Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish, the longest-running book on my bedside table, notes that trayf, meaning non-kosher food, comes from the Hebrew teref meaning “torn to pieces.” Trayf, now playing at the Geffen Playhouse, powerfully builds toward a teref-level rupture, between forces spiritual and secular.
Playwright Lindsay Joelle has crafted a deeply meaningful work, wrapped in a tallit of comedy. Deep concepts come to life in the conversation between two 18-year-olds, Zalmy (Ilan Eskenazi) and Shmuely (Ben Hirschhorn), who operate a “mitzvah tank”: a bus with a sign offering “mitzvahs on the spot for people on the go.”
Rosten defines a mitzvah as a good deed done purely out of a desire to do kindness, rather than out of a sense of obligation. But the mitzvah business is slow, giving the well-meaning young men time to share private moments and listen to tapes. Shmuely plays the greatest hits of the Chabad Rebbe (rabbi), while Zalmy craves the kind of music (Elton John) that Shmuely says would be “trayfing up the place.”
Zalmy is wrestling with the obligation inherent in being a Hasidic Jew in 1990s Williamsburg, Brooklyn; Shmuely, who doesn’t conceive of his religion as an obligation, is concerned about his friend’s secular interests. Into this debate enters Jonathan (Garrett Young), seeking to delve more deeply into his Jewish roots. Jonathan drives a wedge between the two, who must assess their friendship and the shared religion that defines it, while outside forces, including Jonathan’s girlfriend Leah (Louisa Jacobson), increasingly upend the status quo.
Maggie Burrows’ direction incites performances uniformly heartfelt and stimulating. Jacobson’s appearance adds an important but brief perspective that pits Orthodox against secular Judaism.
An insular community holds structure and familiarity for insiders and fascination for outsiders. This portrait of Orthodox Jewish life and meditation on the meaning of organized religion, written by an outsider with the sensitivity of an insider, is a mechaya (per Rosen, a real joy).
Trayf runs through Sunday, April 10, 2022 in the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at Geffen Playhouse. It’s about 80 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8:00pm. Saturday matinees at 3:00pm, and Sundays at 2:00 and 7:00pm. Tickets are $30-129 and can be purchased here. All patrons must show proof of Covid-19 vaccination and ID, and wear a mask while in the theater.