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2018-07-13 digital edition
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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2019 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved. 


July 13, 2018  RSS feed
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Text: T T T

Play gives voice to struggles with ritual, legacy

By DOROTHY HERSHMAN Special to the Jewish Press

Actors Jenny Lester and Jackson Goldberg play feuding cousins in “Bad Jews,” now playing at American Stage. 
JOEY CLAY STUDIO Actors Jenny Lester and Jackson Goldberg play feuding cousins in “Bad Jews,” now playing at American Stage. JOEY CLAY STUDIO The story goes that playwright Joshua Harmon’s grandmother asked him to change the provocatively titled Bad Jews to Good Jews.

The dark comedy, which has played to mostly enthusiastic reviews around the country since its off-Broadway premiere in 2012, opened July 11 at American Stage in downtown St. Petersburg.

The central dilemma of the play: Who is deserving of a late grandfather’s Chai pendant, an object so dear he hid it in his mouth throughout time in a concentration camp?

Locally, the theater company has been sensitive to the Jewish community’s concerns, holding a pre-production panel discussion with director Amy Resnick and six millennial Jews – the play’s target audience. The panelists talked about what the term “bad Jew” means to them and shared anecdotes relating the term as in-group, self-deprecating humor.

A scene from ‘Bad Jews’ A scene from ‘Bad Jews’ So, it would seem perhaps that the title, Bad Jews, is the Jewish playwright’s “in joke” with the Jewish community, particularly with the younger generation, intending to ask what sort of behavior constitutes being a “good” or “bad” Jew in the world today.

The characters, through their interactions, beg two questions: Is being a good Jew more about living one’s life according to Jewish ethical teachings or one’s observance of the rituals? And, what is the relevance of legacy to either?

These were the questions the panelists related to in terms of their own lives. One panelist was the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors; one was married to a non-Jewish man, but devoutly Jewish herself; one had left the faith, but was now finding his way back into the community; one was a deeply devout student of the faith. Some talked about their trips to Israel with beautiful reverence while others explained why they hadn’t yet gone. Every one of them felt remembering Jewish history was important. Altogether they represented the very questions the play explores. They also represented the other diverse “voice” this production seeks to relate to - millennials.

Further, the playwright has contended that these questions of identity should resonate with the non-Jewish audience as well: Which of the traditions/legacy and ethical contract of your group will you keep or discard in your quest to become human in today’s changing world?

However, as universal as the theme might be seen in this way, Harmon wrote, Bad Jews from his own experience as a young Jewish American and that particular perspective enriches the play with its particular voice.

Harmon, 35, said in an interview that the seed for the play – and the title – was a Yom HaShoah ceremony he attended while a student at Northwestern University. Grandchildren of survivors were speaking about their grandparents’ experiences. Unlike the emotional response when hearing the stories directly from survivors, Harmon said, the retelling was “just kind of scary and it jarred me.”

Kara Goldberg, American Stage’s advancement associate, who moderated the panel discussion, talked about how the play’s four college-age characters might well represent the “Four Children” story at Passover: (1) “The wise and faithful” would be Daphna (here played by Jenny Lester); (2) “The wicked and mocking,” her cousin Liam (Jackson Goldberg); (3) “The simple and vaguely curious,” Liam’s younger brother Jonah (Matt Acquard); and, “Unable to even ask the questions” would be Melody (Kate Berg), Liam’s well intentioned, but clueless shiksa girlfriend.

In writing about the play, Rabbi Howard A. Berman of the Central Reform Temple of Boston also pointed out that Harmon’s characters are wonderfully three-dimensional: “The wise Daphna is also arrogant and offensive; mocking alienated Liam does have a deep down connection; and, in the end it is the simple inarticulate Jonah and the even more ethereal and clueless Melody that together emerge as the most redeeming and positive forces.”

This complexity gives the play life and substance, but also challenges the actors.

Rabbi Berman goes on to note his concern with, “the challenge presented by the figure of Daphna – who embodies much of the biased, narrow minded and exclusionary zeal of ‘true believers’ of all faiths. Her personal insecurities and inner struggles are cloaked in her holier than thou diatribes …”

Such an unsympathetic Daphna could come off as a tedious caricature and the play just a long irritating family argument. And, what with the set designer’s expressed intention to make the small apartment make us feel “closed in for the long haul,” the audience might cower and miss many of the finer points Daphna makes.

Actor Jenny Lester told the Jewish Press she had first seen Daphna as “utterly insufferable,” and thought, “I must play her.”

On further study she has come to see, “both Daphna and Liam as brilliant sparring partners, both totally committed to their beliefs about religion, the importance of tradition and both fiercely devoted to their family.”

Lester comes from a Reform Jewish, show business family in Los Angeles and credits her father with instilling in her, “a sense of utter pride in the resilience of our people; the humor of the great Jewish comedians; the importance of carrying out the traditions so they don’t die out; and, a fierce love for the pursuit of knowledge.” She added to this, “Sometimes the most Jewish thing in the world is knowing how to challenge and ask questions.”

One of those questions that remains: Why Bad Jews? At the panel discussion, an elderly man, introducing himself as a “Holocaust survivor,” said he thinks he has the real answer.

“I have no problem with the play. It’s a good play,” he said. “But I think (Harmon) should have taken his grandmother’s advice. I think he only named it that to sell tickets.”

* * *

The play runs Wednesdays – Sundays through Aug. 5. Tickets are $39 and $49, depending on the day and time.

A “free Community Conversation Part 2: Jewish & American, Today” & Tomorrow will be held Sunday, July 29 at 4:30 p.m. following the matinee performance. The inter-generational panel discussion will focus on Jewish legacy and family life as millennials grow into adulthood, balancing tradition and progress and how differing perspectives on culture and history impact family dynamics, as well as the fabric of community. Confirmed panelist, as of press time, is Barbara Mazer Gross, executive director of Studio@620, congregant of Temple Beth-El, and member of musical group The Jammin Jews.

There will also be chatback sessions immediately following the performances on Thursday, July 19 and Sunday, July 22. Audience members will have the opportunity to talk with the cast and ask questions about the play, the characters, and the process, plus respond to the story and ideas prompted by the production. There is no charge for ticketholders.

The Jewish Press is the Community Engagement partner for Bad Jews.

American Stage is located at 163 Third St. N., in St. Petersburg. For tickets, call (727) 823-7529 or email More information can be found at

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