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Finding Common Ground

An Interview with TRAYF Playwright Lindsay Joelle

By Rachel Wiegardt-Egel, Geffen Playhouse Director of New Play Development


Rachel Wiegardt-Egel: What was your inspiration for writing the play?

Lindsay Joelle: My experience with Judaism is not as earnest and joyful as this play. Both my grandparents are Holocaust survivors. My grandmother was a member of Poland's underground youth resistance. So she, as a teenager, was smuggling supplies across borders, and that evolved into moving people into areas that were safer. My family knew little about her history for most of my childhood, because she refused to talk about the war. And then, when I was in junior high, she wrote her autobiography, and all of a sudden, we learned our family history. It’s a point of pride, and she was a hero, but it's a dark legacy to inherit. I always felt that Judaism was the last thing that I would ever write about. In grad school, one of my mentors was Sam Hunter, who probably needs no introduction, but is a playwright who frequently writes about his own religious upbringing and the joys and demons associated with that. He told me it’s a playwright's job to press on the bruise, because that's where all the interesting things are. So, I started writing TRAYF.

Fortunately, one of the first friends I made in New York grew up as a Hasidic Jew and left the community in his 20s. [Note: Hasidic Judaism is a branch of Orthodox Judaism.] He grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and by the time we met, was living a very secular life. Joseph is a wonderful storyteller, and we became fast friends. He would tell me about growing up Hasidic and secretly dipping his toe into the secular world. He was so curious about what was out there and he wanted to experience everything, and it was something that he had to hide from his friends and family and community at first. When I started writing TRAYF, he was able to open a lot of doors for me in Crown Heights. I visited Jewish bakeries. I boarded a mitzvah tank. I talked fashion with a Hasidic milliner. I saw how tefillin are made. I did a lot of fieldwork and research and interviews to try to—I would say—earn the permission to tell stories from this community. My family practices Reform Judaism, so orthodoxy is not my community. I wanted to honor their voices and their experience and, at the same time, filter it through my own secular experience as a teenager, navigating friendships and being obsessed with music and spending a lot of time hanging out in cars.

RW: When you had come to a place of wanting to write about Judaism, and you'd heard these stories from your friend, what was it about the Chabad community that sparked your interest and made you want to center that in the play? [Note: Chabad is a specific dynasty of Hasidic Judaism and is one of the largest Hasidic groups and Jewish organizations in the world. The movement's center is in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. In TRAYF, Zalmy and Shmuel have grown up in the Crown Heights Chabad community.]

LJ: The first thing that grabbed me was the bravery that it must have taken for my ex-Hasidic friend to dive into a world that was completely unknown to him to experience secular culture so deeply and fully when he did not have easy access to it. I also had a lot of false assumptions about this community. One of my only interactions was seeing Chabadniks on the street asking me if I was Jewish every Friday. They're dressed differently and they just feel very "other." When I actually went into the community, I was shocked by how normal it all felt. It didn't feel like religious extremism. Shabbat dinner with my friend's family felt like hanging out with my own family. These were multi-dimensional, human people, and religious observance was the guiding organization of their lives and the root of their faith, but it wasn't the center of every conversation. So when I started writing, I was interested in the private conversations that are happening if you're growing up in this community. If you're driving a mitzvah tank, what do you talk about when you're off-duty? What do you talk about when you're just hanging out with your friend? Do you talk about God, or do you talk about what's on the radio?

RW: I know multiple plays of yours focus on a specific community. Was this research process typical in terms of the amount of time you spent with people in the community and the level of conversation?

LJ: It is very much part of my process. As a storyteller, I want to gather stories. When I'm first researching a play, I'm absorbing everything. I'm getting information from everywhere. Then my brain will start connecting the dots and shaping a narrative. But, kind of like a scientist doing an experiment, you don't want to say, "This is how I want it to turn out." You want to have an open-ended question and see what happens. Writing a play is like that for me. I want to listen first and take in these experiences that I know nothing about, and then find a way to put the puzzle pieces together into a narrative that feels truthful and also incorporates my own intersectional experience as a human being. I'm telling other people's stories, but I'm also telling it through my lens of what it's like to be a human on the planet.

