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My brief walk from the subway to the Dodger Stages, where Daniel Goldfarb’s crowd-pleasing new comedy, Modern Orthodox, is playing, was much like any other 10 minutes in public this time of year: I passed one belltolling Santa, endured “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Frosty the Snowman” as I stopped to buy something in a Rite Aid, and was wished a “very merry and prayerful Christmas” by a pair of tourists who asked me for directions to the Rockefeller Center tree. It’s hard to be a Yid at Yuletide. Even in a blue state.
Amid such relentless seasonal reminders of Christian hegemony, I welcomed the Yiddish of the Folksbiene’s slight musical Di Kaprizne Kalemoyd (A Novel Romance) and I laughed heartily at what daily critics excoriated as “inside jokes” in Modern Orthodox. Anything that brazenly asserts Jewish difference these days feels as triumphant as the Maccabees’ defeat of their occupiers.
But what exactly constitutes that difference for 21st-century American Jews is a question that both productions would provoke even in August.
In the case of the Folksbiene, the issue arises not so much as a theme of the play, but from the entire enterprise: Can century-old, light entertainments from the Yiddish theater be mounted today as anything other than nostalgia? In a tuneful prologue to Di Kaprizne Kalemoyd, the pianist (Steve Sterner) presents himself as the play’s author, Avrum Goldfaden (1840-1908), the undisputed father of Yiddish theater. He chides Jews for “creeping in the corners” of the English, Russian, and French theaters instead of creating their own drama, where, he sings, they can watch their own stories and feel proud to be themselves.
It’s hard to imagine that a contemporary Jewish audience would recognize “themselves” in this quaint, cartoonish comedy. The eponymous character—literally, the title means “The Capricious Bride”—insists on marrying a man just like the romantic heroes in the trashy German novels that her doting father laments have become “her Talmud.” A spirited cast, along with sarcastic English supertitles, strikes just the right level of camp to keep the cutesiness from cloying.
Daniel Goldfarb’s sitcom, on the other hand, aims right for the kishkes of today’s Jewish theatergoers in its jesting joust between secular and religious lifestyles. But its form is too feeble for the big questions toward which Goldfarb gestures. He settles instead for a series of mostly easy, occasionally edgy laughs at a repellent, narcissistic, self-righteous nebbish in a Yankees yarmulke.
Ben Jacobson (Craig Bierko), a secular Upper West Side financial consultant, is about to propose to his live-in girlfriend Hannah, a doctor (Molly Ringwald). In the opening scene, he buys an engagement ring from a young Orthodox diamond salesman, Hershel Klein (Jason Biggs), and the battle lines are drawn. Peppering every utterance with Hebrew or Yiddish phrases, Hershel scoffs at Ben’s unobservant ways and pronounces him “a gentile.” Comic contrivances land Hershel in Ben and Hannah’s apartment as an intolerable—and intolerant—houseguest: The Yid who came to dinner and was appalled that it wasn’t kosher. Eventually, as a standard comic foil must, Hershel teaches his modern friends a thing or two: Hannah calls it a sense of “what is meaningful—no, magical—in life.” In the bargain, Hershel (through a kiss stolen from Hannah) gets a dose of “manliness” that enables him to enjoy racy dinner conversation with a woman found through an Orthodox Internet dating service.
As the blind date, Jenn Harris almost steals the show from the deft movie stars, deadpanning her way through the clash between dutiful modesty and obsessive sexual curiosity.
True to form, the play ends with a double wedding. But the marriage Goldfarb wants to force between faith and reason, fundamentalism and modernity, is too scary for yuks.