Call it a 21st-century Brooklyn version of “The Jazz Singer.” In Miki Bone’s new play, “Division Avenue,” a young Satmar chasid provokes his parents’ ire when he embraces a secular lifestyle. The play, which takes the ongoing conflict over bicycle lanes in Williamsburg as a metaphor for the impinging of contemporary sexual mores upon ultra-Orthodox life, opened last week at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, which is now in its 14th year.
Directed by Dean Nolan, “Division Avenue” centers on Efraim Hershfeltz (Jordan Feltner), a recently widowed chasid in his late 20s who falls in love with a non-Jewish woman, Sarah (Mary Rasmussen), who is the roommate of his father’s attorney, Dean.
Meanwhile, the lawyer, who is a gay Southern Baptist, is working with Efraim’s father, Moishe (Mitch Greenberg), to contest the city’s creation of bicycle lanes that have paved the way for scantily clad female cyclists. As the battle lines are joined, Moishe and his wife, Gita (Joanna Gluskak) feel unable to reconcile themselves to their son’s new lifestyle and to the wrenching changes in their neighborhood.
Bone, who is a Catholic woman from Texas, first learned about the ultra-Orthodox when she and her husband, who is a patent lawyer, toured Williamsburg during a 2009 business trip to New York. She has presented her play at the University of Texas in Dallas, where she is in graduate school after having worked for the last few decades as a director and drama teacher.
In an interview, Bone told The Jewish Week that she is “fascinated” by the chasidim and by Williamsburg’s recent gentrification. While reading Jewish Week reporter Hella Winston’s “Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels” (Beacon Press, 2006), Bone was struck by the profound internal and external conflicts faced by those who attempt to leave the ultra-Orthodox fold. Indeed, while attending meetings at Footsteps, a social service organization for the ex-chasidim, Bone heard clients refer to themselves as “immigrants to a new world.”
While not every religious group views its offspring as the Satmar do — as replacements for the souls of those who were lost in the Shoah — Bone views the basic conflict in the play as one that all families face in working through issues of children’s independence and identity formation. The playwright said that she was “humbled and grateful” while getting to know the ultra-Orthodox community and the dizzying conflicts that rend it as its children begin to “find their way and find themselves” in the modern world.
“Division Avenue” runs at the June Havoc Theatre, 312 W. 36th St. Remaining performances are Thursday, Aug. ,1 at 8:30 p.m. and Saturday, Aug. 3, at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, $18, call OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visit www.midtownfestival.org.