There’s nothing like a death in the family to bring out the best and worst in surviving members. The award-winning Bad Jews, by Joshua Harmon and directed by Dana Resnick, now playing at The Odyssey Theatre (April 21 – June 17th) centers around a Jewish family and the funeral of their Holocaust -survivor grandfather – who had managed to hide his “Chai” (a Hebrew letter meaning life/or 18 that holds religious significance) from the Nazis for two years while in the death camp.
Visceral emotions emerge as each person defends what they believe they are owed and while all people are born with some ethnic, cultural, religious or national inheritance what they choose to do with these feelings can conflict with others. The feelings are universal when dealing with what we feel should belong to us.
The term “Bad Jews” can mean many things. To me, when I accidentally eat something non-kosher or don’t attend Sabbath services regularly, I consider myself a “bad Jew” but then how does one quantify someone whose heritage is Jewish but disallows everything that Judaism stands for?
In this play two families spar – the brothers Jonah and Liam are one group. Jonah doesn’t want to make waves and yet goes along with what his cousin says because he doesn’t want to argue. He seems to take for granted his parents’ gifts and appears not to care much about the religious aspects, while his older brother Liam (whose Hebrew name is Shlomo) openly mocks the religion especially those of his more traditional views of his cousin Daphna yet still believes he deserves what he thinks his grandfather should have given him. In fact, rather than attending his grandfather’s funeral, he took his non-Jewish girlfriend, Melody, skiing in Aspen.
Ignorant of the situation she has entered, Melody has no concept of Daphna’s questions or the meaning of what is happening around her.
Liam calls Daphna, who hopes to become a rabbi and move to Israel, a “super Jew” while he insults everything she thinks and does even as she attempts to point out that the Aryan Melody really is not his equal. Because of how her grandfather had hidden his “Chai” and what it meant to him – and what it means to her – she feels the most deserving of this. But Liam, who sees it for what he thinks it is – a gold piece of jewelry that he plans to use to propose to Melody with. To him, the rituals or the meaning of the events pass over him.
As he attempts to coerce his brother to help him keep their cousin from knowing he has the “Chai” or what he plans to use it for, you can see Jonah as he sways and tries to step away. Yet the end scene where he sides with his cousin, which I will not divulge, hooked me in a way no other play has done.
Starring Jeanette Deutsch (Daphna Feygenbaum,) Lila Hood (Melody,) Noah James (Liam Haber,) and Austin Rogers (Jonah Haber) and was enhanced by director Resnick’s own abilities and sensibilities. All the actors deserve awards for the intense passions they put in their work. Austin, who is not Jewish, learned more about the Jewish traditions for his role, but all of them should only move into bigger and better roles.
The play is billed as a savage comedy dealing with family, faith, and legacy, it was, to me, more about keeping the tradition alive and what is in your heart. While there were some funny moments, I found myself identifying with Daphna as she tried to safeguard her rituals, history, and heritage and totally understood her reaction to Liam and Melody. But at the end, who wins out?
While there are a few Yiddish terms used in the story -as shiksa (referring to Melody, the non-Jewish girlfriend), shiva (the events after a funeral -which in religious families last up to seven days, aliyah (moving to Israel) and seder (the Passover celebration retelling of the Jewish exodus from Egypt – also Jesus’ last supper), you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy or understand the essence of the play.
Bad Jews has won numerous awards and become one of Harmon’s most produced plays.
The Odyssey team who assisted the production includes Ron Sossi as Artistic Director, David Offner – set design, Tom Ash – lighting, Marisa Whitmore – sound, Vicki Conrad – costume, Josh La Cour – props, and Arnab Banerjhi served as dramaturg. Gregory Velasco Kukcukarslan served as assistant director, while Emma Whitley was stage manager. Lucy Pollak did the public relations.
The 90-minute play – no intermission – runs until June 17 and there are many layers of it so it’s possible to see it more than once and get different sensations out of it. Prices are $30-35 with discounted tickets for seniors, students, those under 30, and SAG members. The third Friday of every month is wine night where the theatre serves complimentary wine and snacks as the audience mingles with the cast. Check out the Odyssey Theatre or call 310 477-2055 for tickets.
Even if you are not Jewish, I urge you to see it not once, but several times.