Many Jews (and non-Jews) have been approached in a public location such as a train station or airport by a young member of Chabad-Lubavitch (the Orthodox Jewish, Chasidic movement devoted to outreach) asking them if they’d like to partake in a mitzvah (Jewish commandment/good deed). Depending on the time of day, or year, it could be lighting a menorah, laying tefillin, shaking a lulav and esrog, making a blessing, or completing numerous other types of mitzvot.
Some may think the practice humorous, others may view it as annoying, others still may appreciate it and oblige them, while some may not understand what they are doing. Rarely, though, do we get an insight into their perspective, what it is like for these young adults who are “pushing mitzvot." Recently, this practice came under scrutiny in the local media due to a video that surfaced showing University of Maryland Israel studies professor, Pnina Peri, expressing displeasure with a member of Chabad who was helping a stranger lay tefillin (phylacteries)at Ben Gurion International Airport (see Kol HaBirah’s coverage in the June 7 issue for more details).
Lindsay Joelle’s “Trayf,” directed by Derek Goldman and presented by the Edlavitch DCJCC’s Theater J, gives comedic but poignant insight into the mindset and challenges of a few 90s-era members of Chabad who spend their days trying to help others do mitzvot.
Two 19-year-old buddies, Zalmy and Shmuel, are appointed by the Rebbe (the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who passed away in 1994) to drive a Mitzvah Tank around New York City to seek out Jews in public places, such as the subway station, and offer them the opportunity to do mitzvot. In the beginning, they are very excited to spread mitzvot and inspire others, but soon find that it is difficult to engage busy passersby in public places.
They are eventually approached by Jonathan, who has a Jewish father, a Catholic mother, and a Jewish girlfriend named Leah. Jonathan and Zalmy become friends and are more interested in learning about each other’s way of life than they are discussing their own. Jonathan believes he has a Jewish soul and wishes to connect more with the Jewish way of life, while Zalmy, who has lived an insular life until now, is interested in secular music, parties, and the city life.
Shmuel and Zalmy’s friendship becomes strained, as Shmuel can’t understand what is “going on inside [Zalmy’s] head” and doesn’t approve of Zalmy’s new friendship with Jonathan. The plot unfolds with a few interesting twists and the playwright does a great job of blending humor, drama, and meaning.
The June 14 showing at Theater J was sold out and the crowd could not get enough of the performance, and were fully attentive and laughing on numerous occasions.
Tyler Herman (Shmuel) and Josh Adams (Zalmy) impressively adopted the persona of insulated members of Chabad, with their beards and black and white garb; they even pronounced most of the Yiddish words and sayings correctly. Drew Kopas (Jonathan) adapted his role seamlessly, as he progressed from secular to more observant, even sporting a beard toward the end of the play.
Besides being a play with a Jewish theme, “Trayf” provides insight into a way of life that is familiar to some but foreign to many. In addition, the identity struggles that were highlighted are likely relevant to and can be appreciated by many. Attendees left the play with a bit more empathy, a bit more reflection, and a bit more comic relief.
Trayf will be running at Theater J (1529 16th St NW, Washington, D.C.) until June 24. Tickets can be purchased at the box office at 202.777.3210 or on the web at www.theaterj.org.
By Kol HaBirah Staff