Muse & Schmooze: “Bad Jews” on Stage
A scene from the play “Bad Jews” (Photo by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo)

The off-Broadway hit “Bad Jews” has made quite a splash at the SpeakEasy Stage Company in Boston over the last few weeks (check out what the Boston Globe has to say). With an edgy—and perhaps controversial—title, this show openly discusses the realities of Jewish cousins facing oh-so-Jewish, but truly universal, identity challenges. Playwright Joshua Harmon says: “If my mother were alive, she’d say, ‘Couldn’t you change the title to “Good Jews”?’” And his grandmother asked the same thing. But as he says: “I didn’t invent it. The title refers to a very particular generation, and I think it makes some people uncomfortable.”

An artistic tradition that has always attracted many Jews, there’s a swath of plays that portray Jewish life, traditions and characters, many with quirks and flaws (some stereotypical), and many that remind us that Jewish or not, people are just people. “Bad Jews” may call it out in its title, but the play invites us to openly debate important cultural stereotypes and real-life challenges.

In that vein, here are my picks for other theatrical “bad Jew” productions:

The Producers
This is the quintessential Jewish show, with Mel Brooks comedy at its best. The character Max Bialystock “shtups every little old lady in New York” and takes those checks like a pro, but I’d hate to think this is a deeper symbol of Jewish culture. Can’t we poke a little fun at a greedy guy who happens to be Jewish?

Awake and Sing!
You may not have heard of him, but Clifford Odets was considered the Arthur Miller of his day. This play is about a Jewish family, with parents who scheme to manipulate their children’s relationships to their own ends while their children strive for their own dreams. This is playing at the Huntington Theatre Company through Dec. 7; you can join the New Center for Arts & Culture for a special post-show conversation on Sunday, Nov. 23.

Death of a Salesman
Arthur Miller turned the Lomans into an Italian family, but come on—clearly they were Jewish! With a philandering husband who’s angry that his sons “have never amounted to anything,” there’s a “bad Jew” in this play.

The Last Seder
This more obscure, contemporary view of the “bad Jew” deals with mental anguish and family drama, all over a Passover seder. The play portrays daughters coping with their father’s disease while handling their own issues—an aimless wanderer, a pregnant lesbian and one who invites a stranger she met at Penn Station. The characters are relatable in just how realistic they are.

King of the Schnorrers
tTitle wise, this is the older generation’s counterpart to “Bad Jews,” featuring the “master beggar.” Written by local theater luminary Robert Brustein with an original klezmer score composed by local music maven Hankus Netsky, “King of the Schnorrers” tells the story of a group of unemployed Yiddish actors-turned-beggars, led by a proud Sephardic Jew, who bilk a wealthy movie producer out of a fortune. Check it out at the New Rep Theatre this spring.

The Sisters Rosensweig
Innovative for its time because of its focus on three middle-aged sisters, Wendy Wasserstein shows the true beauty and imperfections of the characters in this play.

Curious to hear how some young leaders in Boston view “Bad Jews”? Join the New Center NOW on Thursday, Nov. 20, for a post-show panel that will shed light on how this crowd feels about the phrase “bad Jew,” the show and more.

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