“I woke up this morning feeling truly human for the first time since waking up in a daze of horror on November 9,” said Jessica Weigarten after attending the Women’s March in Philadelphia. Weingarten is a Philadelphia Jewish Voice contributor and a Democratic Convention Watch blogger.She was joined in Philadelphia on January 21 by thousands of women, children and men who took to the streets, walking shoulder to shoulder, with the crowd stretching for a solid mile along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The number of marchers on the Parkway was estimated at 50,000, more than double the predicted total. [Read more…]
By Lisa Grunberger (with research support by Robert G. Margolis)
“Nobody has anything to worry about from a book.” — Philip Roth, in a conversation about his novel “Indignation”
“Take care, philosophers and friends, of knowledge, and beware of martyrdom!” — Friedrich Nietzsche in “Beyond Good and Evil”I said to screenwriter and director James Schamus, as we began to discuss his directorial debut, a theatrical film version of Philip Roth’s novel Indignation: “The movie deserves the disclaimer: ‘No words by Philip Roth were harmed during the making of this movie.'” [Read more…]
Lucas Hnath’s The Christians directed by Timothy Bond is a juvenile undramatic portrait of a mega church and its Pastor. Playing at the Wilma Theatre through May 29th, the play tells the story of Pastor Paul, the founder of a successful super church who delivers a sermon (perhaps not incidentally on the day the church, after 10 years, is debt-free) wherein he changes his theological belief on the existence of hell.
After telling a story about a young boy, not a Christian, who heroically saves his own sister by running into a burning building, Pastor Paul concludes from this parable, that this boy will live on in heaven. Hell, Pastor Paul teaches, from the original Greek, is a dumping ground, not an actual place of eternal damnation.
This sermon, delivered by actor Paul Deboy, to his chorus, his congregants (the audience), his wife, (Erika LaVonn) and assistant Pastor Joshua (Delance Minefee), catalyzes his downfall as church membership declines and Pastor Joshua starts his own successful church. The rest of the play vaguely explores this theological controversy in a decidedly dilettantish manner, throwing around biblical verses in a cursory way that does not reflect deeply on the issues Hnath raises.
During the play’s opening sequence, we are entertained by a chorus of 19 singers (all local Philadelphians under the direction of Michael Keck) who sing evangelical songs (indeed I saw one audience member sing along clearly comforted by the play so far) with lyrics such as “build your hopes on things eternal/hold his hand, God’s unchanging hand.” The set, artfully designed by Matt Saunders, reproduces the super church environment.
But Hnath’s investigation of the theological concepts of hell, heaven, belief and faith fall short, lacking much substance. There is little, if any genuine drama in the play – Pastor Paul knows exactly what he wants and seems fearless and even arrogant in his manner. His tone and voice are reminiscent of Garrison Keillor from the Lake Wobegon live radio show – a preternaturally calm tone with a sing-songy cadence that does not suggest any struggle with his new belief on sin and the after-life. Pastor Paul seems almost too sure of his theological beliefs and feels talk-show-hosty and condescending to his parishioners.
Hnath too easily settles for a high concept to the detriment of much substance in this undramatic portrayal of a minister and his church. When his wife leaves him at the end of the play, because she does indeed believe in hell and finds his beliefs anathema, there is no pathos, the characters remain hollow, not even rising to the level of ideological talking heads.
The play is more often than not manipulative in its use of music and religion and relies too heavily on them to achieve some higher emotional effect. Nothing seems to be at stake for Pastor Paul who seems at peace in his newfound theological convictions, willing to pay the price (his church, his family) for his beliefs. When he repeats the line “I have a powerful urge to communicate with you, but I find the distance between us insurmountable” it sounds more like an advertising slogan or something easily blurbed by a reviewer than a deeply felt piece of writing.
“The Christians.” Through May 29 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St. Tickets $10 and $25. Information: 215-546-7824. www.wilmatheater.org.
The Lantern Theater is opening its fall season with a revelatory production of Anna Ziegler’s “Photograph 51,” a play about Rosalind Franklin, whose X-ray image became the key factor in the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA.
Eros and logos, desire and reason, love and science, are in opposition and tandem — like the two strands of a double helix — throughout this captivating story of Franklin’s fraught life.
Franklin (played beautifully by Philadelphia actress, Genevieve Perrier) works in isolation at King’s College in London in the 1950s, where she is a triple threat to her male scientist-colleagues, James Watson and Francis Crick: Jewish, brilliant, and beautiful. “She’s not fat,” Watson laments when he meets her.
The audience witnesses the driven and prickly Franklin, subjected to both sexism and anti-Semitism as the men around her race to unlock the structure of DNA. It is witnessed too how the mundane, quotidian co-exists with heights of grandeur as Watson can wax poetic about unlocking the secrets of the universe and complains that his teeth hurt.
