The apartment is on Manhattan’s Lower East Side—specifically on the corner of Monroe and Clinton streets. In 1916, Yetta and Solomon, Russian Jewish immigrants, live there as they grapple with getting their dry-cleaning business off the ground and starting a family. A century later, millennials Maria and Alex live in the same apartment struggling to keep their romance alive and pay their steep Manhattan rent.
Welcome to “Land of No Mercy.” Rae Binstock’s award-winning play is a finalist in this year’s Jewish Plays Project. Binstock, a Cambridge native who graduated from Columbia University in 2015, recently spoke to JewishBoston about her work, her Jewish family and graduating Cambridge Rindge and Latin School with Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
“Dzhokhar and I are not sitting far from each other in our class picture,” she recalled. “It was so strange to log on to Facebook a couple of days after the bombing and realize it was him. Diversity was so central to whom we were at school; it was a point of pride. I couldn’t believe that he did something so awful that was motivated by tribalism and hatred.”
Binstock said she expects to write about Tsarnaev in the near future. “It’s a personal experience connected to a larger issue that is key right now—the radicalization of young people,” she said. “These young people who get radicalized turn to violence because no one in this country is listening to them. Look at what is happening with ISIS and white nationalism.”
Nevertheless, Binstock is proud to be “a product of the Cambridge public school system, with its unique and integrated population. Diversity was not a luxury or something manufactured in school, but a reality of life,” she said. That diversity has had a profound effect on her. She recalled that there weren’t many other Jews in school with her. In elementary school, her parents would come to her class and make latkes or read a Hanukkah story to her class. “We were very culturally Jewish, but I didn’t go to Hebrew school or attend synagogue,” Binstock said. “I was not raised within a Jewish community outside of my family, but I represented Jewishness in my social world and my classroom.”
While Binstock got her start as a playwright in Rindge and Latin, she credits her father, a novelist, with introducing her to literature, as well as the craft of writing. She recalled writing pages of “childish magical realism” at the age of 10 and receiving “technical feedback” from her parents. In high school, her love of theater was fully expressed through playwriting. A teacher started a club for aspiring playwrights and submitted Binstock’s play to a statewide drama competition for high school students. Binstock won. “Playwriting clicked for me, and I received the validation I needed at exactly the right time,” she said.
Soon after, she read “Angels in America” by Tony Kushner, and it remains an important piece of literature to her. “[Kushner’s play] is very present in my life, and I’ve managed to integrate it in my work,” she said. “The play opened up so much creative potential and perspective for me.”
Kushner’s influence is present in “Land of No Mercy.” Binstock described the work as “a visually demanding play.” The story weaves together the histories of Yetta and Solomon and Maria and Alex, whom Binstock described as “a century apart, but close enough to touch.” In many of the scenes, the couples appear on stage together but do not directly interact. This dual timeframe also supports the quadrilingual strains that run throughout the play. Yetta and Solomon speak Yiddish to each other, and Yetta befriends a neighbor who speaks Chinese. Maria converses with various family members in Spanish. Alex, an assimilated American Jew, speaks English exclusively. Binstock noted this mélange of languages reminds her of what Tony Kushner calls “the melting pot where nothing melted.”
Binstock’s Jewish identity is also omnipresent in her other work. A play tentatively titled “The Snowstorm” is set in 1950 in Chicago and features a prominent rabbi that she based on her great-grandfather, Rabbi Louis Binstock. “Like ‘Land of No Mercy,’ the play is also connected to my family history,” she said. “Yetta and Solomon were based on my great-grandparents, whom I learned about in my grandmother’s memoirs.”
In “The Snowstorm” the rabbi’s son becomes engaged to a woman who is not Jewish. His younger son has begun a flirtation with the black maid in the house. “Judaism,” said Binstock, “is a culture and a community that influences family on how to interact with outsiders. The play is also about the similarities and differences that being Jewish can create between different cultures.”
Binstock has also written five short plays that are part of a larger cycle. Each one is a modern interpretation of a biblical story connected to climate change. “The arc is about the flooding the earth through melting icecaps,” she said. “God is done again with all of the wickedness on earth.”
As for her literary and personal connection to Judaism, Binstock asserted: “Judaism is something that comes in and out of my stories. My work reflects my experience of being the most Jewish person when I’m around people who are not Jewish and the least Jewish person when I’m with Jews. That’s my Judaism, and it has been very formative for me.”