In my opinion, Bad Jews is a powerful play that acts as a magnifying glass for important issues of religion and identity, particularly among young people. What does it mean to be religious in a modern world? How much should we let the traditions of the past guide our behavior today? Does religious tradition just create arbitrary rules from which we need to liberate ourselves? Most importantly, who gets to decide what the rules are? In other words, who gets to decide who is a “Bad Jew,” a “Bad Christian,” a “Bad Buddhist,” etc.
After reading this comic yet gripping play, I was amazed at how well it brought out current dynamics within religious and ethnic communities, as well as individual families, though the characters are clearly caricatures. Some members of communities are focused on keeping in place the structures of the past and take pride from them, while others see little value in those structures and look for freedom from them. In the process, the symbols and traditions of the community are constantly reinterpreted and understood from different angles. Even a simple necklace can be understood as having multiple meanings within the same family. At the same time, the play shows that religious and identity issues can be used as a weapon to beat others over the head. Both people who consider themselves religious or loyal to their ethnicity and those who do not can be guilty of this practice.
I believe that people, at times, continue to be pulled in two directions feeling both a responsibility to support his or her community of origin and the desire to express his or her individuality. To me, each of us has some Daphna and some Liam inside us. How we strike a balance between these values will help determine the future shape of our religious and ethnic communities and American society as a whole. This play will serve as a strong catalyst for vital discussions in the Des Moines community about these issues.
I applaud StageWest for bringing this intelligent, funny, though possibly controversial, play to Des Moines as part of its continuing effort to promote diversity in our city. I feel that my own community should appreciate its willingness to bring contemporary Jewish-themed theater to Des Moines. For those concerned about the play’s title, I would suggest looking past it to see what questions the play’s author looks to convey.
Rabbi Steven Edelman-Blank
Tifereth Israel Synagogue
Des Moines, Iowa