they were genuinely concerned for my well-being, a concern I appreciate from the bottom of my heart. But for those of us who are the beneficiaries of years, decades, centuries of racial and economic privilege, our “safety” often depends on the maintenance of an unjust status quo. The streets may not have been an entirely safe place for me Monday night; but that is decidedly not my usual experience. I needed that experience of unsafeness to jar me out of my privileged complacency.

My friend and fellow Graduate Theological Union seminarian Amanda Weatherspoon leads one of the recent #BlackLivesMatter protests in Berkeley, CA. (Photographer unknown.)

By contrast, the streets of this country are never safe for my brothers and sisters of color, as the tragic deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Gardner demonstrate only too clearly. I may have gotten arrested, but I know that, because of my race and my socioeconomic background, I had little more to fear than a night in jail and a fine. Compare that to the Black organizers of many of these demonstrations, for whom taking part in a completely legal protest, let alone civil disobedience, poses a clear and present danger to their bodies and their livelihoods to which my inconveniencing at the hands of police on Monday night cannot begin to compare. For me, getting arrested while declaring that #BlackLivesMatter is the very least I can do to act in solidarity with those who are consistently told–by people like me–that their lives don’t matter.

My actions don’t make me some kind of hero – far from it. At the end of the day, this movement is not about me. Nor is taking to the streets the only way to act in solidarity. For me, the unsung heroes of Monday night’s protests were the supporters who met us outside Santa Rita Jail in Pleasanton on Tuesday morning. This past week has been finals week for GTU seminarians. The friends who made the long drive out and waited for hours on end until every protester had been released surely had other things to do: papers to write, exams to study for, final projects to polish off. As students, the safe thing to do would have been to stay home, to keep to schedule and judiciously budget their time. But they were there with food and hugs and car seats and phone calls to lawyers, sacrificing their precious study time for the sake of the Beloved Community. There are many ways to live into Isaiah’s prophetic call to to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners.”

However we respond to that call, however, the call itself is inherently risky. It requires us to risk our comfort, our complacency, sometimes our bodies and our lives, in order to become the people God knows we can be together. There’s safety in numbers, they say. But I believe that, at this historic moment, we are being challenged to find boldness in numbers: standing, marching, working together for justice until we can truly say that #AllLivesMatter, and not have those words ring as hollow mockery in the ears of our brothers and sisters who are told, day in and day out, that their lives do not in fact matter.

I saw such boldness on the streets of Berkeley Monday night, and on the streets of Oakland and Washington, D.C. and New York City and many other cities across the United States as demonstrations for racial justice have continued unabated this past week. It gives me hope that someday soon, “as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” May it be so.

Amen. –Tom

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Advent 2: We Can’t Breathe

Comfort, O comfort my people,
    says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that she has served her term,
    that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out!”
    And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
    their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
    when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
    surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
    but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
    O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
    O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
    lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
    “Here is your God!”
See, the Lord God comes with might,
    and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
    and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
    he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
    and gently lead the mother sheep. (Isaiah 40:1-11)

Advent is a waiting season. We are waiting to hear that cry in the wilderness that Isaiah heralds so beautifully: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God!” It reads triumphantly, especially as it got taken up as the rallying cry of John the Baptist in the Gospels. The long night is almost over, Isaiah seems to say; the dawn is at hand!

A memorial to Eric Garner, who was choked to death by a Staten Island police officer earlier this year. His dying words: “I can’t breathe.”

The problem, though, is that that voice is crying in the wilderness. And we live too ensconced in our world of modern convenience, our world of economic and racial privilege, our world of complacent comfort, our world of industrial and technological noise and distraction, to hear that voice. If we want to hear the voice–and when I say we I mean “we privileged,” “we White folks,” “we beneficiaries of the systems of injustice”–we have to work very hard to shut down our normal ways of being in the world. We have to stop talking so damn much and start listening, really listening.

As I lay on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley last night, in silent prayer during a ritual die-in in for Mike Brown and Eric Garnerm, I did not hear a cry of triumph, of approaching dawn. No, I heard a cry of anguish, a cry of lamentation, a cry of distress, a voice in the wilderness that has gone too long unheard and unheeded. The cry I heard was:

I can’t breathe.

