'The Chabadnikim': A 'Book of Morman'-esque play in Tel Aviv - review

The play deals with serious issues such as homosexuality, especially in Hassidic communities, immigrant workers and a questionable shidduch system - but with a light-hearted, fun approach.

 CHAIM (RAFAEL ABBAS), left, and Yehuda (Ofri Bitterman) in ‘The Chabadniks.’ (photo credit: Cameri Theatre/Gallery)
CHAIM (RAFAEL ABBAS), left, and Yehuda (Ofri Bitterman) in ‘The Chabadniks.’
(photo credit: Cameri Theatre/Gallery)

The CHABADNIKIM

Cameri Theater, Tel Aviv

November 27

Upon passing by the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv, it’s hard not to notice the emphasis given to the new play, The Chabadnikim. Many large posters have been reserved to advertise what is surely their newest original. Growing up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, I was pulled toward the play. I came in with expectations that were met and blown.

Directed by Gilad Kimchi and Udi Gottshalk, the play stars two twin brothers, Chaim (Rafael Abbas) and Yehuda (Ofri Bitterman). They are from Kfar Chabad and managed to spend their lives without ever spending proper time in “Tel Oyveev” (Tel Aviv). In the opening act, the plot is set that these two must find a bride. Yehuda matches with the Rabbi’s daughter, Rina, but he’s underwhelmed and highly stressed by the lack of butterflies he feels. Chaim, meanwhile, has been rejected by every woman and has never seen a second date. While Yehuda prepares for his doomsday wedding, Chaim is sent off to Tel Aviv, off the Kfar, in search of a bride. Instead of going alone as planned, Yehuda joins him in an attempt to delay his fate. The two find themselves in the new world opened up for them but will they accept what they find?

Tel Aviv is more of a main character in the show than Kfar Chabad or Chabad of any type for that matter. The play nearly could be replaced with any old brothers from Beni Brak or Mea She’arim. The idea is two Chassidim discover the world. Do they have to be Chabad? Perhaps not. Though there is a major conversion scene and Chaim doesn’t go anywhere without his life-saving Chitas, there is little more Chabad than just that. If you’re interested in poking fun at Chabad, this is not the play. It might as well have been called ‘Hachassidim.’

Discovering another world in Tel Aviv

The plot takes us on a hilarious and wacky ride as the twins discover another world in Tel Aviv. The play doesn’t hold back in all the good and bad extremes. Tel Aviv’s character is what you get when you take Tel Aviv’s Savidor neighborhood and apply it to the whole city.

An aerial shot of a Tel Aviv beach (credit: BARAK BRINKER/TEL AVIV-YAFO MUNICIPALITY)An aerial shot of a Tel Aviv beach (credit: BARAK BRINKER/TEL AVIV-YAFO MUNICIPALITY)

Chaim and Yehuda get tangled up with a crime boss running a club with illegal workers. It runs highly parallel to the play, The Book of Mormon, which is still running on West End and Broadway. Both feature an innocent man and a wiser man with much to learn. Both sets of boys get involved where they shouldn’t and both have a mass conversion song. In the Chabad conversion, we are treated with strong symbolism to The Last Supper with Chaim as the prophet to take these Christians into Judaism so they may become Israeli legal workers.

The musical is a comedy so come ready to laugh. From jokes like, “Gettshidduch” and Moshe Dantz… I mean Moshe Rabenu, coming to give advice on following your heart, be prepared to break out your “aww, factor”.

With hilarious and heartfelt music by Elad Peret, you’ll be asking yourself when the soundtrack is coming out. The dancing takes out as much of a Broadway quality as is possible on the smaller Israeli stage. Dances are choreographed to advance the plot and character and match the upbeat music.

The play deals with serious issues such as homosexuality, especially in Hassidic communities, immigrant workers and a questionable shidduch system. Everything is with a light-hearted and fun approach. However, the play’s length – coming in at over two and a half hours – could do with a few revision cuts.

The play is in Hebrew, with Hebrew subtitles only for the music. Though a fuller command of Hebrew helps to understand the nuances, with a basic understanding it is definitely possible to follow along.