Sexual images on the Internet disturb many people, but haredi Jews view them as a threat to their entire way of life.
In Tuvia Tenenbom’s new comedy, “Press #93 for Kosher Jewish Girls in Krakow,” opening this Sunday, two ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, Moishe (Noah Schultz) and Yankee (Jon Bass) in Israel invent a “kosher cell phone” that not only circumvents pornographic content on the Internet but also enables observant Jewish men to avoid temptation by warning them whenever a girl is about to cross their path.
Sponsored by Tenenbom’s company, the Jewish Theater of New York (JTNY), “Press #93” asks fundamental questions not only about the use of technology to monitor and control human behavior, but also about the nature of truth in an electronic age. It is extremely timely; in just the last month, posters have gone up in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Israel prodding residents to inform on yeshiva students who maintain Internet connections from their apartments. (Some of these posters claim that using the Internet causes cancer!)
But not all haredim view technology and the Internet this way. The Chabad Lubavitch movement, for instance, embraces technology in its efforts to reach out to unaffiliated Jews.
In his plays, Tenenbom, who rebelled against his own ultra-Orthodox upbringing, uses a zany, anarchic and sexually explicit approach to controversial issues. His themes have included romantic feelings toward Hitler (“Love Letters to Adolf Hitler”), the sexual fantasies of suicide bombers (“The Last Virgin”) contemporary Polish anti-Semitism (“The Last Jew in Europe”) and Madonna’s involvement in Kabbalah (“Kabbalah”). His work is especially acclaimed in Europe; the French newspaper Le Monde calls him a “mystical provocateur.”
The title of the new play derives from a well-known Holocaust story about 93 Orthodox Jewish girls in the Bais Ya’akov school in Krakow — or, some say, in Warsaw — who took poison rather than be raped and murdered by the Nazis. In the play, the characters connect to this story, which is the only “sexual” material that the phone company permits them to access.
However, the story has come under question in recent years, with both scholars and journalists suggesting that it may be more mythic than factual.
In a telephone interview, Tenenbom speculated that reverence for technology on the part of the ultra-Orthodox derives from the perception that computers are “smart.” When it comes to human beings, however, he lamented that they regard themselves as the “chosen of the chosen,” and view everyone else as inferior.
He infers that this distorted sense of self-image leads to an inability to differentiate between reality and fantasy. “What is fantasy and what is reality in a repressed society?” he asks.
As technology improves, Tenenbom fears, governments and religious leaders will use it, in Orwellian fashion, to keep tabs on our thoughts and actions. His play, he believes, provides a glimpse into a future that may arrive before we know it.
The ultra-Orthodox Jews, he said, are “getting better at [technology]” in an effort to master it and one-up its capacity for destructiveness. n
“Press #93 for Kosher Jewish Girls in Krakow” opens Sunday, Jan. 15 and runs through April 18 at the Kraine Theater, 85 E. Fourth St. Performances are Sundays at 3 p.m. and Wednesdays at 7 p.m. For tickets, $50 ($5 for anyone with a Medicaid or food stamps card), call OvationTix at (212) 352-3101 or visit www.ovationtix.com.