February 21, 2023
by Arthur Dorman
Lindsay Joelle's Trayf is receiving an excellent production at Six Points Theater. The play opens a window into a community I would guess few members of its Minnesota audience have personally experienced, the Lubavitcher Chasidic Jews clustered in one neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. Many of us who are the Jewish segment of Six Points' (formerly, Minnesota Jewish Theatre) audience are aware of this community, may have read or seen documentaries about it, and may even have a connection to someone in it, but are not likely to have lived it for the simple reason that this subset of Orthodox Judaism lives by rules that strictly forbid engagement with secular pastimes such as organized sports, pop music, and theater. At one point a character in the show attends, stealthily, a performance of Fiddler on the Roof, and even this is considered a forbidden activity–trayf!
Soren Thayne Miller, Charlie Peterson, and Paul LaNave. Photo by Sarah Whiting
Trayf is a Yiddish word that, strictly speaking, refers to any food not prepared in accordance with Jewish kosher dietary laws, strictly observed by the Lubavitchers and other Orthodox Jewish adherents, as well as by many–certainly not all–Conservative Jews, some small number of Reform Jews, and barely any secular or unaffiliated Jews, of which there are many. All of the above are Jewish, yet their practices and beliefs vary considerably. What makes them all Jewish? That is one of several fascinating topics talked about by the characters in this one-act play that raises significant questions, not only for Jews, but for anyone wrestling with how to understand their identity–be it ethnic, religious, racial, gender, class–and how that identity restricts or expands the boundaries of their life.
In Trayf, the term refers not only to foods, but to any activities that are forbidden in the Lubavitcher community, such as watching Fiddler on the Roof, listening to top 40 radio, or dressing in immodest clothing. The play, set in 1991, introduces us to two appealing young men, Shmuel and Zalmy. They are eighteen, old enough to go out on their own in a Mitzvah Tank. Mitzvah Tanks–this is a real thing–are vans, campers, or other kind of vehicle with interior space one can walk into, that park in different neighborhoods of New York City, offering to do a mitzvah–a charitable act or good deed–for anyone who is Jewish.
Lubavitchers believe that in each generation lives one person good enough to be the long-awaited Jewish messiah, and that if the world demonstrates enough goodness, that messiah will be revealed. By doing many mitzvahs, the Lubavitchers hope to hasten the arrival of the messiah. One such mitzvah would be to help a Jew whose inner light for Judaism has gone out to rekindle that light by joining the Lubavitchers.
Life-long best friends Shmuel and Zalmy have long awaited their chance to do a Mitzvah Tank campaign together. A stranger named Jonathan, at least ten years older than the boys and with only a slender link to Jewish heritage, enters the scene. The recent death of his father sent Jonathan into a tailspin, and he believes that absorbing Judaism can be his salvation. Jonathan has lived a fully secular life with all its attendant pleasures. He might have taken the less drastic step of affiliating with Conservative Jews, Reform Jews, Humanistic Jews ... but none of those do outreach on the street, none walk up to every man, as do Mitzvah Tank squadrons, and ask "Are you Jewish?" Shmuel is skeptical, but Zalmy believes that Jonathan has a Jewish soul and becomes his mentor. As Jonathan's fixation on Jewish life deepens, Zalmy becomes increasingly curious about secular life and chafes to experience it. Where will this leave Shmuel, who is ardently faithful to the Lubavitcher life but also embraces an unshakeable devotion to Zalmy?
In many ways Zalmy and Shmuel are like any eighteen-year-old boys, but different. They joke around and snack on Twizzlers–though they hurriedly mutter a blessing before scarfing down the red licorice cords; they get excited about their DVD collections (it is 1991)–though theirs are not superhero or rock star movies, but tapes of the Rebbe, spiritual leader of their movement; they wonder about the mechanics of sex–a topic totally off limits to them until the time they are to consummate their arranged marriages. These interactions are the basis of humor that is one of the plays vital ingredients.
The bond of their friendship is readily apparent, especially as performed by Soren Thayne Miller as Zalmy and Charlie Peterson as Shmuel. These two young actors–both are currently high school students–are completely in control of themselves on stage, creating characters that seem totally authentic. We deeply feel Zalmy's yearning to experience life beyond the Lubavitchers and Shmuel's pious anxiety about how he will know what to do on his wedding night. The two have an easy, genuine rapport that speaks to the friends' affection for one another. They are a gift to the play and to this production.
