Last fall’s survey of Jewish Americans by the Pew Research Center, which found increasing numbers of American Jews eschewing religious labels, triggered a chorus of commentators, galvanized a debate about Jewish identity, and pitted huge segments of the Jewish community against each other.
It led, in other words, to high drama.
But for David Chapman, who works in both the nonprofit Jewish world and the arts world, there was not nearly drama enough — in the sense of theater, that is. Using a grant from ROI Community (a global network funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation), Chapman commissioned 10 young playwrights to use the Pew study as a springboard for short plays about Jewish life.
The result was “Pew-ish,” a wide-ranging theatrical showcase presented last Thursday night at the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square South.
Some plays seemed tightly connected to the survey — or, at any rate, to the idea of counting and defining Jews. For example, in Warren Hoffman’s “Miami 1991,” which kicked off the evening, a group of elderly Jews devised a way to save the younger generation of Jews by sponsoring a free vacation in Fort Lauderdale called “Beach-right.” And in Jonathan Karpinos’ “Lesson #1: Stability,” a Jewish statistician sought to move “from numbers to knowledge” in teaching his sons how to interpret data that is constantly in flux.
But other works dealt more generally with how Jews relate to the Bible, religious services, Jewish rituals or Israel. Emily Chaddick Weiss’ “The Friday Nine” showed an exasperated rabbi berating his rapidly attenuating flock for not coming to shul. Anna Ziegler’s “The Spivaks” centered on how three generations of a Jewish family connect — or fail to connect — to Israel. And in Ken Weitzman’s “The Covenant,” a Jewish man and his non-Jewish wife struggled with whether or not to go through with the circumcision of their son.
Despite the seriousness of these concerns, the mood was festive and relaxed, especially when musician Adam Blotner led a couple of sing-alongs, one of which, “Shemini Atzeret,” seemed like a Sukkot-themed take-off of Tom Lehrer’s “Hanukkah in Santa Monica.”
Sitting through the 10 works, the audience seemed quite absorbed, despite the fact that a show of hands — requested by the evening’s host, Jake Goodman — revealed that few knew what the Pew survey was, and even fewer had read it. Indeed, in an interview after the showcase, Chapman told The Jewish Week that he felt that he had succeeded in bridging the nonprofit Jewish world — which was obsessed with the survey — and the arts world — which had seemed largely unaware of it.
Why did Chapman choose to hold a Jewish event in a church? “We didn’t want to use a synagogue or JCC — or even a traditional theater,” he said. We wanted to be a little provocative. We didn’t want anyone to feel not Jewish enough to participate.”