“I love being Jewish,” declares the fierce, wiry performance artist Deb Margolin in her kinetic 1996 solo piece Oh, Wholly Night and Other Jewish Solecisms. “I love the edge of it, like a knife; I love the way people misapprehend me.” She grooves on the visceral tug and whirl of Judaism, “like smoking or kissing…cool…a series of exquisite burdens.” She even brings up all the hateful stereotypes—“the big noses, big cars, big breasts, the labels: paganists, orthodontists, Christ-killers”—and wonders at their ability to turn a “nerd” like her into an archetypal “rock star.” Margolin spins in a unique theatrical orbit—she is a whirling Jewish dervish who is comfortable with Messiah-graced ideas co-existing with a non-Orthodox, mostly secular American landscape.
But what’s so curious about Oh, Wholly Night, first performed at the Jewish Museum in New York, is that most of the people who “misapprehended” Margolin were other Jews: Her ripely sensual rhapsody was viewed as just more fuel on the already spiritually conflicted fire that has consumed North American Jews (and so-called “Jewish theatre”) for decades. “It really upset a lot of assimilated Jewish people to hear me speaking this way,” reflects Margolin, recalling the play’s reception when it first played New York. “The Hasidim were fine with this piece—they thought it was profoundly religious—but the people who walked out or got upset were regular Joe Jews like me who just didn’t like attention called to these salient aspects of Jewish culture. It embarrassed and offended them.”
Like Catholicism—but unlike much of the rest of Christianity—Judaism embraces a cultural identity that cannot be separated neatly from religious doctrine. It’s a marriage of the spiritual and the quotidian that traces its roots from the days when Jews were enslaved and eventually forced to live in ghettos, estranged from Roman and, later, Christian worlds. Indeed, many contemporary American Jews not raised in a religiously observant household are still in touch with the cultural aspects of Judaism—whether they be identified by a grandmother’s kreplach recipe, klezmer music or the use of Yiddish words in the daily vernacular. Many Jews can’t comprehend a religion devoid of a powerful cultural stamp; consider the scene in Woody Allen’s 1986 comedy Hannah and Her Sisters when the character played by Allen, on a cockamamie “spiritual journey,” tries to convert to Catholicism and purchases a crucifix, mayonnaise and Wonder Bread.
From Sholom Asch to Donald Margulies, Jewish playwrights have long grappled with the bridge that both unites and divides Jewish culture and Jewish religion. Often the greatest point of conflict comes not from the “outside world” but from within the many layers of Judaism itself. In fact, it’s the bottom line—the basic definition of Jewishness—that is most elusive. Ask a Jewish writer to define “Jewish spirituality,” and you’re likely to get a question right back: What sort of Jew are you talking about? The Orthodox Jew, the reformed Jew, the Hasidic Jew? Pop-cultural designations further complicate matters: What about the queer Jew, the feminist Jew, the Zionist Jew, the Hollywood Jew?
Faced with this Jewish conundrum, contemporary writers find themselves fighting religious, cultural and political windmills. Some, like Canadian playwright Jason Sherman and David Hare (who is gentile, but married to a Jewish woman), focus on Israeli politics and the relationships between Jews and Palestinians. Others, such as Michelle Lowe, whose secular comedy The Smell of the Kill was recently produced at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre, craft plays with Jewish themes so that their children will see Jewish history reflected on stage; Lowe has written two such plays as a gift to her baby daughter. Gay Jewish playwrights like Yehuda Hyman and lesbian performance artist Sarah Felder—once estranged from a religion that condemns homosexuality—have embraced their religion again. Hyman even attends an Orthodox schul on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
With so many definitions of “Jews” milling about, no wonder there is a crisis of identity that confounds any search for spiritual truth. “What do people see when they look at us?” muses Margolin when asked about her own self-examination process. “I do think it’s interesting to take a bunch of Jews and put them under a microscope. Are we all talking about anything that overlaps? I’d love to hear what that is, because I think there’s definitely an aesthetic, a certain agitation, sense of humor, irony, of self-abrogation that is cultural and that is so Jewish. We’re all praying in the same intonation, somehow.”
