In every age and throughout every attempt to annihilate the Jewish people, what the Prophet Isaiah called the “saving remnant” has kept Judaism alive. Now comes Seth Rozin’s new comedy at the New Jersey Rep, “Two Jews Walk Into a War…,” in which the two last Jews in Afghanistan, members of a community that was almost destroyed during the Soviet invasion and the subsequent rise of the Taliban, need to work through mutual animosity to preserve the Jewish heritage.
Directed by James Glossman, “Two Men…” is based on a 2004 New York Times article about a carpet seller named Ishaq Levin and a shoemaker named Zeblyan Simentov living in the last synagogue in Kabul. The two men, both of whom had been beaten and jailed by the Taliban, blamed each other for their plight; they even hung up a sheet in the sanctuary so that they would not have to pray together. The story has been a gold mine for dramatists; two other plays, Michael Flexer’s “My Brother’s Keeper,” and Josh Greenfield’s “The Last Two Jews of Kabul,” have been previously produced.
In Rozin’s version, the two feuding middle-aged men, each of whom is a descendant of Holocaust survivors, have different reasons for staying put. Pious Ishaq (Reathel Bean), who views himself as an instrument of God’s will, looks down on the atheistic Zeblyan (John Pietrowski), who simply refuses to be cast out of yet another country. The pair finally unites around the writing of a new Torah scroll to replace one that was carried off by the Taliban. When the play ran this fall in Florida in a different production, Hap Erstein of the Palm Beach Post lauded the play as a cross between the “existential humor” of Samuel Beckett and the “nimble comic byplay of Abbott and Costello.”
The playwright, whose father is a well-known psychology professor at Penn, is the artistic director of InterAct Theatre in Philadelphia and the founder of the National New Play Network, which provides “rolling premieres” of the same play in different cities. His other plays include “Black Gold,” about a black man who strikes oil in his backyard in inner city Detroit, and “Men of Stone,” in which a sculpture of Moses by Michaelangelo comes to life in the person of a local butcher.
In a telephone interview, Rozin, who describes himself as an “atheist on both sides of my family,” told The Jewish Week that his latest work is an “existential” take on “why perennially suffering people tend to be the most religious, to the extent that they believe in God as a merciful entity who has a plan for them.” While he noted that the character of Zeblyan has lost his faith because of the persecution of his people, the Moses-like process of recording Ishaq’s dictation of the letters of the Torah, along with the ensuing debates about the meaning of the text, give Zeblyan a new appreciation for the wisdom of Jewish tradition.
The real Ishaq died in 2005, leaving only one Jew left in Kabul. But a couple who saw the play in Palm Beach sent a copy of the playbill to their son who is serving as a lieutenant colonel in Kabul; he is now looking for ways to help rebuild the synagogue. Even as the American government commits more troops to Afghanistan, Rozin said, Jews will need to decide how to “carry the torch further,” in terms of keeping the flame of Judaism from flickering out in that embattled country.
“Two Jews Walk Into a War” runs through Jan. 10, 2010 at the New Jersey Rep, 179 Broadway in Long Branch, N.J. Performances are Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., with Saturday matinees at 3 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. For tickets, $40, call (732) 229-3166 or visit www.njrep.org.