RW: I'd love to know more about the research process for this particular play. As you mentioned earlier, I think the perception of the Chabad community is very much that they're insular, and it sounds like the reception you experienced was relatively warm and open.

LJ: Chabad is a unique Hasidic community. There are a lot of different Hasidic dynasties, based on where in Europe the community came from and who their spiritual leader was. The last Chabad rebbe, Rebbe Schneerson, was very interested in outreach, in going out into the secular world and finding Jews who have lost their deep connection with Judaism and reigniting that spark. If you see anybody on the corner and they try to talk to you, they are probably Chabad. People from the other Hasidic communities think that interacting with the secular world will rub off on them and have a negative effect. I will say, when I was doing fieldwork in Crown Heights, it helped that I was Jewish. If I was not Jewish, I don't know if I would have had such a warm reception. But because that mission is so deeply ingrained in every single person in that community, they were excited to let me ask as many questions as I wanted and get me as involved as I wanted to be. Of course, I always said, "I am not here to increase my spiritual observance. I'm here to research a play." But I still had a dozen invitations to shabbos dinner if I ever wanted it.

RW: What are some of the reasons for setting the play at this specific moment in time, in 1991?

LJ: First of all, it's a pivotal moment for this community because their spiritual leader Rebbe Schneerson is in his late eighties at the time of the play. Much of the community believed that he would imminently be revealed as Moshiach—in other words, the person to usher in messianic times of peace and unity. That was part of their guiding mission of going out and inspiring Jews, to try to increase the goodness and justice in the world, so that the world is prepared for Moshiach to arrive. So messianic fervor is at an all-time high. Also, in 1991, there's no easy access to the internet. Most people don't have cell phones. Finding out about the world outside of your community is a much more active pursuit. It takes a lot more deliberate, mindful venturing. Zalmy and Shmuel, the two Hasidic teenagers in TRAYF, can't secretly search the net and find out everything they need to know about girls and sex and music. They would have to actually go out and experience it, which makes it more dangerous. It makes the stakes higher.

RW: Is there anything you’re seeing differently, in coming back to this play after such a long time away from in-person theater and after such a strange period of life for all of us?

LJ: I am more focused than ever on the evolution of the friendship between Shmuel and Zalmy, and I'm currently feeling that it's not a Jewish play, per se. The "Chabad-ness" of it all is the characters' given circumstances. But this is a play about being in a truck with your ride or die buddy—listening to your favorite music and dreaming about the future—and what it feels like to be the friend beginning a new journey you are unable to share or to be the friend left behind, watching your soulmate grow in a different direction. It's about the renegotiation that happens between friends when the dreams that you built for the future are changing. That negotiation between people feels universal. The isolation of the pandemic, the social politics, the divisions of our world right now remind me that theater is, at its core, an empathy machine. I hope the audience’s experience of TRAYF will ultimately mirror my own: an expectation of difference evolving into the undeniable recognition of similarity. The whole trick of this play—the truth of this play—is that Zalmy and Shmuel are just like any 18-year-old best friends. If at first their suits and beards make them appear different and strange, and then over the next 80 minutes we 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 what we share instead of what divides us. And wouldn’t that be a mitzvah?


TRAYF

MAR 1 – APR 10, 2022
Written by Lindsay Joelle
Directed by Maggie Burrows
Featuring Ilan Eskenazi, Ben Hirschhorn, Louisa Jacobson & Garrett Young

Zalmy lives a double life. By day, he drives a Chabad “Mitzvah Tank” through 1990s New York City, performing good deeds with his best friend Shmuel. By night, he sneaks out of his orthodox community to roller-skate and listen to rock and roll. But when a curious outsider offers him unfettered access to the secular world, is it worth jeopardizing everything he's ever known? This road-trip bromance is a funny and heartwarming ode to the turbulence of youth, the universal suspicion that we don't quite fit in, and the faith and friends that see us through.

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