Jewtopia: A Comedy In Two Acts
407 West 43rd Street, New York
Keeping Up with the Steins (2006)
Directed by Scott Marshall
Written by Mark Zakarin
Much ink and money has been spilt over the topic of “hip Judaism”. We have our own Chasidic, reggae superstar; Jews all but invented the comic book and modern art; and a slew of contemporary comedians are Jewish – Jon Stewart and Ali G. to name two. The word kosher has become a popular term even in non-Jewish circles, and Jewish websites and blogs of all sorts parade Jewish jam bands and rap music, media analysis and politics, fashion and entertainment. Surely Jews have always participated in cultural circles and the media, but the contemporary blend seems intent on wearing its Judaism on its sleeve, where its forefathers had more of a profound sense of Jewish identity. But all this talk of Judaism à la mode might be premature. The jury is still out on whether all these models of cool Judaism are here to stay, or whether this is another fad – like so many others in our history – that will hardly last.
Bryan Fogel’s and Sam Wolfson’s off-Broadway play, “Jewtopia: A Comedy in Two Acts,” presents two opposing views on the question of Jewish coolness. The premise is simple; an Irish-Catholic man (Chris O’Donnell) wants to marry a Jewish girl, so he’ll never have to make another decision in his life. His Jewish friend (Adam Lipshitz) has trouble meeting nice Jewish girls to bring home to his mother, and the pressure to marry is mounting. The men form a pact. Adam will teach Chris the nuances of Jewish life, if Chris will open the doors of Jewtopia to Adam and get him Jewish dates. “Jewtopia” – which seems to be a blend of Judaism and utopia – turns out to be “Jdate,” the online Jewish dating site. Sadly, Adam’s 155 dates turn out to be mostly disasters. But ironically he ends up convincing Chris to convert to Judaism and marry a Jewish girl.
“Jewtopia” is abounding with stereotypes like Chris’ pursuit of a Jewish wife who will make all the decisions. When Adam explains to Chris what the telling signs will be that he is a goy so that he will be sure to avoid them, the list includes: owning and using power tools, watching Fox News and NASCAR, and the kicker – being in perfect health. He equips Chris with a small pharmacy’s worth of medical supplies, from Sudafed to Metamucil, for Chris’ date with his dream-girl and her Jewish mother.
“Jewtopia” is funny enough to allow the audience to overlook the sometimes stifling barrage of stereotypes. One wonders how appealing it would be to non-Jews, since part of the fun is laughing at “self-caricatures,” for two hours. But the play is most useful for its response to the question above: Is Judaism cool?
In that sense, it sets itself in a similar arena as the recent movie “Keeping Up with the Steins,” which has an equally bizarre plot. Benjamin Fiedler (Daryl Sabara) and his parents are planning his forthcoming bar mitzvah. Or more accurately, his parents are planning his bar mitzvah for him, and they intend to outdo the recent Stein bar mitzvah that cost half a million dollars, exploring a “Titanic” theme that was complete with a cruise ship and a dolphin wearing a kippa (attached with Velcro, according to the party planner). The Fiedlers decide to use a baseball theme and to rent out Dodgers stadium to amuse Benjamin’s friends. Benjamin, meanwhile, cannot read his haftorah to save his life, but luckily he invites his grandmother’s estranged husband to the bar mitzvah and the grandfather saves the day.
The tale of blockbuster bar mitzvahs would have come off as far more absurd, if not for recent reports in the mainstream press about fads that not only feature house mortgages to pay for bar mitzvahs, but even a trend of Gentiles celebrating their “bar mitzvahs”.
“Jewtopia” also tracks a Jewish activity – dating – and infuses it with Gentiles. The play opens with Adam and Chris reuniting at the Inter-Temple Rockin’ Young Jewish Singles Mixer. They share Manischewitz and Sparkling Peach Kedem, when Adam says, “You know, Chris, it’s funny, because, when we were kids growing up together, I don’t remember you being… you know… Jewish.” Chris shrugs off the accusation, “Really? We were,” after which he says “Le’chaim” to Adam.