Whatever that intonation may be, it has changed cadence in both American and Canadian theatre throughout the years. One shift occurred early in this century: From the early days of Yiddish theatre—which flourished as a fully flowered reflection of Jewish life in a tight-knit community of nonassimilated immigrants—to the mid-century works of fully Americanized, but religiously guarded, writers like Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller, S.N. Behrman and Arthur Laurents. The evasiveness of those writers has been criticized, but what would the fate of Death of a Salesman have been if Miller had made American Everyman Willy Loman boldly Jewish? Would the audiences of 1949, which harbored a fair share of anti-Semites, have cozied up to a play with frankly Jewish characters?
Ten years later, Paddy Chayefsky’s The Tenth Man, a 1959 adaptation of S. Anski’s 1914 play The Dybbuk, crossed a significant threshold as a commercial Broadway play that flaunted its Jewish roots. But Chayefsky’s play was an exception: Even Broadway’s light comedies of the era avoided stepping through Jewish cultural or spiritual minefields. Compare Neil Simon’s early semi-autobiographical work, like 1963’s Barefoot in the Park, to one of his overtly Jewish plays like 1982’s Brighton Beach Memoirs.
Of course, it’s tempting to relate this evasiveness to the cliché of the self-loathing Jew in these instances. (David Mamet, for example, has shouldered those accusations and slyly addressed the topic in films like Homicide and plays like This Old Neighborhood.) But is it fair to slap the abrupt tag of “self-loathing” on a spiritually conflicted or silent Jew who merely questions the laws of an ancient, often confusing religion?
“[Many of the] pioneers of Jewish theatre kept quiet about being Jewish because it wasn’t considered a good thing, and we had this terrible shadow coming from Germany,” explains theatre historian Ellen Schiff, a consultant to the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. “All of that has gone by the boards. What we’ve seen in the last four decades of the 20th century is this explosion, this celebration of identity. It’s good to be a Jew. And then, following on that, what does it mean to be a Jew? How does this define me?”
Donald Margulies, whose adaptation of Sholom Asch’s 1906 Yiddish melodrama God of Vengeance had its world premiere last spring at Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre, has poignantly invoked the spirit of what he affectionately calls his “extremely unobservant” Jewish upbringing in plays like Sight Unseen and The Loman Family Picnic. (“As I’ve said before,” chuckles Margulies, “my parents didn’t go to synagogue, they went to Broadway.”) But Margulies admits he bristles when dubbed a spokesman for his heritage or when his spirituality is narrowly defined as just being Jewish. He points to characters like Jonathan Waxman in Sight Unseen as a man who is lost, spiritually speaking—and who just happens to be Jewish.
Margulies admits that he was dismayed when some critics tagged Dinner with Friends as his first significant “non-Jewish” play, especially in the aftermath of its winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. “A prominent agent said that he thought the play was a real breakthrough for me,” recalls Margulies. “I interpreted it, rightly or not, as, ‘Hum! No Jewish characters, so this will be a big hit!’ But then again, that may be my own mishagoss. I don’t know.”
Toronto-born playwright Daniel Goldfarb, best known for his 1998 work Adam Baum and the Jew Movie, remembers an equally disconcerting experience when he workshopped another Jewish-themed play, Dulce de Leche, at South Coast Repertory of California’s Pacific Playwrights Festival. A representative from an Ohio theatre approached Goldfarb after the reading and asked, “When you wrote this play, did you think of how it would play in Ohio?” “I said no, I didn’t even think of how it would play in New York,” he says. “You don’t think about that when you’re writing a play.”
