A lot has happened since 2013, when Joshua Harmon’s play “Bad Jews” was first staged, at the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York City. True, antisemitism was thriving in 2013, but the decade since has been even more frightening for American Jews: Antisemitic violence in the U.S. is now at an all-time high, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
So, if you happened to be driving down Jefferson Boulevard in Warwick, and you saw a big red sign proclaiming “Bad Jews,” your alarm would be understandable. Even learning that the sign was an advertisement for a stage play was small consolation to many.
Yet the Gamm Theatre is proceeding with its production of “Bad Jews” this month.
“Despite the deliberately provocative, and ironic, nature of the title, ‘Bad Jews’ is a testament to the fact that no one person is a monolith,” Tony Estrella, the Gamm’s artistic director, wrote in his program notes. “There is little agreement in any culture about who or what constitutes the ‘good’ or the ‘bad.’ There is no consensus on either the nature of our debt to the past or our aspirations for the future.”
“Bad Jews” takes place over the course of one night in a studio apartment in Manhattan. A beloved patriarch has just died, and his grandchildren are bickering over his legacy. Daphna is fiery, loyal to her family and deeply committed to her Judaism. Liam missed the funeral, behaves with secular ambivalence and is dating a non-Jewish woman. In the middle is Jonah, who is both diplomatic and emotionally riven. Their bickering escalates as they debate the fate of a family heirloom, which barely escaped Nazi scavengers.
“I definitely relate,” says actor Hillel Rosenshine, 23, who plays Jonah in the Gamm production. “At times in the play, it feels like characters are talking past each other because one person is arguing about cultural Judaism while the other is arguing about religious Judaism. It can be a worthwhile distinction to make.”
Rosenshine is a Brown University alumnus, and his parents are both Israeli. He says his background is secular.
“I never went to Hebrew school, I seldom attended synagogue, and I eat pork,” he says. “So, on the one hand I grew up battling expectations of how Jewish I’m meant to be, trying to be as assimilated into secular society as possible.
“On the other hand, I’ve gone through periods of strong pride in my Judaism. There are times when I’m deeply afraid of becoming someone rootless, without some community or tradition to call upon. And in those moments, I echo Daphna in her pleas for preserving Jewish identity as an American.”
But the play is about more than Jewish identity, and many of the themes will speak to audiences regardless of their religion.
“I’ve lost a lot of people I love,” says actress Sarah Corey, who plays Daphna. Corey, who grew up in a Jewish family in Massachusetts, says she is also drawn to the theme of grief.
“One other thing I understand on a deep level, which this play really focuses in on, is the obligation for family to be there in a family member’s last months and weeks and hours and minutes, or whatever you can make happen. To rush to bedsides and spend quality time or palliative time. You do not miss a family member’s last days and their funeral because you lost your phone skiing in Aspen. I judge Liam very harshly for that.”
For her lead role in the world premiere of “Bad Jews,” Tracee Chimo won a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Play. The New York Times said the play “crackled with energy.” But still, those involved in the Gamm’s production know how badly the title comes across in these days of swelling antisemitism, which has led to concerns from friends and loved ones.
“My aunt just recently asked me worriedly if it was an antisemitic play,” says John Hardin, 36, who plays Liam. “I’m willing to bet it’s not the last time I’ll have that reaction to the title.”
Hardin is not Jewish, but he sees a connection between his relationship with Catholicism and the characters in “Bad Jews.”
“I still feel a sense of responsibility for what the Catholic Church supports and enacts in the world,” he says. “It’s a strange dilemma to habitually avoid the church and still feel tethered to it. I think that’s the same kind of friction that Liam deals with in the play.”
The phrase “bad Jews” could mean different things to different people, Corey adds. It could be a self-effacing joke, an accusation within the community or, indeed, a hostile slur. To Corey, Harmon’s fictional scenario evokes all these meanings.
“I think the meaning of the [title] is clear and multifaceted when you’ve seen the play,” she says. “In the Jewish faith, there is such an emphasis on mitzvah and performing mitzvot. So, I read the title also to mean that these [characters] are bad Jews – not all of them, I’ll let the audience decide who – because they are acting selfishly, and not with kindness and compassion to others. It’s an anti-mitzvah.”
Corey, who has performed in a wide range of productions as an actress and singer, says she was familiar with “Bad Jews” long before she was cast in the Gamm’s production.
“I loved [the play] from the first time I read it,” she says. “It is so spot-on as an exploration of grief and faith and family and Judaism and compassion and miscommunication. It’s hilarious and heartbreaking. When I found out about auditions at the Gamm, I really wanted this. This could easily be my family!”
“Bad Jews” plays March 2-26 at the Gamm Theatre, in Warwick, GammTheatre.org. Join a free discussion, moderated by Rabbi Sarah Mack, on March 12 at 3:45 p.m. at the Gamm.
ROBERT ISENBERG (email@example.com) is the multimedia producer for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and a writer for Jewish Rhode Island.