July 2, 2014
David Shmidt Chapman, a member of the ROI community, decided to turn the discussion around the 2013 Pew report "A Portrait of Jewish Americans" into art with Pew-ish: ten short plays related to issues of Jewish identity presented as a staged reading. The launch event for Pew-ish, funded by an ROI Micro Grant, was held on June 26 at Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan. Future Pew-ish events will include readings, multimedia, publications and other programming to engage new audiences.
In addition to the plays, musical guest Adam Blotner performed as different Jewish musical characters before each act. (He started the second act with a hilarious song about a holiday that doesn't get enough attention—Shemini Atzeret.) Before the show and at intermission, free snacks were served, which if you ask me, all theaters could learn from (a fed audience is a happy audience).
The Pew Study, which included findings such as, "One in five American Jews describe themselves religiously as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular," and "Among Jews who married in 2000 or later, 58 percent have a non-Jewish spouse," raised concerns among many about the future of Jews in America. Miami 1991 by Warren Hoffman and directed Michael Goldfried—the first play of the evening—most directly addresses the study. It starts with retirees panicking about the findings and discussing how to get young people interested in Judaism. They bring in a publicist who shows them a commercial featuring a pretty blonde (Megan Ketch) advertising “Beachright.” Instead of sending young Jews to Israel, Beachright would send them to Miami to party with attractive members of the opposite sex. In the next scene, Marc (Tommy Heleringer) is watching the commercial when his boyfriend Gabe (Nathaniel P. Claridad) walks in. They note that the commercial ignores gay Jews. Gabe, who is preparing the Shabbat meal, tells Marc that he wants to convert, but Marc isn't sure if he can support that decision because he doesn't feel a connection to Judaism himself. It was a true-to-life and touching scene, and Heleringer and Claridad handled it with tenderness.
The Covenant (… Or Bagels and Butchery) by Ken Weitzman and directed by Leigh Walter deals the most specifically with interfaith marriage. David (Jake Goodman) and Liz (Ketch) are getting ready for their son's bris. The moyel is cross-eyed, which sparks what seems to have been a frequent debate about whether they should even have a bris. Liz thinks it's barbaric and David thinks it's an act of defiance. It's easy to sympathize with both characters, who make fair points with conviction.
My favorite play of the night was The Arrival by Jonathan Caren, directed by Chapman—because it went in the most surprising direction. Anyone who has ever been a bully or the victim of bullying should be able to relate to the characters. Ishmael (Yuval Boim) and Jason (Claridad) are waiting for the same plane at an airport and they realize they were in Israel together on an Ulpan trip (Hebrew learning). Jason and his friends tortured Ishmael, who was the only Orthodox kid on the trip and is still scarred from the experience. Ishmael's girlfriend, who is on the plane, texts him that somebody had a heart attack and Jason reveals that his father who has a heart condition is on the plane.
Because of the nature of the evening, the plays were generally more effective as conversation starters than as theater. Not that they weren't entertaining and at times moving, but the dialogue didn't always feel natural. This was most true in the case of The Spivaks by Anna Ziegler, directed by Goldfried. An extended family, including interfaith couple Michael (Hal Robinson) and Jillian (Justine J. Hall), is discussing Israel at the table. They bring up some interesting points—even though we've probably all heard them before—but it doesn't really sound like any family discussion I've witnessed. No one spoke over anyone, and it was as if they were taking turns giving lectures rather than having a discussion.
That said, it's hard to be too critical of plays when this was a reading inspired to educate and start a conversation. On that front, the evening was a success and if this is any indication of what we can expect from Pew-ish in the future, it is a worthwhile voice to have in the community.