Franklin refuses to become embroiled in the petty scientific rat race that Watson and Crick play. “She’s a cipher where a woman should be,” the sexist anti-Semite Watson comments.
While the most obvious story playwright Ziegler tells is the story about Franklin’s life, her evocative writing suggests more than meets the eye. “We made the invisible visible,” Franklin’s partner, Maurice Wilkins (the excellent Joseph McGranaghan), says. And Ziegler too has made something about scientific pursuit more palpable in her own dramatic creation. With this play, she has given us a glimpse into the mysterious, zigzag work of science with its petty jealousies, power plays, false turns, mistakes and sexual gossip.
It is a play of ideas, which illuminates the poetry and philosophy behind scientific investigation. The playwright grounds her own investigation into the nature of creation, God, memory and faith through a story about a mysterious woman who did her work quietly and methodically, and in doing so discovered one of the keys to human life.
Spoiler alert: “I do love the shape of things even before they mean something,” Franklin muses at the end of the play, when she knows she is dying of ovarian cancer.
Franklin is only 37 years old and Watson and Crick’s model of the double helix had been made public. They will be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1962. When Wilkins despairs “we lost,” Franklin adds, “No, the world won.” It is a stunning moment of theater.
A love story is here too, in this elegantly structured drama, with its minimal stage set by Meghan Jones, and its precise direction by Kathryn MacMillan.
Ziegler imagines Franklin attending a performance of Shakespeare’s “Winter’s Tale,” where Antigonus says “the spirits of the dead may walk again.” In “Photograph 51,” through Ziegler’s imaginative act of remembering the life of Franklin, who had been relegated to a scientific footnote, we see that the spirit of the dead does indeed walk again.
The new executive director of Hillel at Temple University, Daniel Levitt, 33, grew up in New Jersey, but has served as director of Hillel and the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) judaic educator at the University of Guelph in Ontario since 2012. Before that he was campus rabbi of Vanderbilt University Hillel. He got his semicha (ordination) Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in 2010 after graduating in 2005 from SUNY Binghamton (BA).
I met Levitt on a bus in Israel, heading south to the desert where we were part of a new campus initiative called Israel Engaged Campus. Temple is one of five schools selected to participate in this pilot program, whose mission is to educate college students about the State of Israel, its culture, history, art, science and technology.
“I don’t want Israel to be the only point of entry for Jewish students,” Levitt said when we talked previously. “In Hillel my job isn’t to sell one option or one way to be Jewish, but to have a broad and diverse marketplace of ideas and opinions.”
It was during his undergraduate years at Binghamton where Levitt claims he began to engage in critical thinking and learned the value of questioning one’s assumptions and deeply held beliefs:
I came to college with a very specific worldview. I felt very strongly about my religious beliefs. I came to realize, after intense study, that no question about belief, about faith, has to be scary.
Levitt sees his role at Hillel as providing a way to “nudge students in a direction of less certainty and more questioning”:
I never thought it was possible to question the existence of God. But college taught me there is equal value in alternative perspectives. If you don’t accept that possibility then you don’t have the ability to learn from others and learn humility.
The word “humility” came up many times during our conversations. Although Levitt identifies as Modern Orthodox, he is exceptionally open to new ideas, new interpretations and new ways to find one’s own way to be Jewish:
Jewishness, that is, Jews considered as a culture, a tradition, a people, is far larger than Judaism, the religion. In fact, the religious aspect of Judaism can often serve as a barrier to students joining Hillel and becoming involved.
Our mission is to develop young Jewish adults to take leadership roles in their communities. Hillel is a community that wants the involvement of Jewish students, no matter their Jewish background. There is no dogma here.
Levitt shared an anecdote about a former student who grew up with a Conservative rabbi and identified as an atheist, but enjoyed the traditions of Judaism like going to synagogue on the High Holidays like Rosh Hashanah. After studying with Levitt and getting to know him at Hillel, the student realized that the rabbi at his hometown was his “parents’ rabbi.” And even though the student was not modern Orthodox or even particularly religious, he embraced Levitt as his rabbi and as a role model.
It is not surprising. When I first met Levitt I would want to embrace him, or shake his hand, but as a Modern Orthodox Jew, he told me he refrained from such intimacies with women other than his wife, Naomi. However, in conversations we had and at the table of our Israel Engaged Campus meetings, Levitt’s voice was always a moderate, reasonable, but impassioned one. Levitt brings a rich intellectual background to Temple campus, but he also brings a humanistic spirit infused with critical inquiry and marked by humility.
