What’s in a name? “Bad Jews” is a provocative title but it’s also, according to Variety, the third-most performed modern play in the U.S. this season. In London, promotional posters for it were forbidden in the Underground for fear of causing offense.
Joshua Harmon wrote this verbally vitriolic comedic hit play about family, faith and what you choose to believe in when you’re one of the “chosen people.” “Bad Jews” is now making its L.A. premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.
The plot revolves around two feuding cousins and two innocent bystanders caught in their rhetorical smackdown. But it’s also about the generational divide when it comes to religion, especially one as fraught as Judaism long after the Holocaust ended.
Daphna Feygenbaum (played by Molly Ephraim) claims to be the most devout Jew in her family; she’s also got an Israeli boyfriend and an impressive head of hair. In the script Daphna is described as one-third girl and two-thirds hair.
Liam Haber (played by Ari Brand) is a secular Jew who arrives following their grandfather’s funeral to claim a family treasure, a religious symbol that Poppy kept hidden under his tongue while imprisoned for two years in a concentration camp.
Daphna doesn’t think Liam deserves to have this “chai” (not to be confused with Indian tea), the Hebrew word for living. Caught in the maelstrom between them are Melody (Lili Fuller), Liam’s blond “shiksa” (not-Jewish) girlfriend and his brother, Jonah (Raviv Ullman), who tries to stay out of the fray.
I asked cast member Ari Brand, who describes himself as culturally Jewish, what exactly it means to be a “bad Jew.”
“It’s sort of like when you say I’m on a diet but I’ve been bad this week. In the parlance of the millennial generation, it means a negligent or non-observant Jew, who doesn’t go to temple or keep kosher or do any of the many things that Jews are supposed to do.”
Many a comedic punch line — and serious issues, too — end with the question,”But is it good for the Jews?” So I asked Ari Brand that question about this play.
“Oh absolutely,” he replied. “The Jewish tradition is one of debate, discussion, dissent and open-minded dialogue. This millennial demographic that I’m part of, we’re at an interesting crossroads. As secular, non-observant Jews with maybe a little sprinkling of religious education but not much of a religious identity, we are trying to figure out what it actually means to be Jewish, how to define ourselves as Jewish, and how that correlates with our other beliefs and values, whether it’s politics or day-to-day life that contrasts with what other people think being Jewish is.”
Brand’s grandmother doesn’t appreciate the title. “Of course, I totally understand,” he says. “When the word ‘bad’ gets put in front of ‘Jew,’ it brings up sensitive memories for the nonagenarian generation and especially anyone who’s suffered discrimination for being Jewish. But I think the title is intentionally provocative, and I think if they saw it, they would understand you shouldn’t judge a play by its title.”
Brand admits that he looked to both his own life and to Facebook, in part, to find the template for his character. “I certainly feel like I know a lot of people like Liam, New York-born, secularly-raised Jewish progressive pseudo-intellectuals; I might from time to time define myself as one.”
But, says Brand, you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy this play. “I think it’s a universal story about family and the horrible people we allow ourselves to become when we’re around the people we are closest to. Whether you’re Jewish, male, female, black, Asian or anything in between, we all have family or people we love that we allow ourselves to our best and worst with. Most importantly, though, it’s just really funny.”
As for me, I’m consumed with the question of whether there’s any symbolic meaning to the chai having been hidden under Poppy’s tongue. After all, it is the very organ of communication, one which gets an epic workout in this rapid-fire, language-driven theatrical piece.
“Bad Jews” is onstage at The Geffen’s Gil Cates Theatre through July 19. Visit www.geffenplayhouse.com for showtimes and tickets.
Marc Chagall, the famous artist whose characters and cows fly over rooftops and landscapes, says that he was born dead. Dipped into a bucket of freezing water and pounded on his back, he finally let out his first cry.
In the film “Chagall-Malevich” Chagall comes into the world as his town and house are burning; he is dunked but the rest is not exactly history.
This film is one part fairy tale, one part cartoon, one part fantasy, and one part lesson in art history and political philosophy.
Chagall is a hopeful dreamer and fantasist, Konstantin Malevich is a hard-core abstract visionary, and both attempt to serve the Revolution while being true to their art. That’s a precarious place for an artist in a world of radical upheaval and rapidly shifting political manifestos, not to mention human emotions such as jealousy and betrayal.
This expressionistic film will be of interest to lovers of art and film technique, especially those who enjoy arguing whether art should elevate the masses or soothe the soul.
“Chagall-Malevich” opens at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and the Town Center in Encino this Friday. Visit www.laemmle.com for more info.
Photo by Michael Lamont
Sarah A. Spitz spent her career as a producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica and produced freelance arts reports for NPR. She has also written features and reviews for various publications.