Why are we commanded to wear fringes on our garments? They are a potent reminder of our Jewish identity but also indicate that who we are splays out into the rest of the world, and that the boundaries between us and other people can be fuzzy.
In this summer’s 14th Annual New York International Fringe Festival, which begins this weekend, three very different works by young female playwrights situate Jewish life in a multicultural context, in which the intersections among gender, religion, ethnicity and race come to the fore in striking new ways that illuminate the evolving relationships between Jews and other peoples.
Elissa Lerner’s “Abraham’s Daughters,” directed by Niccolo Aeed, takes place at an unnamed university in the South, where first-year students are having their first taste of sex — and their first taste of each other. Sarah (Rebecca LaChance) is a Jewish girl from Long Island who finds out that she is rooming with a Ranya (Dea Julien) a pious Muslim girl from Dearborn, Mich. Both girls become friends with Kate (Keely Flahery) a Methodist girl from Charleston, S.C. When both Ranya and Kate hook up in turn with Sarah’s close friend Will (Aryeh Lappin), an atheist Jewish guy from Manhattan, Sarah has a difficult time keeping the carefully constructed web of her social life from fraying beyond repair.
Lerner, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish family in Forest Hills, Queens, went on from Solomon Schechter and Prozdor, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Hebrew high school, to Duke University, where she majored in religion.
The playwright said that the first year of college is a “defining experience” in which one encounters other students of different backgrounds and traditions. Lerner is especially interested in what she calls the “trajectories of observance,” in which students’ religious practices evolve and adapt as they move into adulthood. Despite their religious differences, Lerner noted, “the women in my play bond because there’s a common ground that they all share, in terms of each woman’s dedication to her own religion.”
Leila Arias, a Los Angeles-based actress, takes a kaleidoscopic approach to multiculturalism in her one-woman comedy, “Omarys Concepcion Lopez Perez Goes to Israel (To Speak to God at the Wailing Wall),” in which a spunky young Catholic woman of mixed Persian and Puerto Rican heritage travels from the Bronx to Jerusalem to ask for divine help in resolving a spiritual crisis. Required by her father to pretend to be disabled in order to fly first class, Omarys arrives in Israel in a state of severe physical and emotional stress. During her travels, Omarys meets with a wide variety of quirky and colorful characters, including Orthodox Jews who implore her to cover her cleavage and who note that God will probably be delighted to entertain an appeal from a non-Jew, since she represents a refreshing change of pace from His usual customers.
While she is of mixed Muslim and Christian parentage, Arias had a Jewish great-grandmother, and she said that she feels a strong connection to her Jewish roots. After graduating from NYU, she trained in drama schools in New York, London and San Francisco. Her big break came in 2008 with an appearance on the CBS Comedy Showcase in Los Angeles, playing an extremely narcissistic and materialistic Persian character named Beeta. Since then, she has appeared in a Web series, “Roommates,” done a weekly sketch show for the Latin Television Network in New York and appeared in a number of independent films, including “Rounding Third,” “Second Banana,” and “Red Passport.” Her play about Omarys was inspired by a trip to Israel, in which she was struck by the relationships among the many different peoples who call Israel their home. In Israel, she said, “every conversation seemed so meaningful, every interaction felt so deep.”
Gabrielle Maisels’ one-woman play, “Two Girls,” takes place during the transition to democracy in South Africa that began in 1994, when the official dismantling of apartheid raised great hope for profound change, but failed to produce real liberation for most of the country’s black population. Directed by Joey Brenneman, “Two Girls” is about the close friendship between Corinne, a Jewish girl in Johannesburg, and Lindiwe, the daughter of her family’s black housekeeper. The play ends when Corinne, having moved to America and hired Lindiwe as her nanny, accompanies her to attend Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration.
Maisels who grew up in Hershey, Pa., and then studied political theory at Harvard and Columbia, is the granddaughter of Israel Aaron Maisels, the lawyer who successfully represented Nelson Mandela and dozens of others accused of treason for their political activities in the late 1950s. Maisels’ parents left South Africa in the 1960s, as much of the country’s Jewish population was also emigrating, out of a widespread feeling of despair that the demoralizing situation would ever improve.
In South Africa, Maisels said, you see the “discomfort, guilt and anxiety that white people feel during every interaction with black people. Everyone is riven by conflict all the time in a bizarre and painful way.” A Passover seder in Johannesburg, is, Maisels noted, “the biggest irony ever,” as Jews celebrate escaping from slavery while being served by people who are still tremendously oppressed.
After the end of apartheid, “everyone wanted to feel that a great miracle had happened, but the black community remained decimated and traumatized.”
While South Africa, which Maisels calls “breathtakingly beautiful,” has been dubbed a “tragic paradise,” it is also, for Maisels, a place where it is impossible to live an authentic life. “There’s no way to live in a society that’s so unjust and unequal,” she said.
All three playwrights highlight the role of women in bridging differences between people. By breaking down the boundaries that divide Jews from other groups, at least in the realm of art, they forge new connections and spark new insights that have the potential to expand Jewish life beyond its traditional confines. As Lerner pithily sums it up, “By learning about each other, we learn about ourselves.” n
The 14th Annual New York International Fringe Festival runs from Aug. 13 to Aug. 29. Plays are presented at a number of locations, and on an irregular schedule. For tickets, $15 ($18 at the door), call (866) 468-7619 or visit www.fringenyc.org. There are additional shows of Jewish interest this year, including Rachel Evans’ “Jew Wish,” about a single Jewish woman and her online dating escapades, and Yehuda Hyman’s “The Mad 7,” about an office worker who goes off on a chasidic quest inspired by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.