Life is a JEWish cabaret

“We are well aware of the risks of bringing such an LGBT-heavy show to Jerusalem.”

By JENNIFER GREENBERG
November 17, 2018 21:23
4 minute read.
A SCENE from the JEWish Cabaret’s ‘Jew You Love Me?’

A SCENE from the JEWish Cabaret’s ‘Jew You Love Me?’ . (photo credit: YUE WANG)

A new British-Israeli musical tells a human story filled with laughter, enlightenment and the “sweet kosher love of Jewish guys.”
“A seemingly straight Jewish girl who ends up finding love in a [female] partner; a gay couple struggling with the concept of monogamy; a religious woman who is too afraid to explore her sexuality.”

These are not the characters you would typically expect to meet at the International Jewish Festival in Jerusalem. While The JEWish Cabaret might reject the clichéd “boy-meets-girl fairy tale” in its latest tongue-and-cheek musical production, Jew You Love Me?, the British-Israeli theater troupe does have quite the fantastical boy-meets-boy origin story:

Once upon a time, there was a singer named Shachar “Shar” Shamai. One day, while completing his master’s degree in classical singing at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, a mutual friend introduced him to David Djemal. Focused on finding common grounds between English musical theater and classical singing – “and making a lot of people hate me for it,” Shamai joshes – the thought of collaboration with Djemal, who was concentrated on his acting at the time, was premature.

Skip a few chapters and the two find themselves studying at separate academies across the pond – one in London and the other in Guildford, England. They catch up briefly, just the once, before parting ways.

A year later, upon graduation, the two meet up one last time to dig into their arsenals of creative aspirations. Turns out, third time’s a charm. They decide to fuse their backgrounds (Shamai more musical, Djemal more lyrical) and create a show that might address Jewish questions on the surface, but actually extends far beyond religion.

“It’s JEW-ish because as Israelis, we are both obviously Jewish, as are many of our cast members,” Shamai says and then pauses. As with all ideologies, though, it is always more nuanced than that: “When we’re in Israel we’re obviously Jewish, but we don’t necessarily practice Judaism, let alone believe in God.”

At their home based in London, the men identify as cultural Jews who do want to segregate themselves or come across as religious in anyway.

“We wanted something open, fun and above all, human,” Shamai says. “Everyone can relate to human stories. That being said, our goal is to not target Jews exclusively. Whether you’re Christian, Muslim or even atheist, everyone can relate to the ‘worried mom’ or the struggles between sexuality and belief. It’s all very universal.”

The complex relationship between sexuality and belief, especially in the 21st century, is a common thread stitching Jew You Love Me together. The original musical, which was conceived in light of Tu B’av, a Jewish holiday similar to Valentine’s Day, depicts the “true stories of the people around us: our lives and our friends,” says Shamai.

The production covers a wide gamut of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender topics in the face of religion. Furthermore, while homosexuality is a common topic in daily discourse, Shamai and Djemal wanted to focus on the less common dialogue regarding gay women and religion. This is where the character of Bracha comes into play as the “straight, semi-religious archetype” who is too afraid to explore her sexuality. She is contrasted by Gabi, who starts the show in desperate search of a good Jewish boy, but after getting fed up with having to “swipe to the right, swipe to the right, I swipe all night,” she ends up mistaking female companionship for love.

“We are well aware of the risks of bringing such an LGBT-heavy show to Jerusalem,” Shamai outs the pink elephant in the room. “The only straight storyline in the entire production belongs to an older couple who serve as comic relief due to their incessant horniness and desire to constantly celebrate life. In other words, yes, it’s risky, but it’s also relevant. So it’s a risk that we’re willing to take.”

Risky subject matter is neither new nor scary for Shamai, who has been writing such songs as “Everybody Likes a Dick Pic” and “Eight Gay Jews in London” since his first musical theater writing module in university.

“Fine, nine including me,” Shamai laughs.

Humor is clearly a strong suit for the lighthearted singer. It is also an essential aspect of Jewish and Israeli culture. In asking Shamai how he uses humor in his scripts to address more topical issues, he admits that it is actually the other way around; that he is not trying to use humor per se to address more topical issues, but rather humor is already ingrained in his identity.

“We wouldn’t have it any other way. At least, I wouldn’t,” he confesses. “My style of performance is very much cabaret, which comes along with constantly trying to break down that fourth wall in order to talk to the audience at eye level. I think it’s very Israeli in a way.”

Hopefully this innately Israeli quality will resonate with local audiences at the JEWish Cabaret’s five successive performances: three at Hasimta Theater in Jaffa, followed by two at Beit Mazia in Jerusalem for the International Jewish Festival of Contemporary Culture.

“Since it is a show about love, Jew You Love Me has taken a lot of time and effort out of us, but mostly out of our hearts,” Shamai says. “All we can hope for now is that it touches others’ hearts in the same way that it has touched ours. And that audience members come out humming our melodies.”

The JEWish Cabaret performs at Hasimta Theater in Jaffa on November 22, 23 and 24, before moving onto Beit Mazia for back-to-back Jerusalem performances on November 25 and 26. For more information: thejewishcabaret.com


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