What do a haredi couple and their troubled son from Williamsburg, New York, a non-Jewish female cyclist and a homosexual male lawyer have in common? The answer to that particular conundrum will become apparent at the current performances of Division Avenue by the J-Town Playhouse troupe at AACI in Jerusalem.
Division Avenue, named after a real street in the Williamsburg area of New York which is home to a large Satmar Hassidic community, was written by Miki Bone, a Catholic playwright from Texas who happened upon the New York neighborhood while on a visit to the Big Apple with her husband.
She snapped a picture of blackclad Hassidim crossing a busy junction just as a far less modestly attired young woman stepped into the frame. The cultural juxtaposition spawned the play which premiered in New York last summer and has now made its way over here.
Division Avenue throws up all kinds of worlds, social mores, takes on life and, naturally, clashes between all the aforesaid, and then some. The storyline features five characters whose life paths crisscross unexpectedly, and portrays how the ensuing individual and collective morass complicates their lives and forces them to deal with challenging issues.
Efraim is a widower in his mid-twenties who originates from the Satmar community but, following his wife’s death – although it is not clear if this was the catalyst for his change of religious tack – is considering leaving the Orthodox fold.
He has shaven off his beard and peyot which, of course, leads to all sorts of issues with his parents and the community.
Moishe, Efraim’s long-suffering father, not only has a problem with his son’s newfound secular outlook on life, he also strongly objects to scantily-clad cyclists wending their merry way through Williamsburg and enlists the help of a lawyer to get the matter to court. The plot thickens when Efraim meets Sarah who, interestingly, like Bone is a Catholic from Texas, whose regular cycle route takes her through the haredi district.
Things become even more intertwined when it later transpires that Dean, Moishe’s lawyer, is not only a homosexual but also Sarah’s best friend and roommate. Added to that, Sarah is a social worker who is helping another family that lives in Ephraim’s parents’ building, so the young widower has seen her around.
The J-Town Playhouse production is directed by twentysomething Eryn London, who hails from New Jersey and majored in theater studies at Goucher College in Baltimore before going on to take a master’s degree in applied theater at the University of London. She came across Bone’s work when J-Town Playhouse artistic director Raphael Poch asked her if she’d be interested in directing the play in Jerusalem.
London was intrigued and, after reading the script, captivated.
“It shows a lot about life. There are funny parts, there are sad parts, there are heart-wrenching parts and there are parts that are super awkward,” notes London, who comes from a traditional Jewish family and is currently taking rabbinical studies at the Women’s Institute of Halachic Leadership in Arnona, Jerusalem.
Orthodox upbringing notwithstanding, London is clearly drawn to the contentious issues mooted in Division Avenue, and also feels that outsider Bone approached the work with consummate sensitivity and serious intent.
“It shows a realness, and I think it is also a play that talks about something that is a really serious topic, and is controversial, but it doesn’t put down any party within the play. Miki Bone did a lot of research for the play. I changed a word here or there – for example, she uses the word ‘tzitzit’ instead of ‘tallit’ – but, in my opinion, she did a great job with her research. It is a really nice text and the characters get built up well. It is amazing how you can have a play with five people and, even though they all live very different lives, somehow they all are connected.”
That, says London, also resonates with life here. “It’s a bit like Jerusalem.
You fall into this thing of meeting someone who is a friend’s friend, and we are all doing similar things.”
The Division Avenue relationship web is certainly tangled. Efraim meets Sarah when she cycles past the park bench where father and son are studying. The newly clean-shaven Efrain has become persona non grata at the regular places of learning in the community, so they have to find alternative study venues. Not only does the young woman arouse Moishe’s ire, as yet another example of a non-Jewish and, for him, blatantly immodest interloper encroaching on his cloistered and definitively kosher world, she also sparks romantic feelings in his renegade son.
In addition to the clash of religious and secular worlds, the play also investigates the minefield of family relations and, in particular, father-son relationships. As desperate as he is to break out of the, for him, suffocating hassidic community, Efraim does not want to hurt his parents and, especially, his sensitive father. But, once he has set out on his path to rediscovery and redefinition, there is simply no way back for Efraim.
As diverse and fascinating as the characters in the play may be, not to mentioned the way they interconnect – happily or willy-nilly – London says the play and the storyline required a sensitive hand on the directing tiller.
“Probably my biggest challenge was taking these ideas, and almost stock characters – I had my non-Jewish woman from Texas, my gay lawyer living in New York City, who is potentially a hipster, and there is the Satmar guy who is leaving the Satmar world and a Satmar couple – I had to take these people, and make them into real people and not stock characters.”
Division Avenue offers Jerusalem audiences plenty of entertainment, brow furrowing stuff, some belly laughs and a lot of food for thought.
The remaining shows will take March 4, 5, 6, and 8 (all 8:30 p.m.).
For tickets and more information: (02) 566-1181