Two 19-year-old teenagers cruise the streets of Brooklyn, N.Y., in their car, arguing over music and talking about girls.
But their car is a Mitzvah Tank, their music Yiddish and their names Zalmy and Shmuel. It’s the early 1990s, and these two Chabadniks are on a mission to search for non-Orthodox Jews and ask them to do a mitzvah.
Zalmy and Shmuel are characters in TRAYF, the first play of Theatre Ariel’s 2018-2019 season. On Oct. 13, 14, 20 and 21, the theater group will present readings of TRAYF in the style of salon theater — in the living rooms of private homes.
“It’s a really sweet play with lots of humor,” said Deborah Baer Mozes, the founding artistic director. “It raises questions about identity.”
Of the two friends in TRAYF, Shmuel is the more traditional one, while Zalmy is curious about the outside world, sneaking off to roller-skate and dance in discos. When they meet Jonathan, a music producer who was not raised Jewish but who wants to explore the religion after recently discovering that his deceased father was a Jewish Holocaust survivor, the friendship between the two young men is tested.
Playwright Lindsay Joelle’s work for TRAYF began 17 years ago, when she met a former Lubavitcher (as such adherents are also known) who became secular in his 20s. During brunches over the years, she learned about his background and experiences starting a new life.
TRAYF, she said, is a tribute to her friend and his bravery.
“I was always captivated by his stories of dipping his toe into the secular world — a covert trip to Blockbuster to rent Dead Poets Society, or the thrill of trying on a forbidden pair of blue jeans,” Joelle said. “It made me see through fresh eyes parts of my world I took for granted.”
Those 17 years of friendship served as some of her earliest research. During the past five years while working on writing TRAYF, Joelle delved further into that world. She spoke to rabbis in Crown Heights, listened to a bris on a speaker phone, boarded a Mitzvah Tank and sat in the women’s section at the Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters at 770 Eastern Pkwy. in Brooklyn.
“Though I made it clear that my motive was to write a play, not to increase my level of observance, it seemed I always had a standing invitation to Shabbos dinner,” Joelle said.
TRAYF premiered this past summer at Theater J, the Jewish theater in Washington, D.C. Theater J’s artistic director sent Mozes the script and told her he thought it might be a great fit for Theatre Ariel’s salons. Mozes read the script and was instantly captivated.
“Lindsay’s writing is excellent,” Mozes said. “She has an incredible ear for language. As I was reading it, I could see this young men, the two young Chabadniks. I could just see them. Their friendship is so built into the script.”
Because the actors just read the text in their salons, the actual text and language of the script is more important for Theatre Ariel, Mozes noted.
Mozes has also seen quite a few scripts set in the haredi world that didn’t seem well researched and included unrealistic content, but TRAYF, she said, feels like an accurate representation.
“The play, in my mind, validates the fact that our identities are not solidified at any one time, in any moment,” Mozes said. “They change. In this case, [Joelle is] exploring that theme in the background of a sort of coming-of-age play in a very different way than I’ve seen it before. There’s a lot of warmth in this play about friendship and there’s not a lot of warmth in the universe right now, so I feel like people are going to come out of this play feeling very positive and warm and uplifted, and we need that.”
The play is ultimately a story about friendship and how love can overcome differences in ideology. Joelle said she also hopes that, in times of incredible division, TRAYF can serve as an exercise in empathy.
“Zalmy and Shmuel are just like any 19-year-old best friends: They drive a cool truck, talk about girls, obsess over music — even though their truck is a Mitzvah Tank, their dates are arranged by a matchmaker and their music is chanted in Yiddish by a 90-year-old rebbe,” Joelle said.
“If at first their suits and beards make them appear different and strange, and then in the next 90 minutes in the dark we travel with them, experience the world as they do, when we leave the theater, maybe we’re a little changed. Maybe we’re all a little more primed to focus on where we overlap instead of what divides us. And wouldn’t that be a mitzvah?”
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