Bad Jews Keeps it All in the Family

Since its New York premiere at Roundabout Theatre in 2012, Bad Jews has become one of the most popular plays in North America. The San Francisco Chronicle called it “scathingly funny and thought-provoking” and the New York Times hailed it as “the best comedy of the season.” It’s a heartfelt and hilarious interrogation of faith, culture, and identity in the modern world.

In Bad Jews, three young Jewish cousins (and one non-Jewish girlfriend) have to bunk together in a cramped apartment during their grandfather’s shiva, the customary mourning period after a death. When they’re forced to decide who should inherit a precious family heirloom, the result is a ferocious and articulate brawl over religious tradition and cultural legacy. “These four young people share a lot of big ideas,” says Artistic Director Dennis Garnhum, “and I think we should listen closely to them.”

The voice behind Bad Jews is playwright Joshua Harmon, who was still shy of his 30th birthday when it premiered. His first inspiration for the play came during his second year of university, when he attended a Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) service in which the grandchildren of survivors told their ancestors’ stories, instead of the survivors themselves. “It was strange and sterile and laden with clichés,” he told a Roundabout Theatre interviewer, “and it scared me.”

That got Harmon thinking about his own relationship to Judaism, and how his generation will approach its cultural legacy and tell the Jewish story. But he let the project sit in his notebook for several years, unsure of how to approach such a challenging piece while still a student. When he returned to it in his late twenties and finally finished a first draft, it got immediate attention and landed him his first-ever major production.

That off-Broadway staging thrilled New York audiences and led to productions across the continent, where the play has consistently struck a chord with Jewish and non-Jewish audience members alike. “I firmly believe that by being incredibly specific,” Harmon says, “you can tap into something universal.”

About the Title

The eye-catching title Bad Jews was one of playwright Joshua Harmon’s early inspirations for the play. It’s somewhat provocative given the long history of antisemitism – Harmon’s own grandmother asked him why he couldn’t call the play Good Jews instead. But as Harmon told an interviewer for the Jewish Daily Forward, it’s a phrase he hears people his age “use very freely” as a bit of an inside joke about one’s own level of religious observance. Beyond that, the title points out the play’s questions about cultural inheritance and the moral high ground. What does it mean to be a “bad Jew” or a “good Jew” in today’s world? And who gets to decide?

About the Poster

In Bad Jews, three cousins fight over a pendant with the Hebrew word chai (like the one in our poster image) that belonged to their beloved grandfather. A Holocaust survivor, he kept the pendant safe in the Nazi concentration camps by holding it under his tongue. It’s a viscerally meaningful family heirloom – and only one cousin can have it at the end of the night.

The word chai means “living” or “life.” It’s related to the traditional Jewish toast l’chayim, “to life,” and is pronounced with a raspy ‘h’ sound. Necklaces with chai pendants are worn by some Jewish people for good fortune and long life – and as a cultural symbol connecting the wearer to the living Jewish tradition.

"Bad" Language?

At Theatre Calgary, we love bold contemporary plays that start conversations. Bad Jews features young people who express their beliefs with passion and intensity – so it contains some strong language that may not be to everyone’s taste. If you have questions about content, you can contact Audience Services at 403-294-7447 for more information.

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