On Stage at the Geffen Playhouse’s intimate Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, is TRAYF,* a very compelling and entertaining play, written by Lindsay Joelle and well directed by Maggie Burrows. The production is basically presented on a bare stage except for a few chairs and a boom box. That said, what takes place in the 80 minutes running time is quite fascinating and a searing, but non-judgmental look at the restrictions inherent in the world of Hasidic Jews as manifested by Joelle’s two main characters.
Zalmy, very well played by Ilan Eskenazi and his childhood buddy Shmuel, well characterized by Ben Hirschhorn, live in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. They have been given an important task by their Chabad “Rebbe”** to drive around in their mitzvah tank to give out candles and blessings to passersby who might have lost their way. The secular world is a complete mystery purposely avoided in the education the two young men received at their Yeshiva. A slight crack begins to emerge in Zalmy’s devotion to his religion after he encounters hearing music at a Manhattan music store. Excitedly, he shares with his pal that heard a song by someone named Elton John to which Shmuel asks “Is he Jewish?” He is appalled that his buddy would set foot inside a music store as that is part of the secular world that is forboten. During Zalmy’s forbidden visit, however, he meets Jonathan, a slightly older young man who works at that music store. He just found out that his father, who had recently passed away, was Jewish and a Holocaust survivor, which sets him on a path of exploration and self-discovery. Nicely played by Garrett Young, his character wants to say Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, so Zalmy writes out part of the prayer on a piece of paper and gives it to him. In search of meaning to his life, Jonathan decides that he wants to be Jewish because he feels that’s what his soul is. He meets Shmuel, who is dead set against Zalmy’s new friend’s conversion as the mother was Catholic and under Jewish law, you can only be Jewish through the mother. The new friend is adamant about converting and eventually, Shmuel agrees. Zalmy takes the potential convert under his wing, inviting him to his home for traditional Friday night Shabbat dinners and sleepovers. Along with that, Zalmy is becoming more and more curious about the secular world and quite by accident comes upon a skating rink. He confesses to his friend that he sneaks out after dinner to watch the skaters, which he thinks is one of the most beautiful things he’s ever seen and although totally forbidden, wants to learn how to skate forwards and backwards. Continuing the conversion steps for Jonathan, Zalmy gives him tefillin*** and he learns how to wrap the leather straps around his arm correctly. In the meantime, he makes mixed tapes for his friend, consisting of secular and non-secular music in cassettes, which were popular in 1991 and gives him his Walkman on which to play them. Throughout the play, we see Zalmy’s almost insatiable thirst for knowledge outside of his narrow world and he even goes as far as seeing “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway. Worried that he might lose his friend, Shmuel pleads with him, “If you become secular, you’ll never see me or your family again.” As far as relationships, almost all marriages in the Orthodox community are arranged, and it is now Shmuel’s turn to be fixed up. Both Yeshiva boys are virgins as there is “No sex until we get married” nor is there any sex education. In one of the most funny and sad scenes at the same time, is a conversation between the two friends which illuminates the lack of education on this subject. Shmuel tells his pal that he doesn’t know anything about sex. All he knows is his thing goes into her and you have to pee inside of her. Adding to his confusion is he understands there are two holes and “How do know which hole to use?” Meanwhile, jealous of the time Zalmy spends with the potential convert, he demands that he stop seeing him to which he says, “No.” Eventually, Jonathan’s conversion is completed and we next see him in full Hasidic garb and, like many converts who morph into “super religious,” he tells Shmuel that “Zalmy is not one of us,” which does not receive the reaction he expected. There is a very short but interesting scene between Shmuel and Jonathan’s non-Orthodox Jewish girlfriend Leah (Louisa Jacobson) in which she practically begs him to release her boyfriend back to her as “we had a life together.”
What is interesting about Joelle’s well written script, is that it does not attack what could be seen as the very repressed lifestyle of Hasidic Jews, but simply illuminates the deficiencies inherent in the basic education which lacks even a cursory understanding of the forbidden secular world. All this said, relax as the dénouement will leave you both smiling and curious with some surprising eye candy at the end.
*Trayf is a Yiddish word referring to food that is not kosher and forbidden under Jewish law.
**Rebbe: a Jewish spiritual leader or teacher
***Tefillin or phylacteries, are a set of small black leather boxes with leather straps containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah. It is the belief that when you put on tefillin, you connect to the Infinite, fulfilling G-d’s will and reminding yourself to be a better person.
Audrey Skirball Kennis Theater
The Geffen Playhouse
10886 Le Conte Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90024
Tuesday – Friday: 8:00pm
Saturday: 3:00pm & 8:00pm
Sunday: 2:00 & 7:00 p.m.
Closing: April 10, 2022
Running Time: 80 minutes – no intermission
Tickets: $30 – $129