Levitt said, without hesitation, that his parents have been his greatest influences in life: “They modeled an engaged religious Jewish life that prioritized Jewish values along with Jewish observance.”
Levitt also said his wife Naomi, a nurse, has taught him kindness, patience and to try to greet everyone with a smile. The two have three children: Yonah, 5; Leah, 3; and the baby Atira, 1. Another influence is his mentor at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Rabbi Avi Weiss. Levitt said that unlike himself, Weiss was the master of pithy statements that did not undermine the complexity of Jewish thought.
The famous Jewish religious leader, Hillel, is known for standing on one leg and summarizing all of Judaism to a Roman challenger: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”
When I posed this same question to Levitt — stand on one leg and tell me what is Judaism to you — he was characteristically sincere, long-winded, intellectual and moderate: “I don’t have that gift of the sound-bite that my mentor Rabbi Weiss has.”
No matter: Levitt brings his own style, humor and intellect to Temple’s Hillel. It is marked by a thoughtfulness and depth of thought and yes, humility, well beyond his years.
With his new life here in Philadelphia, Levitt sums up his goals:
For me, I want to be the catalyst for students’ own personal growth. I don’t want to hand them Judaism on a silver platter. They should be challenged and supported at Temple Hillel. I want them to feel confident in the choices they’ve made. Students have to remember that Judaism is not monolithic: We’re a diverse, open community.
In the Lantern Theatre’s production of “QED,” the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman is preparing a lecture entitled “What We Know.”
What we, the audience, know is that a two-hour monologue about a famous person needs to have more dramatic tension, more imagination, more daring, and less by-the-book, “official” structure than in Peter Purnell play, directed by M. Craig Getting.
The play’s title refers to Feynman’s work on quantum electrodynamics, for which he won the Nobel Prize. The play is inspired by the writings of Feynman, and Ralph Leighton’s book, Tuva or Bust!
The play shows that the iconoclastic Feynman did not like “the official way of doing anything.” Unlike Feynman, who won the Nobel Prize by thinking outside of the box, the play works safely within the standard biographical play formula, as Ben Brantley wrote of the original production starring Alan Alda in 2001:
Careful dropping of names and/or awards to establish subject as person of consequence? Check. Scenes in which subject sinks into self-doubts followed by scenes that affirm joy of living? Check, check, check.
The overbearing, dominant, kvetchy Jewish woman is alive and well in Joshua Harmon’s comedy, Bad Jews, playing at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio until November 30.
Directed by David Stradley, the play is set in a studio apartment on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, immediately following the funeral of the characters’ poppy. We meet Jonah and Liam Haber, their cousin Daphna, and Liam’s stereotypically-blonde girlfriend Melody as they engage in a family squabble about who is to inherit their grandfather’s necklace.
Although Sofie Yavorsky gives an energetic performance as Daphna Feygenbaum, a Vassar student who is grieving the loss of her grandfather, the play relies on caricatures, not characters. Listening to Daphna yell at her cousin Liam, who brings home his shiksa girlfriend Melody, that he is not a real Jew and that he can go ahead and “f*** an ethnic free bush,” did not pack the punch that was presumably intended in this kind of dialogue.
Listening to Liam accuse Daphna of being a purist, even a “Nazi,” who is interested in preserving the integrity of Jewish blood line, when she argues he should not marry a shiksa, sounded like a familiar, schematic and wooden rendition of the old particular-universalist, ethnic-assimilationist debate. We have heard these debates before, and this particular tale of family inheritance, grief and familiar strife adds nothing new to the story in its language.
What does it mean to be a Jew is a perennial question that “Bad Jews” attempts to answer, but is far too in enamored by its easy “shocking” repartee to even being to engage this question in a complex, serious way. A particularly low point is when Melody, an opera major in college, sings an embarrassing version of “Summertime” for Daphna, to cheer her up. It is a cheap moment that goes for an easy laugh that feels out of place in the play.
Harmon’s writing has neither the comic timing and wit of Neil Simon, nor the intellectual weight of Tom Stoppard. The highlight of the show is perhaps Liam’s use of “Holocaust” as a verb: “Don’t Holocaust me” he warns Daphna.
Other than that, the play has little original writing, little story, and a lot of yelling by a clearly hysterical Jewish woman who is mean, vindictive, and self-righteous. If such misogynistic stereotypes of women pass as “brave comedy with tragically high stakes” (The Financial Times), then something is seriously wrong with theater reviewers.
Bad Jews had its world premiere at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Roundabout Underground in the fall of 2012 and was nominated for three Outer Circle Awards. Sitting through the 90 minute (no intermission) family brawl among young cousins made me long for a good 25-minute episode of Larry David’s creative, quirky, whimsical sitcom, “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”