In New York, playwrights express their Pew-ishness

Ten short plays bouncing off the Pew Report depict an American Judaism that is secular and disenchanted

The cast of 'PEW-ish' (courtesy)
The cast of 'PEW-ish' (courtesy)

NEW YORK — Impersonating a Jewish American summer camp song leader with a scarf tied around his head, acoustic guitar-wielding Adam Blotner exclaimed, “I am the echo of Debbie Friedman’s legacy.” With a liberal sprinkle of Hebrew phrases in his comedic songs “Shalom,” and “Shmini Atzeret,” Blotner opened the June 26 launch event for “PEW-ish.”

“PEW-ish” is comprised of ten staged readings that take their cues from the Pew Research Center’s October 2013 report, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” The report compiled the responses of 3,400 American Jews (of the approximately five million Jews in the United States) with answers to questions on topics ranging from political attitudes to intermarriage.

“PEW-ish’ claims no agenda. It doesn’t care if you go to synagogue, keep kosher, or dump your non-Jewish boyfriend, the launch event program emphatically states.

The 2013 Pew Report, however, was analyzed and discussed ad nauseam in the Jewish media, from synagogue pulpits, in academic settings, and in casual conversations. Some of the study’s more surprising findings have become jokes within the Jewish community, which quips, “Did you hear that according to Pew, four percent of Orthodox Jews have Christmas trees?!”

Now “PEW-ish,” has arrived on the scene with the aim of “sparking conversation and creativity inspired by the questions about Jewish identity raised by the Pew study.” The plays discuss the Holocaust and Israel, intermarriage and family dynamics, as well as synagogue attendance.

'PEW-ish' director David Schimdt Chapman (courtesy)
‘PEW-ish’ director David Schimdt Chapman (courtesy)

“I find that artists are great meaning-makers and great story tellers — especially theater artists but other kinds of artists as well,” David Schmidt Chapman, the founder and director of “PEW-ish,” said in an interview with The Times of Israel. “So I thought if I can use the study as a provocation, as a prompt for creative response, then it will both get those artists thinking about their own identity, and bring other people in as well.”

Warren Hoffman’s “Miami 1991,” the first play in the evening’s “quorum,” centers on a group of senior citizens who hire a goyish consultant to try to help them ensure the future of American Jewry.

“We’ve gotten through worse,” one exclaims, “Nazis, Madoff, Joan Rivers.”

“We need a Judaism that’s not Jewish,” the consultant suggests. “Substance scares people.”

This play ends in the home of a gay couple, one of whom is converting to Judaism. Together the two men prepare a Shabbat dinner, showing that perhaps American Judaism has a future with substance — just in a less obvious coupling.

“The Spivaks” by Anna Ziegler presents a multi-generational family speaking about their perspectives on Judaism and Israel. While the older members among them seem to have a more visceral connection to their religion and to the Jewish State (even if they have never been to Israel or have not been in years) the youngest family member, a woman in her late 20s, ponders converting out of Judaism because it would be “easier.” She opines that “Israel is a problem.”

The last play in “PEW-ish” is called “The Covenant (…or Bagels and Butchery).” Written by Ken Weitzman, “The Covenant” is an exchange between an intermarried couple, a Jewish man and his gentile wife, moments before their son’s circumcision. Incorporating humor (the mohel they have secured is cross-eyed) and poignancy, (their discussion regarding why they are circumcising their son brings about some self-revelation in the husband) the play is sharply written and encapsulates the evening.

But the overall impression of American Jews that the “PEW-ish” plays present is that they are secular and disenchanted. There is little diversity displayed within the characters — no Orthodox Jews, no discernible Sephardim, and few in the middle, who observe mitzvot, have a strong connection to Israel and feel both Jewish and American.

Chapman has worked to produce “PEW-ish” since the report’s October publication. In December he received a grant from the Schusterman Family Foundation’s ROI Community with which he commissioned the playwrights. He received their drafts around Passover and then began planning the launch event which was held at the Judson Memorial Church, a historic church and performance space in Greenwich Village.

The timing was important to Chapman: The launch took place “less than a year after the study so it was short enough so that it’s still in peoples minds, and long enough that it’s starting to sink in.”

He asked the playwrights to use the report as inspiration and let them take it from there, “I didn’t want a book report,” he said. It was important that they all started from the same place, with the study.

‘I didn’t want a book report’

His playwrights reflect the study’s findings in the sense that though they all have Jewish lineage or heritage, though in Chapman’s words, “some certainly don’t identify as Jewish today.” About half of the “PEW-ish” directors are Jewish and about a third to a half of the actors are Jewish.

Part of the “PEW-ish” creation process involved Chapman, the playwrights, the directors, and the actors, discussing how they express their Judaism (or don’t). These types of conversations were exactly what Chapman, who has has directed plays at 59E59 and Joe’s Pub, had in mind when he constructed “PEW-ish” as a theatrical event.

He “observed that many people weren’t already cued into the conversation, that they didn’t even know that the study existed.” Therefore, Chapman wanted “to bring more voices to the conversation about what the Pew study meant and more broadly what Jewish identity means today.”

After the readings took place at the launch event, the audience was invited to an after-party where they could grab a bite to eat and talk about the plays. “Some of the plays pushed buttons for some people,” observed Chapman.

Chapman would like to keep the conversation going but at the moment is not exactly sure how.

‘Some of the plays pushed buttons for some people’

Former head of Hillel and current President of the Genesis Prize Foundation Wayne Firestone, an employee of Pew, and Rebecca Guber, director of Asylum Arts (another Schusterman-funded initiative) were all spotted at the launch event.

Chapman is hoping to expand the impact of “PEW-ish” into other aspects of the arts such as dance, visual art, literature, and music by commissioning more artists and giving them a platform “to do what they do — tell stories, make meaning, provide for a people to think and consider their identity.”

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