The 27-year-old Goldfarb did more than think, he wildly obsessed over Judaism’s internal culture clash in his latest play Modern Orthodox (which opened at Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre last month). A broad comedy, Modern Orthodox traces the relationship between a swaggering, hyper-secular Jew and a gun-toting virgin (and Orthodox Jew) named Herschel. Goldfarb, raised in a Zionist but not religious household, admits that for years he was pricked by a negative, visceral response upon encountering Orthodox Jews. He says that writing Modern Orthodox made him more compassionate towards the Orthodox culture he once disdained. “I remember saying to my brother, ‘I can’t believe I’m writing about my feelings towards Orthodox Jews. Will anyone be interested in this?’ He pointed out that I was really writing about the secular and the religious,” Goldfarb said, with a smile. “I was grateful he thought that I was writing something worthy.”
Like Goldfarb, comedian and solo performer Marc Maron, 36, whose one-man show Jerusalem Syndrome played at New York’s Westbeth Theatre Center this past summer, is fascinated, even disturbed, by the ultra-Orthodox, especially the black-garbed and bearded Hasidim. “You’re looking at people who are living a different reality,” says Maron. “These are people who commit their lives to being the outsider, but clearly, they don’t want to promote it. They’re the Jewish equivalent of monks or fanatics, but on some level it’s all poetry, and they really delve into the idea of how God manifests himself on earth. I’m just too lazy and frightened to move into that.”
Maron recalls a joke he used to deliver in his stand-up routine: “There are different kinds of Jews—you can either be Orthodox, Conservative or the sort of artistic, creative Jew that goes on to become an anti-Semite eventually.” But Maron’s Syndrome is everything but self-loathing; it’s a frank and funny spiritual sojourn of an Albuquerque Jew who emphasizes that he’s not “a Jew.” Maron’s journey passes through a kaleidoscope of pseudo-religions and self-help guides—the Beats (sacred texts include Naked Lunch), a 250-pound, angry Jewish girl named Nancy (“a modern manifestation of Lilith”), cocaine, stand-up comedy, Los Angeles (“that’s not smog—it’s vaporized disappointment”), cigarettes and finally a momentous visit to Israel where he attempts to look God in the face with a video camcorder.
“What I realize most in doing this piece is that, spiritually, I’m sort of bankrupt. There’s a fine line between honestly searching for spirituality and indulging grandiosity, which I think I do on some level,” laughs Maron. “I would say that most middle-class Jews don’t put an emphasis on their religious identity, but they will cop to a cultural identity, the trappings of what we’ve grown to know as a cultural stereotype,” says Maron.
Texas-raised playwright Courtney Baron, a veteran of the 1999 and 2000 Humana Festivals at Actors Theatre of Louisville, grapples with her own conflicted feelings about Judaism by crafting religious plays with Christian characters—her 1998 work The Dream of Heaven and Hell, for example. “I’m not betraying my ignorance by writing about something that isn’t as intimately mine,” suggests the 27-year-old Baron. “I feel so conflicted about using the word ‘Jew’ to describe myself, because I have no idea what it really means. I feel like no one ever took the time to teach me.” Baron says the more she investigates religion in her writing, the more she lays claim to her cultural roots. “But I’m approaching it from an intellectual standpoint. My mother is a self-proclaimed agnostic, and my dad is an adamant atheist; but they’re still Jews, and they still want me to marry a Jew!”
Playwright Ari Roth, who is artistic director of Washington, D.C.’s Theatre J, admits he stirred up a little controversy with his more traditional Jewish subscribers at the theatre when he chose to produce writer Neena Beber’s play Tomorrowland, a work with no definable Jewish theme at all. Beber, whose lushly spiritual plays dance with surrealistic Marc Chagall-like images, goddesses and sweetly neurotic New Yorkers, says that though she’s written only one so-called “Jewish” play, hues of Judaica filter into her writing.
