By Esther D. Kustanowitz
Two guys walk into a Jewish singles mixer. This is unusual because one of them, Chris, isn't Jewish. But when he meets up with childhood buddy Adam at the Jewish singles party, he explains his problem: Chris loves Jewish women and wants to marry one so she can make his decisions for him, but when the Jewesses find out that Chris isn't Jewish, they run. Adam has the opposite challenge: he can't attract members of his tribe, but has to marry Jewish or disappoint his parents. Chris agrees to help Adam find dates with Jewish girls if Adam teaches him to pass for Jewish. The two strike a deal, and the first thing that Chris does is give Adam the metaphorical keys to "Jewtopia"--the world of Jewish Internet dating.
What follows is a play (currently on Broadway) that immerses the audience in a steaming vat of stereotypes about Jews and non-Jews: Jews are overinvolved in their children's lives and love salmon; gentiles have ranches in Crawford, Texas, and fathers in the military who frown on displayed or vocalized affection. Gentiles will order right off the menu; Jews will change the order beyond recognition, insisting on substitutions and dressings and sauces on the side.
The humor bounces back between more superficial, Borscht Belt-y punch-lines and deeper, “funny-because-it's-true/sad/shameful” comedy. Jewtopia's humor is not the flavor that might be expected from the show's Gen-X writers, Sam Wolfson and Bryan Fogel; it's less Jon Stewart, more Jackie Mason. Throughout the play, issues of culture and identity pop up like comic whack-a-moles, waiting to be smacked down by ludicrously loud stereotypes and high-energy punch-lines. Throughout, the intent is to portray dating in the modern age, but some audience members see the humor as self-loathing, and the characters' choices as saying that all's kosher in love and dating.
As I discussed the play with audience members, Suzy, raised Reform in the Midwest and a NYC-based Jewish communal worker for over a decade, noted that the main characters don't seem to be searching to embrace another religion per se; rather, they are seeking what their own life experiences lacked. “Chris came from a military home devoid of intimacy and love, and met Jews who love their children, almost too much. Turning to Judaism is his way to connect with people in a way his family never encouraged. And Adam has had too much of that intimacy; therefore, he looks for a woman completely different than himself, that is to say, someone not Jewish,” she comments.
“When we wrote the show, how we would portray interfaith issues wasn't a consideration,” says Fogel, who, with co-writer and co-creator Wolfson, acts in the play and is co-authoring the book and screenplay based on the off-Broadway hit. “Writing the play, the book and the screenplay have always been about finding the funny. We approached the issue more from the point of view of 'this is what's happening, so let's make fun of it.'”
“Much of our audience consists of interfaith couples,” said Wolfson. “We talk to endless numbers of them after the show; I got an email the other day from a Jewish girl who said that [after seeing the show] her gentile boyfriend finally understands her family.”
The duo reveals that in writing "Jewtopia's" first draft, they discussed whether one of the protagonists should end up with a Jewish girl, to have what would widely be considered a “happier ending.” But the writers decided to “keep it real”--in today's world, not everyone ends up marrying within the faith or according to parental preference.
The result is a play that is neither an endorsement nor a condemnation of interfaith relationships, but an interwoven tapestry of Jewish and non-Jewish stereotypes played for laughs; secondary to the jokes--and to whether audiences are offended or entertained or a little bit of both--is the commentary on the complexities of modern dating and of navigating between the wishes of parents/community and the desires of the heart.