Adam sticks to his guns, “It’s just that, you know, I remember when I would sleep over at your house in the morning your mom was making bacon and sausage. I think once there was a rotating pig on a spit.” Adam, unsatisfied, tests Chris’ knowledge of Jewish scripture from the blessing on wine to the four questions of the Seder to “Adon Olam” to the Shema.
Chris successfully answers all Adam’s questions, but Adam then remembers that Chris’ father Buck collected guns, was a colonel in the Marines, drove a Trans Am, and the clincher – he actually used his boat. Adam starts yelling “Goyim! There’s a goyim [sic] at the party!” A dialogue ensues:
CHRIS: Alright, fine! You got me! I am a Gentile! Okay?
ADAM: A Gentile at the Jewish singles mixer? What are you doing here, man?!
CHRIS: I LOVE Jewish girls!
This sort of clichéd humor poking fun at Jews and all things Jewish, also surfaces in “The Steins.” When Benjamin’s grandfather, Irwin (Gary Marshall), shows up with his girlfriend (Daryl Hannah), she exposes her ignorance about Judaism by pronouncing nachos like the food dip (she means nachas). When Irwin asks his grandson what he likes about being Jewish, Benjamin answers the bagels and lox.
But there is a lot more to both “Jewtopia” and “Keeping Up with the Steins” than simply cheap gags. Both productions suggest that there is something deeper to Judaism than its materialistic surface. Benjamin comes to realize that he does not want a baseball-themed bar mitzvah. He tells his grandfather that he does not understand the words of his haftorah, and Irwin respectfully tells the rabbi that he is letting the children down by not teaching them what the words mean. After the rabbi explains (at length) what a bar mitzvah means, Benjamin decides he wants to have his bar mitzvah at his house, with all of his relatives’ favorite recipes exhibited, instead of baseball bat-themed food at the ball park. Benjamin admits that he does not feel like a man, entirely, but he does manage to repair some of the bad blood in his family and to bring his father and grandfather back together. Although (Jewish) singer Neil Diamond does show up and sing “Hava Nagila” at the end, it is not to infuse the celebration with celebrity appeal so much as Neil singing because Benjamin’s grandmother, a family friend of the Diamonds, has asked him to come. Diamond fits in with the family theme, and the bar mitzvah turns out to be quite meaningful for all involved, including the Steins who lament their wasted money.
“Jewtopia” also concludes with “Hava Nagila,” though it has a double wedding thrown in the mix. Although it is hard to say for sure where exactly the characters stand in relation to their Jewish identity at the play’s end – it has the feel of a Jackie Mason skit – the characters do come to accept one another and to have achieved at least somewhat of a better understanding of Judaism than they entered the play with. Like Benjamin, Adam and Chris come to appreciate that there is more to Judaism than simply bagels and lox, and in their case, Manischewitz.
Chris’ and Adam’s tale and Benjamin’s are surely not narratives that appear to share much common ground with readers of The Jewish Press. The play and movie worlds are worlds of materialism joining hands with minimal understanding of what Judaism means. Both productions adopt a highly ironic and satirical voice to poke fun at Judaism. Yet, like the Talmud encourages to push people away (when necessary) with the left hand, while simultaneously drawing them back with the right (which is stronger, in Biblical metaphor), the performances carry important social criticism embedded within the satire.
So is Judaism cool? It is hard to say without getting bogged down by what “cool” means. But at least in the worlds of “Jewtopia” and “Keeping Up with the Steins,” coolness has far more to do with knowledge and tradition than with a flashy, upper-class image that one projects to outdo one’s peers.
Menachem Wecker is a painter and assistant editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.
I graciously acknowledge my friend Henny Admoni’s help with the sections of this review that attend to “Jewtopia.”