Three tapas dishes, two bad Jews and one well positioned mirror.
Ilan Goldmann is ranting. It’s admittedly fine ranting. Well written, superbly acted, majorly vitriolic ranting. It’s hot on the heels of Jenna Augen’s well written, superbly acted, twice as vitriolic ranting. And it’s everything I hoped it would be. Hilarious, acerbic, uncomfortable – because there’s nothing like pushing, right? And the captive audience around me, the audience currently being pushed, are quite rightly in hysterics. Hell, I’m in hysterics. My date though, lets call him Samuel, is squirming uncomfortably next to me. It’s not the first time, and he’s probably not the only one.
Ilan is playing a pitch-prefect Liam, in an almost pitch perfect Bad Jews. The play happens in real time, in a ‘real’ New York studio apartment. Liam is a ‘bad Jew’. That vaguely head-fuckish mix of the mainly secular Jewish boy, keen on assimilation and modernity who pours scorn on both Judaism and Jewish culture. Until maybe you mention the H word, or challenge Israel’s politics… Then it’s a different story. It’s the day of his Grandfather’s funeral. He’s missed it of course, travelling in from Aspen and he brings with him pretty, blonde, airhead WASP, Melody (Gina Bramhill). The latest in a long line of unsuitable girlfriends. He immediately attempts to take over the space he owns with his much more chilled out brother Jonah (Joe Coen). Which all adds to the annoyance of ‘Super Jew’ Daphna. Their over-bearing self-righteous, self-important cousin. She’s the other end of the spectrum. She wants to make Aliyah, she wants to begin her rabbinic training, and she also wants their Poppy’s chai. You can imagine how well the resultant ‘Jew-off’ goes.
And in that venomous-too-close-to-the-bone-often-ugly-sometimes-racist Jew off, we explore three sides of modern young Judaism. In the more conservative Jonah we find an urge to keep the status quo, respect the culture, but perhaps reinvent how we might do that. In Liam, we find the raging progressive. Eager to escape the weight of a 3000 plus year history. Impatient to re-evaluate. He’s liberal, left-wing, academic and questioning. He asks us, in very real terms, what the actual point is of carrying on an abstract that was potentially interpreted badly in the first place? In Daphna, we find the more orthodox. It’s more than the pride for her, it’s more than the devotion to that tradition and experience, there’s compulsion, commitment and obligation. Her Judaism is both fundamental and a requirement. She was born to carry the mantle.
Samuel and I are liberal, left wing and questioning. He’s actually an academic. I’m vaguely so. Our jobs (writer and theology student) demand that we interrogate both the spiritual and cultural aspects of our Judaism. And we’re both hugely involved in our respective communities. Samuel, obviously, holds more weight than I in his. And it’s an interesting discussion to find ourselves in on our second – officially, our first date – we had a vague drink a couple of weeks ago after we met randomly at an LGBT chavurah. We hit it off and decided to try this officially. I mentioned Bad Jews, and boom we’re here. But Samuel was worried about the play. Worried about facing the mirror Bad Jews threatened to hold up.
We sit in the Tapas restaurant afterwards, sharing roasted aubergine, potatoes aioli and mushrooms, discussing said mirror. I’m arguing it’s universal. But Samuel worries that it hit the nail on the head of the voices he sometimes battles in his own head, the voices he just saw reflected right back at him. He’s worried about superiority and aloofness, entitlement, nationalism, Zionism, even racism. This from one of the most considered, searching, thoughtful people I know. I try and make him feel better (whilst attempting to come off cute) by singing Avenue Q songs at him. For him it’s a powerful piece, and it clearly affected him. During some of those squirmier moments I reached over to Samuel, just nudging him, to let him know there’s another person in the dark who’s aware.
I concentrate a little too much on the structure, I find the play a little clunky and on the nose at times – mainly because it’s trying to discuss everything and you can’t discuss everything and do that subtly. We get the dreaded Leviticus 18.22
hurled at us to decipher the bad bits of being Jewish, we get the even more dreaded Shiksa word hurled at us when Daphna rants on about Melody. We keep going back to the holocaust. 70 years on we still can’t really decipher that. How can it not define a generation? How do we move past it? Jonah’s final reveal is touching, clever, moving. Heartbreaking. I wonder at appropriate. Samuel tends towards touching. His family are Ashkenazim, so the weight of this is heavier still on him. But it’s a clever reveal nonetheless, and moving back to it’s set up, the play rightly asks, can a pretty blonde girl from Nebraska ever really understand that weight? I genuinely don’t know the answer to that question, but it’s an important question to explore.
So, we go back to the weight of Judaism, Samuel feels it more than I, his job is closely linked to the Jewish community, he’s pretty much on the frontline every day, so he actually carries this weight of tradition and religion. I’m not, I’m the diluted bloodline Daphna talks about, coming back into the fold. I don’t have that weight. But I’ve missed it. It also means that perhaps I can appreciate the universality in the play. My own Poppy died two years ago and it broke my heart, and much like Jonah, I’ve never had a chance to deal with it in any real sense. There was my nana to think about, my mum, aunts, cousins, brothers and sisters – I recognize that grief-off. I feel it more than you. My pain is deeper. Is it? How? I even recognize that need to mark skin. My skin is marked. The message in the play is totally universal. Grief makes us do crazy shit, and act crazy at the people we love.
We somehow land on denominational politics, and head out on a tangent, that’s the beauty of dinner and culture right? The play has gotten us onto that battle between Daphna’s orthodoxy and Ilan secularism. We’re both Liberal, progressive Jews, both of us with positions in our community, we’re talking about those times when we’ve been wound up by the caveat ‘as a progressive Jew’. I agree with Samuel that by doing that we create the sense of the other, that we actually give Judaism to Orthodoxy or Conservatism. We shouldn’t do that we’re just as Jewish… that for me is the best question in the play. Each denomination are streams that feed the river of Judaism, none has greater weight. Ilan is just as Jewish as Daphna. He just wants to do it differently. It’s not their differences that make them better or worse Jews. It’s how they treat each other. We shoot off on another tangent, it’s the nice thing about dates. We’re talking about a party at the weekend, a half serious road trip in the spring, getting excited about getting to know one another, but every now and then a nugget of remembrance comes in.
We touch on love, Liam has found true love. And he’s not scared to shake off obligation to chase it. Samuel nails it when he notices the line Liam throws at Daphna regarding her made up boyfriend Gilad. You’ve never known true love. You never will. We’re on a date, we’ve both been trying to avoid the pressure of that whilst enjoying the getting to know you banter. But there’s a clear resonance somewhere, however much we’re trying to repress that. I have a limited dating pool, it’s a self-inflicted limitation, I only want to date other Jewish guys, so there’s an extra weight when you meet a Jewish guy you actually like, rather than Jewish guy you think you should and are really trying to like… I try and move on, we probably don’t need to talk about that yet.
Bad Jews runs until the 28th February at the St. James Theatre. Book here.