I can’t ignore that cry any longer. We can’t ignore that cry any longer, the cries of all the Michael Browns and Eric Garners and Trayvon Martins of this nation. They can’t breathe. Their parents and families, all the people of color who must live their lives in fear and in shame, they can’t breathe. My friends and fellow Berkeleyites who got tear-gassed last night, who got their heads beaten in my the batons of policemen in full riot gear, for standing up for the idea that Black lives matter – they can’t breathe.

Police and protesters face off in Berkeley last night (12/6).

But we privileged, we White folks, we beneficiaries of the systems and structures of injustice and oppression – we don’t want to listen. We respond to the protests and the rage, the “languages of the unheard,” as Martin Luther King, Jr., called them, with indignation at closed freeways; with equivocation about police forces who murder young black men and who unleash excessive force on those who dare to voice their outrage; with evasion and self-justification and self-medication, so that we don’t have to face up to the historical realities of slavery and segregation and exploitation and oppression, so that we don’t have to face up to the contemporary realities of racial profiling and systemic prejudice. We try to drown the voice in the wilderness out by any means necessary.

If things are going to change, that has to be the first step: to shut up and listen. To hear that voice crying out for justice. To shut off our inherited self-defense mechanisms. To take off the myopic goggles of economic and racial privilege and see the world around us for what it is.  As long as we stand by and allow these things to be, as long as we refuse to listen, we can’t breathe. We can’t be the people God is calling us to be in this world.

That’s only the first step though. The second step is then to raise up another cry, to rise up and take to the streets and the subways and the social media outlets and the city halls and the state legislatures of this country, to counter that wail of anguish and anger with a shout of hope and restoration: “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” For then–and only then–“the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

If we can do that… then maybe the new day that Isaiah promised maybe really will start to dawn.

That we might hear the voice in the wilderness, and raise up a new cry of justice for all God’s children; that we might prepare the Way of the Lord, so that all people might see it together… Lord we pray.

Amen. –Tom

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Advent 1: Waiting on the World to Change

[Note: this is the first in what I hope will be a series of weekly reflections on Scripture readings from the Revised Common Lectionary.]

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
    so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
    and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
    so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
    you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard,
    no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
    who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
    those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
    because you hid yourself we transgressed
We have all become like one who is unclean,
    and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
    and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
    or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
    and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
    we are the clay, and you are our potter;
    we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
    and do not remember iniquity forever.
    Now consider, we are all your people. (Isaiah 64:1-9)

The author of the third and final portion of the Book of Isaiah, known among Biblical scholars as Trito- or Third Isaiah, was doing his prophetic thing during the period immediately following Darius the Great’s decree, in 538 BCE, that the Jews would be allowed to return to the land of Judah after decades of exile in Babylon. This was what the people had been waiting for decades – the God of Israel, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, was bringing them back home! The long night of Exile was over!

The Prophet Isaiah, 18th c. Russian icon. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Problem was, it turned out that returning to Judah didn’t magically solve all of the Judeans’ problems. There were tensions between those who had gone into exile and Babylon and those who had remained behind in Judah. The disparities of wealth and power that earlier prophets like First Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos had railed against were still very much in evidence. This was not the homecoming the exiles had looked for.

And so Third Isaiah took up the prophetic mantle of his forebears and decried, in no uncertain terms, the injustices he saw: “all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth” … “our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” … “you have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” Rough words, these, the kind that prophets are often primed to deliver but that his or her society is not often primed to hear.

Third Isaiah isn’t simply kvetching, however. This is no mere outpouring of impotent rage, however righteous. For, as a seminary classmate recently opined, the difference between a prophet and a whiner is that the prophet always holds up an alternative vision. And Third Isaiah had an alternative vision all right:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. (Isaiah 58:6-9)

He wasn’t calling out his fellow Judeans because he thought they were wicked beyond repair. He was calling them out because he knew they could be so much more. He saw their potential for goodness and justice, saw as in a dream their light breaking forth like the dawn – even in the midst of injustice and iniquity. Third Isaiah raged against what was because he saw what might be. His words may have been a rebuke, but they were also a challenge: a challenge to his listeners to become something greater.

