Good Jew or Bad Jew
August 3, 2018
By Mel Pearlman
As if we have not been emotionally exasperated and mentally mutilated by the endless debates regarding the existential question of “Who is a Jew,” playwright Joshua Harmon has come along to challenge us with an even more vexatious question: What makes a Jew a “good” Jew or a “bad” Jew?
Growing up in Brooklyn in a neighborhood of Orthodox Jews and not one, but two orthodox synagogues down the block on which we lived, we always did Shabbat dinner on Friday night and regularly attended Shabbat services. My parents kept kosher and we observed all the Jewish holidays. However, we also were allowed to go to the movies on Saturday afternoon; and when we intended to ride on Shabbat my father would park the car on the next block to avoid anyone seeing us. Were we being good Jews or bad Jews?
I felt that same uncertainty several weeks ago when my wife and I went to see a performance of Mr. Harmon’s play, “Bad Jews” at the Mad Cow theatre. This time my uncertainty was about the characters being portrayed.
The story is about two brothers, Jona and Liam, and their cousin Daphna, the offspring of two sisters, whose father, a Holocaust survivor, has just died, leaving a gold chai, a jeweled depiction of two Hebrew letters meaning “Life.”
As the play begins, Jona and his cousin Daphna have just returned from their grandfather’s funeral to Jona’s tiny Manhattan apartment to await Liam’s return to New York from Colorado. Liam and his girlfriend, Melody, were on a spring-break skiing holiday, and apparently chose not to shorten the trip to attend the funeral.
In Liam’s absence, Daphna, a hyper-personality observant Jew and strong Zionist, tries to enlist Jona to persuade his brother not to challenge her for possession of the gold chai, arguing that her devotion to Judaism and Israel entitles her to claim the grandfather’s gold chai as her rightful inheritance. Jona disavows any interest in the chai, and weakly seeks to avoid taking sides in the forthcoming confrontation over who deserves to inherit this coveted family heirloom.
Finally, Liam arrives accompanied by his very pretty blue-eyed blonde non-ethnic girlfriend, and the verbal battle begins over who should inherit the gold chai. Liam, who is a graduate student working toward his Phd. in Japanese studies, has zero interest in Judaism and Israel, but he has his grandfather’s story and the inner spark of a Jewish soul which ties him to the chai as well.
When the grandfather was a little boy during the years of the Nazi reign over Europe, he was separated from his parents in the concentration camp. HIs father gave the little boy the gold chai with instructions to hide it, and to use it to buy food when he was hungry. The little boy hid the chai under his tongue; and there it remained until he was liberated after the war. When he came to America as a young man, he met the love of his life. Because he was very poor and could not afford a ring for his bride, he proposed to her using the gold chai, which his father had lovingly given to him for his survival during the dark days of the Holocaust.
Liam now wants to use the gold chai as his token of betrothal to his non-Jewish girlfriend, to continue a tradition in memory of his grandfather, a very Jewish thing, even if Liam would not acknowledge it as such.
What follows is 60 minutes of blistering argument between the two cousins which kept you on the edge of your seat and was not unlike a Talmudic discourse. One of the most memorable lines of the play, is when Daphna confronts Liam with the words, “You spend five years studying a strange Japanese culture, but laugh when a Jew studies Torah for 10 minutes.”
I will not tell you who ends up with the gold chai, but I will tell you Jona, the quiet, self-effacing and least convicted character makes the most powerful non-verbal statement of the entire play in the closing moments, leaving the audience with an exhausting 90 minutes of excellent theatre, but with no answers to the question posed.
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Mel Pearlman has been practicing law in Central Florida for the past 45 years. He has served as president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando; on the District VII Mental Health Board, as Special Prosecutor for the City of Winter Park, Florida; and on the Board of Directors of the Central Florida Research and Development Authority. He was a charter member of the Board of Directors and served as the first Vice President of the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Central Florida, as well as its first pro-bono legal counsel.