Paul LaNave is terrific as the interloper, Jonathan, a man whose psyche has hit an implosion point where he feels he must do something different with his life in order to go on. LaNave perfectly exhibits the offhanded way Jonathan talks about the secular daily affairs of his life, gradually shedding those in his effort to become a different person. LaNave's Jonathan seems a decent fellow, seeking ground on which to root his life, yet at the same time, he leads us to wonder if he isn't suffering a form of arrested development.
Marci Lucht nails the part of Jonathan's girlfriend Leah, making a searing impression in her only scene–it would be good to have seen more of her. She rails against the changes in Jonathan and against his pulling away from her, who was born and raised Jewish, in order to be a Jew. Leah cries out that her family survived the Holocaust and that Jonathan never attended a single b'mitzvah, while she's attended a hundred, given out a hundred eighteen-dollar checks. It is intolerable to her that he suddenly claims to be the superior Jew.
If the reference above to eighteen-dollar checks puzzled you, that is one of the numerous references to Jewish life that show up throughout the play. For those not in the know, in most cases they can be understood by their context. Also, a glossary with some of the key Yiddish terms, in particular those related to the Lubavitchers, is inserted into the program. Eighteen-dollar checks, by the way, are a common amount given as a celebratory gift, as the number eighteen, or "chai," symbolizes life and is thus good luck. That was back in 1991, mind you. Today a double chai of thirty-six dollars or triple chai of fifty-four dollars (and up from there) may be more typical gifts.
Jennie Ward directs the play with a sure hand, allowing the changes that occur both within and between characters to emerge organically as the story unfolds, smoothly transitioning over scenes that span elapsed time. Michael Hoover's setting creates the feel of a lower Manhattan neighborhood, with the rented U-Haul that serves as the boys' Mitzvah Van providing a strong central image, while scenes set in Zalmy's home–with Jonathan often a guest at Shabbat dinner–are cleverly set upon the van's roof. Jenny Moeller's lighting adds effective variations in tone, while Anita Kelling's sound design, including the noise of traffic that accompanies the hawking of mitzvahs on the street, adds a note of realism to the production. Eleanor Schanilec has designed costumes well suited to each character, with Jonathan first appearing in a t-shirt emblazoned with the logo from Purple Rain and pink-toned shorts, attire that is the total opposite of the sober Lubavitcher garments.
Trayf ends without letting us know what lies ahead for its primary characters. Each will have to make choices about their lives among the Lubavitcher's and their relationships with one another. We are shown that the movement of individuals, either into or out from, an insular community changes their dynamics in ways that cannot easily be foreseen. Even Shmuel's resolve to remain steadfast is challenging, as touchstones he counted on begin to shift. We are left with the spur to ask questions and ponder outcomes. That is a less than fully satisfying ending for me. I want to know, "what now?," understanding that this is only one possible "what now?" among many possibilities. That, after all, is true in real life as it is on the stage. Still, how did Joelle, the playwright, see these characters, her creations, move beyond the dilemma at which we leave them?
In spite of feeling a bit cut short by the ending, Trayf is a very rewarding play, well written with dialogue that rings true throughout, and revealing a slice life I have not before seen on stage. It is stimulating, and ultimately the tension that threatens to divide two best friends, boys who have always loved one another, is deeply moving. Six Points Theater has, as it so often does, found a sharp-edged new title, staged a production that is polished to a glossy shine, and left us all the richer for that.
Trayf runs through March 12, 2023, at Six Points Theater (formerly Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company), at the Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $25-$40, $15 Student Rush (with valid ID); $15.00 Artist Rush. For tickets and information, please call 651-647-4315 or visit www.sixpointstheater.org.
Playwright: Lindsay Joelle; Director: Jennie Ward; Scenic Design: Michael Hoover; Costume Design: Eleanor Schanilec; Lighting Design: Jenny Moeller; Sound Design: Anita Kelling; Properties Design: Bobbie Smith; Technical Director: Timothy M. Payton; Stage Manager: Miranda Shunkwiler; Assistant Stage Manager: André Johnson Jr.
Cast: Paul LaNave (Jonathan), Marci Lucht (Leah), Soren Thayne Miller (Zalmy), Charlie Peterson (Shmuel).