Doing a reading this evening of a play that will be off Broadway at the Roundabout this fall, Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews. The play centers around three grandchildren cooped up in an apartment together the evening after their beloved grandfather’s funeral. The central conflict surrounds who will get possession of their grandfather’s chai, a medallion he carried with him through the Holocaust and later, after surviving, proposed to his wife with. The most devout of the grandchildren, Daphna, argues that she should have the chai on the basis of its religious significance and her connection to his faith. The elder grandson Liam, however, has already taken it and plans to use it to propose to his “shiksah” girlfriend. Liam and Daphna fight bitterly for the chai, and in the course of the evening, reveal their cruelest, most desperate impulses.
It’s a comedy. Obviously.
What is most interesting to me about the play is how through the lens of the conflict between two rather unsympathetic characters (the two are both terrible to each other) Harmon brings up a lot of knotty and complicated issues surrounding identity, history, and cultural ownership. If someone in your family has suffered greatly (in this case, survived the Holocaust), how much of that suffering belongs to you? How much of it can you own? Conversely, if someone in your family history has been an oppressor, how much ownership must you claim over that? What is our relationship to our family’s history, to the history of “our people,” to the atrocities they’ve committed or been subjected to? (These questions reminded me a bit of Soho Reps “We are proud to present…” They also remind me of how complicated any conversation about race in America is.) Is it better to fight to preserve one’s heritage, or assimilate more and more fully into a globalized and possibly homogenized society? In the words of the characters, are “people just people” or does “culture matter”?
As Daphna and Liam argue over the Chai they injure themselves and the two bystanders (Liam’s girlfriend and younger brother) in the process. Neither Daphna nor Liam are sympathetic in their opposing views. They both say atrocious things to each other and reveal deep character flaws (Liam is cruel and may be a misogynist, Daphna is toxic and may have invented an imaginary boyfriend). The characters positioned outside of the central conflict are more sympathetic, but complexly so. Melody, Liam’s girlfriend, argues for a world of tolerance where “people are just people” and wants very badly to be a “good person.” It seems like she might be but she is also comically bland and daft and overlooks the significance of cultural difference. Liam’s younger brother, the lost and hapless Jonah just wants to stay out of it all and relentlessly avoids committing to a position.
At the end of the play Liam proposes to Melody, and places the chai around her neck. This prompts Daphna to physically attack Melody, ripping it off of her neck. In the aftermath of this action she is stunned and confused by her capacity for aggression. She desperately looks to Jonah for some kind of comfort or validation. Then, he, in a stunning moment, reveals that he has tattooed his grandfather’s Holocaust number on his arm—an act that violates Jewish law, but also preserves his grandfather’s memory more profoundly than any other act in the play.
I’ll be interested to see how our little audience responds to the play this evening. I also will be very eager to see it in New York this fall and how a staging deepens or illuminates the questions that the play poses.