Neurotic Jewish Family Fights Over Heirloom on Tel Aviv Stage

An American play, ‘Bad Jews,’ completes a trilogy of Cameri Theater productions about identity. Superbly acted, it depicts individual members who drive each other mad.

A scene from 'Bad Jews' at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv.
Gerard Allon

Following “Disgraced” and “On the Grill,” this play, “Bad Jews,” about Jewish-American cousins in New York, completes a trilogy of plays about human identity on the Cameri Theater stages. Diana-Daphna is the cousin of Liam-Shlomo and Jonah (the only one whose Hebrew name hasn’t been Americanized). They meet after the funeral of their beloved grandfather, “Poppy,” a Holocaust survivor, as the shiva is about to start. Liam, who didn’t make it back to the funeral from his ski holiday, brings along Melody, his obviously non-Jewish girlfriend, and the only “sane” person in the group, in normal American terms. Neurotic Jewish family dynamics, revolving around four main subjects – family, religion, love and Holocaust – lead to a violent altercation.

The conflict – as is often the case in well-crafted plays – hinges on an emotionally charged prop: Here it is the golden “chai” heirloom that belonged to Sabush and survived the Holocaust with him. What will become of it in the grandchildren’s generation (for we’ve skipped over the parents’ generation)? Will it hang around the neck of Diana-Daphna, who talks about an imaginary Israeli boyfriend, making aliya and gaining rabbinic ordination? Or on the neck of Melody (“a shiksa slut,” as Diana-Daphna refers to her with venomous self-righteousness), as an engagement token from Liam-Shlomo? The sounds of the conflict also resound in connection with the bass clef tattoo on Melody’s leg that she has chosen to commemorate her failure as an opera singer, since it echoes the ultimate (not by choice) Jewish tattoo on the forearms of Auschwitz survivors.

Plot’s engine

Directed by Omri Nitzan, the play’s great strength lies in its superb cast, and this gains added impact from the proximity of the actors to the audience, in Cameri Hall 3. Ola Schur Selektar, as Diana-Daphna, is the pulsing engine of the plot. If I had to single out one special thing about this actress’s ability, it’s her total control of the extreme mood swings that buffet her character, and thus the play: her gaze, the turn of her head, the sudden spike in her vocal energy – all make her the center of attention. Paradoxically, they make her unbearable (to those around her, but mainly to herself, apparently), but endearing to the viewer (to this reviewer, at least).

Which doesn’t make things easy for her main adversary in the conflict – played by Udi Rothschild – for it’s no easy task to hold the stage versus Schur Selektar’s delicate and rough tornado. Liam-Shlomo, with a spiky modern hairdo meant to signal how far he has drifted from the tribe, studies Japanese culture, but still sanctifies the Jewish “chai” for its symbolism. Rothschild manages to be both focused and ridiculous, and to convey the angst of someone whose identity (Jewish, in this case) isn’t conducive to highfalutin intellectual affirmation but is still truer and stronger than anything else. It’s not easy to convincingly portray this kind of emotional truth, but Rothschild ably accomplishes it.

Dana Meinert plays Melody, the American who believes in a John Lennon-“Imagine” kind of world, and she manages to keep the character from straying into caricature. The program says that the actors were involved in designing their costumes, and Meinert’s choice of a tight yellow sweater and puffy skirt seemed off to me. But I was filled with admiration for her exquisitely key-shifting, out-of-tune rendition of “Summertime.”

The foursome (carefully guided by Omri Nitzan, who is an expert at concealing his direction behind the actors) is rounded out by Yuval Segal (who splits the role of Jonah with Dan Kizler). He is “the silent partner” in this family enterprise, seemingly avoiding confrontation, but turns out to be even more “tainted” by Judaism than Diana-Daphna.

And a comment on the type of Jewishness portrayed in the play. In Israel, the question, “Who is a Jew?” yields different, much more frightening, answers than it does in America and in this play. And as for the play’s title, which is of course perceived as ironic: There’s a musical anecdote about the great conductor Arturo Toscanini and the virtuoso cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. When Toscanini heard Piatigorsky practicing a piece he kept saying, ‘No good.” But just when the cellist was about to despair, Toscanini bent down and whispered to him: “You are no good, I am no good, but the others are even worse.”

In that vein, a Jew could once have told a fellow Jew: “You are a bad Jew, I am a bad Jew, but the others are even worse. Sadly, I’m not sure that is still the case.

The Cameri Theater presents “Bad Jews” by Joshua Harmon. Director: Omri Nitzan. Next performances will be held on Friday, 12.00 and 21.00; Saturday at 21.00; Sunday at 11.00 and 21.00; Wednesday at 16.30.