Israel and Circumcision Top List of Concerns in New 'Pewish' Plays

Survey Inspires Playwrights To Examine Modern Judaism

Funny, You Don’t Look Pewish: Short plays by ten Jewish playwrights were presented at a staged reading at the Judson Memorial Church in New York.
David Shmidt Chapman
Funny, You Don’t Look Pewish: Short plays by ten Jewish playwrights were presented at a staged reading at the Judson Memorial Church in New York.

By Gordon Haber

Published July 01, 2014, issue of July 04, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The Pew Survey of American Jewry came as a shock to the chattering classes (or kibbitzing classes) of professional Jews, the pundits, academics and culture boosters that make a living by analyzing or promoting Judaism, myself included. Of course, anybody with eyes could see that interest in the religion has dwindled and many American Jews see little point in supporting Israel. But the decline was much steeper than anybody expected. American Jewry is quickly becoming a divided community, with a minority of Zionist daveners and a majority of “secular Jews” — that is, those whose identity starts and stops with an occasional hankering for whitefish.

So it’s no wonder that the study generated a flurry of discussion among professional Jews and the people who listen to them. And in many ways it’s a productive conversation. But the one problem is that the people whom we need to hear from the most — the indifferent Jews — haven’t been chiming in. It’s likely that most of them haven’t even heard about the survey. This is unfortunate because it would be helpful to know more about their indifference, if only to track the death throes of a moribund community. And it’s also unfortunate because even indifferent Jews, with little prodding, will quite Jewishly talk your ear off about their non-Judaism.

David Shmidt Chapman, an energetic young theater director, also noticed that the voices of a usually voluble group were missing.

“In the Jewish world everybody was talking about it, rabbis, scholars, academics,” Chapman told me. “But the survey didn’t register with the artists. They didn’t know about it. And the survey should have had a bigger impact on the creative community, because artists can be good emissaries of cultural information.”

Chapman was inspired to commission short plays from ten Jewish playwrights who usually don’t write about religious issues. Then, with sponsorship from ROI, he put together “Pew-ish: Artists Responding to the New Jewish Identity,” a staged reading of the plays that took place on June 26th at the Judson Memorial Church.

I must admit to some trepidation about the evening. As a writer who explores the nexus of religion and culture, I’ve endured a lot “artistic responses” to Jewish issues. In particular I’ve seen a lot of bad theater, the kind that makes you wish you’d listened to your mother and gone to law school.

But “Pew-ish” was surprisingly enjoyable. One reason is because the show opened with Adam Blotner performing as Ari Sweatlove, a Jewish hippy singer too dim to notice just how patronizing he is. Later, Blotner sang about a neglected holiday: Grap your kippah and wear it / Get some cheesecake and share it / Shmini Atzeret.

As this was a staged reading, it was understandable that the plays themselves were at times a little inchoate or ragged. Nevertheless they were all interesting, which is highly unusual when so many writers are involved, and most achieved moments of humor and real pathos.

One standout was “The Spivaks,” by Anna Ziegler, in which the eponymous family argue over dinner about Israel (what else?). The piece was particularly engaging for its multigenerational and contradictory approach, with the patriarch, Walter (played by a thundering David Mandelbaum), banging the table to punctuate his support for the Jewish state — which he’s never visited.

“Why should I go?” he asks. “It’s enough to know it’s there.”

Meanwhile his petulant granddaughter, Ivy (the versatile Annie Purcell), has zero interest in Israel, comparing it to a relative “that everybody thinks is related to me but really isn’t, like a step-uncle who gets drunk and says too much.”

A second standout was “The Covenant,” or “Bagels and Butchery,” by Ken Weitzman. In this playlet, new parents debate whether they should go through with their son’s bris when the mohel who shows up is crosseyed. It’s an amusing beginning to a serious subject, especially when the wife isn’t Jewish: the word “mutilation” comes up a lot.

Jake Goodman is charming as David, an ambivalent secular Jew tortured by his indecision about the excision, and Megan Ketch is appealing as the sharp-tongued but loving wife and mother. And, as a Jewish father, I can attest to how well the play captures the horror of parents facing the insanity of circumcision.

But “The Covenant” exemplifies an interesting thread that ran through the evening. At times it was unclear just who was grappling with a religion that they don’t know much about — the writer or the characters. This didn’t necessarily detract from “Pew-ish.” After all, Shmidt’s goal was to work with writers who don’t usually tackle such issues. But I’d have liked to see one or two more voices from younger people not struggling with their Zionism or Judaism. Not for ideological reasons—Shmidt insisted that he has “no agenda” for “Pew-ish” other than dialogue, and I commend him for that. But while the Pew Survey demonstrates that the less ambivalent subset of American Jewry is fast diminishing, nevertheless it still exists.

The evening was a one-off: Shmidt, by his own admission, has “no idea” what happens next with “Pew-ish.” I hope he figures out some way to keep the conversation going. These plays are a glimpse of a generation that is rapidly losing its religion and its ability to swallow the Israeli national myth. (The one pillar that seems to be holding strong is the centrality of the Holocaust to Jewish identity and history.) It’s a generation that doesn’t know how to be Jewish. They’re lost, but maybe in a good way — because even if they don’t have answers, they’re still holding on to the questions.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.