Toronto-based playwright Anton Piatigorsky, 28, whose mystical road play Easy Lenny Lazmon and the Great Western Ascension won a 1998-99 Dora Mavor Moore award (the Canadian version of the Tony) for best new play, takes a more personal, even psychoanalytic, tack. “I think part of this cultural baggage about rediscovering my identity was a sense of shame—over time I realized that this could very well be a product of coming from a Jewish family in the United States, feeling like there’s something to prove, that there is a bit of embarrassment about your origins.” Piatigorsky’s penchant for the psychological is also evident in The Kabbalistic Psychoanalysis of Adam R. Tzaddik, a provocatively titled play in which classic Freudian psychoanalysis collides with the Kaballah. The subject might sound esoteric, but Tzaddik was the only sold-out hit at Canada’s Ashkenaz ’99, a festival of new Yiddish culture.
Piatigorsky’s newest play, The Offering, reinvents the story of Abraham and Isaac as it conducts a modern examination of tradition and Jewish lineage. Coincidentally, another young Jewish playwright, the 26-year-old David Schulner, tackles the same biblical story in his play Isaac, developed in the summer of 1999 at the Sundance Theatre Lab in Utah.
The admiration of younger playwrights for the works of an older generation is evident. Daniel Goldfarb names Tony Kushner as a major influence, while adventurous souls like Joseph Chaikin, Elizabeth Swados and A Travelling Jewish Theatre artistic co-founder Naomi Newman are revered for their brave, beautiful and even controversial contributions to Jewish theatre.
Even now, Swados is researching her next biblical project, a celebration of Chanukah from the perspective of savvy Hebrew warrior Judith. But despite her many Jewish-themed works, like Haggadah and Esther, Swados says she dislikes most so-called “spiritual” plays. “I find most religious theatre, Judaism first and foremost, to be horrendous,” says Swados. “It’s like folk theatre done for children by people who are condescending. I think there’s a place for quality spiritual theatre, but I don’t find it around very much. It’s not like an African village where they spend a year working on dances and chants; you go to one of their ceremonies, and it’s better than the Metropolitan Opera. In Judaism the priority is study, text, family, but theatre…” Swados dramatically gestures to the far corner of her Greenwich Village loft, “… is way over there.”
Newman, 70, an actress, writer and director for San Francisco’s ATJT, who has tackled feminism, homosexuality and Judaism in plays like Snake Talk: Urgent Messages from the Mother and Old, Jewish and Queer, shares some of Swados’s reservations. “Yes, I am a Jew, and I hold my head high in that identity,” says Newman, “but there’s a whole lot here that I don’t like—the xenophobia, the homophobia, the chosen-ness—and I want to grapple with it. I think that being Jewish comes in many flavors, and I think it’s our nature as Americans that we really bite into things, chew it up and see what’s nourishing and what’s not.”
One writer influenced by Newman is Sarah Felder, whose emotional and humorous monologues detailing life as a lesbian Jew have been championed by A Traveling Jewish Theatre. Felder is devout, but she’s not afraid to do battle with the religion’s more intolerant viewpoints. “I feel like living life as a Jew is committing to that struggle. It’s a great struggle. And no fundamentalist Orthodox will tell me what it means to be a Jew.”
There is no easy way to grasp what Jewish spirituality looks and sounds like in American theatre. Like the religion itself, the pursuit of a mindful, compassionate and devout inner life—and the answer to that pervasive, unanswerable question—invites passionate, buoyant debate and argument, illuminated by fierce individuality, mysticism, grace and humanity. “What is a Jew?” is both a confounding puzzle and a great gift for Jewish writers; after all, it still provokes (and downright irks) performance artists like Margolin and Maron and the new generation of twenty-something Jewish playwrights like Goldfarb, Baron and Piatigorsky.
The ever-wry Deb Margolin says it’s far simpler to answer the question “What isn’t a Jew?” She has a ready, bleached-blonde answer: “Madonna. Here’s the icon of no shame, and that reflects directly back on the Jewish question. She’s the furthest thing from a Jew that I’ve ever seen. That lack of irony about herself—she’s just the ultimate, and she knows it!” Margolin shakes her head in obvious envy and awe. “She knows it. And that’s just not Jewish.”
Kara Manning is a 2000-01 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, with support by a grant from the Jerome Foundation.
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