Hasidic teenagers Zalmy and Shmuel, the main characters of the New Repertory Theatre’s “Trayf” on stage in Watertown, appear to be typical 1990s adolescents. They love cruising around New York City in their brand-new van, blasting their favorite music and singing along at the top of their lungs. Their good-natured banter, conversational shortcuts, and puppy-like rapport reveal a chemistry borne of lifelong friendship. They talk about everything, from music to families to the riddle of sex. Any mother would be proud to claim them as her budding mensches.
Yet, on another level, Zalmy and Shmuel are anything but typical teens. They have never left their insular Orthodox community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn; Manhattan’s secular streets, bejeweled and beckoning with the forbidden (trayf), startle them. In their Chabad-Lubavitch uniforms of black hats and coats, facial hair, and tzitzit fringes, they hardly blend in.
The van they drive is a Mitzvah Tank, a makeshift synagogue-on-wheels with a banner that reads, “Mitzvahs on the Spot for People on the Go.” The music they adore is Hasidic pop/rock. These two are not trolling for babes. They have but one mission: to inspire Jews to do mitzvahs. “We’re the Rebbe’s foot soldiers going to battle in the most secular city in the world,” Shmuel solemnly declares.
New York-based playwright Lindsay Joelle deftly uses this distinctive community and these two friends as the platform to launch her exploration of weighty themes such as commitment, identity, loyalty, tolerance, and what being Jewish means (and doesn’t mean) in 21st century America. By nimbly plumbing Zalmy and Shmuel’s rich relationship, she keeps “Trayf” light, comedic, and fluid while digging deeply beneath the surface.
During Zalmy’s (Ben Swimmer) and Shmuel’s (David Picariello) chatty drives into the city, their personalities surface. Shmuel is scandalized by Times Square; Zalmy is intrigued. Shmuel is devoted, resolved, and unquestioning. His is a world of black and white, kosher and trayf. Zalmy is more open-minded and daring; he can sense the gray of a possible middle ground, and it attracts him.
Joelle carefully places this tinderbox of conflict beneath the teens’ friendship. Jonathan (Nile Scott Hawver), who approaches the Mitzvah Tank looking for “spiritual belonging,” is the flint that ignites it.
Jonathan is a young man who was raised Catholic. While cleaning out some of his father’s things after his recent death, he came across his birth certificate, showing his father emigrated from Germany and was, in fact, Jewish. Convinced that exploring these Jewish roots will fill the emptiness inside him, he is drawn to the Mitzvah Tank like a drowning man to a life boat.
Zalmy is happy to take Jonathan on as a student, especially after he learns he is a record producer and might be his conduit to secular musical delights. Shmuel is predictably skeptical. “He doesn’t feel like a Jew,” Shmuel says.
“Why would anyone pretend to be Jewish?” Zalmy counters.
For the first time in their decades-long friendship, Zalmy and Shmuel follow divergent paths. Zalmy takes Jonathan under his wing, bringing him home every week for Shabbos. “You’re so lucky, Zalmy. With your family I feel connected. I feel God,” Jonathan says. Zalmy is just happy to receive some of Jonathan’s secular (trayf) tapes.
Well into the intermission-less 80-minute production, Jonathan’s Jewish girlfriend, Leah Caplan (Kimberly Gaughan), shows up, angry at her goyishe boyfriend’s makeover into a full-blown Chabadnik – hat, beard, and all. The granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, she “knows what it means to be Jewish” and has chosen a Catholic partner on purpose. Shmuel tries to comfort and calm her and to get her to see what he is only beginning to embrace and understand. “There is no love, only acts of love,” he tells her, quoting the Rebbe.
For Joelle, “Trayf” is the culmination of over five years’ research that started with her friendship with a former Chabadnik who shared with her how he had “dipped his toe into the secular world” until he finally broke from his roots and embraced a secular life.
She hopes the audience leaves wondering what each character will do next as they embark on their transformative journeys. “I’m most drawn to Shmuel’s newfound understanding that ‘acts of love’ include giving friends space to change and grow, and that true friendship transcends ideological beliefs,” she told The Journal.
“Trayf” is presented in partnership with the Jewish Arts Collaborative, based in Newton. Performances run through Nov. 3 at the Mosesian Center for the Arts.