Bad Jews struck me like a mediocre boxer who runs around the rink to avoid his opponent, throws punches that do not hit their target or just flails pointlessly with his arms in a sad attempt at boxing. But in the end, to everyone’s surprise, he lands a solid hook and knocks out his opponent.
Joshua Harmon does land a punch in the final minutes of the play but we can’t forget the rest of it where there are all kinds of problems.
Bad Jews is about three grandchildren who meet after the funeral of their grandfather. They meet in Jonah’s (Jake Goldsbie) studio apartment in Manhattan. His cousin Daphna (Sarah Segal-Lazar) is there and she expresses a great interest in getting her grandfather’s chai.
Jonah’s brother Liam (Jamie Elman) arrives with his girlfriend Melody (Ellen Denny) and after some time arguing about sleeping arrangements in the small apartment and looking for alternatives, the issues among the four characters are joined. The central issue is who will get the chai.
The chai (the word means living or alive) is a gold medallion that was worn by their grandfather around his neck. When he was taken to a Nazi concentration camp, he kept it under his tongue for two years. He gave it to his wife because she gave him life.
Jamie Elman, Jake Goldsbie, Sarah Segal-Lazar and Ellen Denny
Photo by Leslie Schachter
A few words about the characters. Jonah is a dishrag who tries to stay out of the conflicts among Daphna, Liam and Melody. He is a nothing, in other words, until near the end when he does deliver a punch, but it is fortuitous because it is not in character.
Melody is blonde, pretty, and not too swift with German roots. She is not Jewish and that makes her an easy target for the religious Daphna who treats her with contempt largely because she is not Jewish and therefore not worthy of marrying a Jew.
Liam is a modern Jew who points out some issues one may have with the Bible. He is an atheist Jew and has a practical approach to Judaism. He wants the chai and has in fact gained possession of it before his grandfather died. His loyalty to the family is questionable because he did not come for the funeral because he was skiing. He makes a mealy-mouthed excuse for his non-attendance.
The most interesting character is Daphna. She is a devout Jew who wants to return to Israel and become a rabbi. She is a bitch, to put it politely, and her opposition to Liam’s proposed marriage to Melody is that it will adulterate Liam’s Jewish blood. He mercilessly points out to her that she is repeating the language of the Nazis about racial purity. She attacks Jonah spinelessness, Melody for her background and Liam for just about everything from not using his Jewish name (Shlomo), to not attending the funeral, to gaining possession of the chai under false pretenses.
Bad Jews develops slowly, very slowly, and it lacks a moral center. The chai is symbolic of deep faith that sustains life and love under the most horrific circumstances imaginable. It meant a great deal to their grandfather not just because of how he kept it under his tongue but also because he gave it to his wife as an equally powerful act of love. Daphna despoils even that by offhandedly referring to her grandmother as a bitch.
I will not disclose what happens in the final minutes of the play when there is a type of resolution after about an hour of less-than-exciting development, when the plot comes to life.
The actors do their job and they do it well. If you need someone to represent a bitch, just call Sarah Segal-Lazar. She plays with her hair to the point of distraction and in her ferocious devotion to Jewishness, her attack on her cousins and Melody she is, well, one king-size bitch.
Goldsbie, Elman and Denny play well against her and each other and director Lisa Rubin does the best she can with the play.
In the end, the grandchildren of the Holocaust survivor are not so much bad Jews as unworthy heirs to the strength, faith and love represented by him or of a play, for that matter, that does not do justice to him.