Inter-Ethic Strife Probed on Broadway
Joe Farkas would not miss a Seder dinner at his parents’ home for anything in the world.
When Pesach--the Hebrew word for Passover--is mentioned to Lala Levy, she does not know what the word means. The 22-year-old went to a Seder dinner once in fifth grade and didn’t like it.
The characters in Alfred Uhry’s new Broadway play “The Last Night at Ballyhoo” come from two different Jewish worlds; Farkas was raised in Brooklyn where Judaism was a central part of his identity, and Levy and her family grew up in Atlanta, where upper-class Jews focused on assimilating into the larger society and Eastern European Jews were viewed with embarrassment.
Adding special meaning to the conflict is that the play is set in 1939, with Hitler casting a shadow over the dividing line created in American Jewish society between those who traced their heritage to Germany and those whose ancestors came from Eastern Europe.
But the play’s issues of prejudice within ethnic groups and the larger question of how one defines Judaism carry particular resonance this Passover season. Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews are engaged in heated debates over the legitimacy of their movements here and in Israel.
“What I was really trying to write about was tolerance within your own ethnicity,” said Uhry, best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Driving Miss Daisy.”
The themes of the play could apply as well to northern and southern Italians or Scottish people from the highlands and lowlands, he said in an interview.
Still, he said, there is a connection to the internal discussions in Judaism today, particularly when one side thinks it is better than the other and only it knows the way to be Jewish.
Uhry labels “absurd” the recent statement by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada, a small rabbinical group, that two more liberal branches of Judaism are “not Judaism at all.”
Just because another expression of being Jewish “is not Judaism to them” does not mean Conservative or Reform Jews are any less Jewish, Uhry said.
Uhry also takes issue with legislation being considered in Israel today that would invalidate conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis.
“I thought the state of Israel was established for Jews to be Jews in. It didn’t say what kind of Jew,” he said.
His new play opens with Levy singing a Christmas carol and decorating a Christmas tree in the home of her uncle.
Only when her mother notices a star on top of the tree does she express opposition.
“Jewish Christmas tree don’t have stars,” Beulah Freitag declares.
Their world is upset when Farkas, the uncle’s new business assistant, visits the home.
In Levy’s world, Eastern European Jews have a lower social status; only those who are “toilet trained” are able to become members of the German Jewish club that will host the Ballyhoo dance, one character jokes.
Farkas, however, bristles at how far the Levys and Freitags have become assimilated into Southern culture.
At one point, he asks Sunny Freitag, a girl he falls in love with, “Are you people really Jewish?”
The ending Sunny dreams of is for everyone to gather around the table at the beginning of the Sabbath, greeting each other with the words “Shabbat Shalom"--Sabbath peace.
Raised in the South, Uhry has experienced similar growing pains on his own spiritual journey.
Growing up, Uhry said he experienced a dry, thin Judaism, devoid of Jewish music and skull caps, “almost indistinguishable from the Methodists across the street.”
He was “Southern first, American second, Jewish a distant third.”
Today, he said, “the order for me is American first, Jewish second.”
In the last few years, he has started having Seder dinners at his home. And it is something he would wish for all Jewish people.
“I think it would be wonderful if everyone who was Jewish participated in a Seder of some sort,” Uhry said. “Just telling that story, sitting around the dinner table, that would be great.”