Can homosexuality and Orthodox Judaism mix? In Jon Marans’ new Off-Broadway play, “A Strange and Separate People,” Jay (Jonathan Hammond) and Phyllis (Tricia Paoluccio), a Modern Orthodox couple on the Upper West Side, have their lives — and marriage — upended by a newly observant gay Jewish doctor, Stuart (Noah Weisberg). The play, which premiered in 2005 at a theater in upstate Stony Point, is running at Theatre Row – Studio Theater in Midtown. (410 W. 42nd St. For tickets, $18, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200.)
Marans is best known as the author of “Old Wicked Songs,” a play about the relationship between a young Jewish pianist and his Viennese music teacher; it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 and has been produced throughout the world. Last year, Marans’ “The Temperamentals,” about gay activism in the 1950s, ran for more than eight months Off-Broadway and won a Lucille Lortel Award for Michael Urie’s performance as a gay Jewish costumer designer.
Directed by Jeff Calhoun, the new play takes its title from a comment attributed to England’s Queen Mother, who reportedly said of Jews that while she “liked them very much,” they were a “strange and separate people, keeping to themselves and their own ways.”
In an interview, Marans (who is gay and Jewish but not Orthodox) pointed out that, as in his previous works, the overriding theme of “A Strange and Separate People” is the effort to “discover who you really are and what you will really stand up for.” Seeing people in the Middle East rebel against their dictatorial rulers, Marans found a connection to the step taken by the New York State legislature last month in legalizing same-sex marriages; both were a sign of revolutionary change driven by courageous people who refused to settle for the status quo.
Asked how he thought Marans’ play would be received in the Orthodox community, Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the world’s first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, said that “the Orthodox community responds very much as any polity would when its dirty laundry is given a public viewing. It is likely to be a negative response, and while most organizations will probably ignore it, individuals will not.”
Rabbi Greenberg, who will lead a special “Talk Out” following the July 27 performance of “Strange and Separate People,” lives in Cincinnati with his partner, Steven Goldstein, and their 8-month-old daughter, Amalia. Rabbi Greenberg, who wrote “Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition” (Univ. of Wisconsin, 2004), is currently working with Eshel, a partnership of Jewish organizations that was formed last year to build community for gay Orthodox Jews, including encouraging Modern Orthodox congregations to accept the gay Jews in their midst. He told The Jewish Week that the presence of gays in Jewish life raises “deep questions about the meaning of pleasure, relationships, marriage and family.”
Unfortunately, he said, Orthodox Judaism tends to shy away from dealing with these questions. “Orthodoxy trusts the Torah more than it trusts human beings. Reform Judaism is the opposite; it trusts human beings more than the Torah. You need both in order to come up with a living contemporary theology.” Rabbi Greenberg pointed to the controversial 2009 forum at Yeshiva University on homosexuality and Orthodoxy, as evidence of the growing visibility of gays in Orthodox Judaism, as well as the continuing backlash from rabbis within the movement.
Gay Jews who are not comfortable within Modern Orthodoxy, the rabbi noted, can paradoxically find a warmer welcome within ultra-Orthodoxy — or, at least, Chabad. “My partner and I are honored with no problem with an aliyah at a Chabad service,” he said. “They call me to the Torah as HaRav Greenberg — Rabbi Greenberg. They know that the most important thing is to offer people, whatever their sexuality, a connection to God.”
About Marans’ play, the rabbi said, “It’s complicated when we are portrayed in the media. We love and hate it because, like seeing ourselves in the mirror, we’re totally enraptured and to varying degrees, nervous about whatever blemishes there might be.”