Arts & Culture

The Good And The Bad of ‘Bad Jews’

Joshua Harmon’s critically acclaimed Off-Broadway play questions what it means to be a Bad Jew Read More

By / October 9, 2013

On Tuesday night, at the Laura Pels Theater in Manhattan’s Theater District, the room was completely packed with an audience buzzing about Bad Jews, the critically acclaimed new play written by Joshua Harmon and directed by Daniel Aukin. My affinity for an element of surprise kept me from researching the play too thoroughly before I saw it, rather I played a “What do you think it’ll be about based on the straightforward title” type of game. Expectedly, Bad Jews was about Bad Jews. But, uniquely, it questioned what makes a Jew a Bad Jew. Traditionally, we’ve taken the term to mean the kind of Jew that eats bread on Passover, the kind of Jew that dates outside the tribe. But in Bad Jews, the Bad Jews try to fit their kin into boxes, judging them based on their partners, guilt-tripping them based on their choices. The Bad Jews in Bad Jews look outward rather than inward, absent of self-reflection and brimming with blame.

On the eve of their grandfather’s funeral— a strong man who survived the Holocaust with a gold Chai necklace hidden under his tongue— a family spends the night in a fancy apartment on the Upper West Side. There’s Diana, or Daphna, with an Israeli inflection, as she prefers it. Daphna (Tracee Chimo) is very religious, spiritual, but mostly she’s just holier than though. She speaks in a cartoonish Jewish New York accent and talks incessantly of family and tradition and aliyah. She is the woman you hide from at the Hillel house. Her cousin Liam (Michael Zegen), an almost-atheist, too-cool-for-religion, thick-framed hipster kind of Jew, shows up to the apartment after the funeral, having missed it because he dropped his iPhone off a ski lift in Aspen and didn’t get the news of the death. Liam arrives with his soon-to-be fiancé, Melody (Molly Ranson), a frustratingly stereotyped version of a non-Jew. She dons long blonde hair, outfits from Talbots, and a huge treble clef tattoo on her leg despite her ironically awful singing voice. She wants everyone to get along, offering hot tea and hugs. Devoid of a personality, Melody’s sweet, but she’s a trope. Finally, there’s Liam’s younger brother, Jonah (Philip Ettinger), who lies somewhere in the middle on the Jewish scale—he’s not into religion, but he’s not blatantly embarrassed by it like Liam. What Jonah does believe in is staying out of Liam and Daphna’s pugnacious ways.

From the moment they occupy the same space, Liam and Daphna fight. They have so clearly made their minds up about each other that their hatred is organic and real. When Daphna’s in the bathroom, just a thin door and earshot away, Liam rips her apart.

Ater her trip to Israel last summer, all we heard about at Thanksgiving was this fucking Army boyfriend she had now from some town where you have to say “cccccchh” to pronounce it, so she pronounced it like sixteen hundred times, this guy who is so Jewish and so great and he wants to marry her and she’s going to make aliyah and live in Jerusalem shoving shofars in her hideous unused vagina until the whatever arrives.

Later, after what seems like hundreds of insults, it’s Daphna’s turn to criticize Liam:

Studying torah for all of ten minutes is only worthy of total utter snide sniveling disdain; if you found yourself in the middle of a rain dance you would be soooo respectful trying to do every movement perfectly to like honor every Native American who ever lived, but if you found yourself in the middle of a hora– I’ve seen you in the middle of a hora– you look like you want to fucking die.

They continue their vitriol, but at a certain point the tenacity of their arguments lose effect because when the insults are this strong, it’s unlikely that anyone—siblings, cousins, fiancés—would ever stick around to hear what comes next. In those moments, Bad Jews loses its emotional métier. The fighting becomes parody like the play’s portrayal of Melody—a simple shiksa who couldn’t possibly be intelligent given her religion. When Liam proposes to Melody with the Chai necklace his grandfather left to him, a necklace whose inheritance has been the major source of antagonism between the cousins, Daphna rips it off her neck like a maniac. Melody bleeds, screaming and crying. She says, vulgarly, “It was in someone’s mouth! I could have an infection. I want to go to the hospital.” The family, and likely the audience, agreed that Liam should not have given his fiancé the necklace. But why was Melody made to be so shallow? Does Bad Jews imply that in order to be sympathetic and understanding of the Holocaust’s tragedy, one must be a Jew? Liam, a Jew, certainly doesn’t understand.

At its strongest, Bad Jews shows us that Jonah, who loves unconditionally his family, is the Good Jew. Liam and Daphna throw stones, unable to see that they’re missing the point. In a short beautiful scene, the cousins laugh about the night of Liam’s 10th birthday. The family, and their Jewish stomachs, dined at Benihana—an ode to Liam’s love of Japanese, not Jewish, culture. The whole family—the grandparents, parents, and children—all got sick, wobbling to the bathroom one at a time. Recounting the story, the cousins forget their differences, laughing through tears on the floor. Melody watches on, unable to understand, as it should be for an outsider to any cousins, whether they’re Jewish or not. They’re just family and they have a shared history. But the moment is fleeting and before long it’s back to judgment.

In a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, we learned that one in five Jews describes themselves as having no religion. In Bad Jews, the responsibility, the one to blame, for that statistic, is everyone else. Rather than using love and hope, like their grandfather did during the holocaust, Daphna and Liam work through the hardest moment of their young lives—their grandfather’s passing—with hate and judgment, and for that, they’re the Bad Jews and they’re to blame.

(Photo by Joan Marcus)