I don’t claim to share Third Isaiah’s prophetic gift. But I think I know how he felt this past Monday night, when a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri announced that police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the murder of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager. When I heard the news, I went home and I wept. I wept for Brown’s family and the loss they had suffered. I wept for all the young Black men who have been gunned down because our society views them as criminals. I wept for all the people of color in this country who are ground down and made to feel that they are lesser than – by people who look like me.

Protesters in Oakland, CA after a Ferguson, MO grand jury declines to indict Black teen Michael Brown’s killer. Source: San Jose Mercury News.

This is it? This is how we humans, we humans who went to the moon, who gave the world Beethoven and Miles Davis and the Beatles, who cured polio, who brought down the Berlin Wall, who produced Martin King and Gandhi and Jesus – this is how we treat our fellow human beings? This is all we are capable of being with one another? I refuse to believe it. We can do better. I know it. I have seen it.

Today is the first day of Advent in the Christian tradition, a season of deep reflection, of watching and waiting as we move toward Christmas and the breaking forth of the Light that darkness can neither comprehend nor overcome. This Advent, like Third Isaiah, I’m waiting for us to wake up to who we are, and to who we might be with one another. I’m waiting for us to wake up to the potential for goodness that I know exists in the heart of humanity. In the midst of darkness–both figurative and literal, as we wind our yearly way to the Solstice and the turning of the year–I’m waiting for our Light to break forth like the dawn.

Amen. –Tom

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EP Review: Marine Life “Fool of a Kind”

Much of what you need to know about San Francisco indie popsters Marine Life can be gleaned from the fact that they’re labelmates with Camera Obscura and a quick glance at the cover to their debut EP, Fool of a Kind (2014). Like those venerable Glaswegian popsmiths, Marine Life hail from a place known for its oft-grey skies; but while we could certainly use more rain here in the Bay lately, Marine Life are a ray of sunshine that won’t exacerbate the ongoing drought.

Elefant’s description of the lead-off title track as “one of those things that makes you happy to get out of bed in the morning, no matter what day of the week it is” might seem like standard-issue label hyperbole; but faced with Des de Leon’s sighing harmonies and bouncy brass, it’s hard to argue with the PR guys. “Big Sur” continues in the same sunny vein, with appropriately surf-rock organs and handclaps. “Boy from B-612″ switches things up with its spacy synthesizer and lyrics inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry‘s The Little Prince, but we’re back to driving, horn-laced 60s pop with closer “For the Camera Shy.” With Fool of a Kind, Marine Life have crafted a gem that, if it doesn’t have the literate wistfulness of the band’s esteemed labelmates, has all the indie pop infectiousness.

8/10

Listen here. Buy it here.


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Track Spotlight: Avicii feat. Robbie Williams, “The Days”


I listen to an awful lot of music: Italian progressive rock, Irish traditional, classic disco, French House, power pop, alt-country, indie pop, German opera, southern soul, and Klezmer, to name a few choice genres. But at the end of the day, there are a few things I always come back to.

One of those things is soaring synth leads. This stems in part from nostalgia for a childhood spent playing every Super Mario game in existence at the time, up to and including Mario Is Missing and Mario Teaches Typing (although I never did have a Philips CD-i… it was probably for the best anyway) – chiptune is kind of in my blood. But it also stems from the fact that, when it comes right down to it, I go to music in search of ecstasy, the experience of going outside myself. And there are few musical experiences more ecstatic than that moment–you know the moment I’m talking about–when the beat drops and the lead synth leaps into the stratosphere and you fly.

For Avicii’s latest single, “The Days,” that moment happens at 3:24, and It. Is. Glorious. Take a listen, and let yourself fly away.

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Play Review: “Bad Jews”

In the booklet for the Magic Theatre of San Francisco’s production of Joshua Harmon’sBad 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.

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