“TRAYF” – A glimpse into the non-secular lives of two best friends

On stage at the intimate Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, TRAYF* is a highly compelling and entertaining play, written by Lindsay Joelle and well directed by Maggie Burrows. The production is essentially presented on a bare stage except for a few chairs and a boom box. That said, what happens in the 80 minutes of operation is quite fascinating and a searing look, but without judgment on the restrictions inherent in the world of Hasidic Jews, as evidenced by Joelle’s two main characters.

LR: Jonathan (Garrett Young) with Zalmy (Ilan) Eskenazi who nurtured his conversion to Judaism. Photos: Jeff Lorch.

Zalmy, very well played by Ilan Eskenazi and his childhood friend Shmuel, well characterized by Ben Hirschhorn, live in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Their Chabad ‘Rebbe’ gave them an important task: to move around in their mitzvah chariot to give candles and blessings to passers-by who might have gotten lost. The secular world is a complete mystery deliberately avoided in the education the two young men received in their Yeshiva. A slight crack begins to emerge in Zalmy’s devotion to his religion after hearing music at a Manhattan music store. Excitedly, he shares with his buddy who has heard a song by a man named Elton John to which Shmuel asks “Is he Jewish?” He is appalled that his boyfriend is setting foot in a music store as it is part of the secular world which is forbidden. During Zalmy’s forbidden visit, however, he meets Jonathan, a somewhat older young man who works at this music store. He has just learned that his recently deceased father was Jewish and a Holocaust survivor, which sets him on a path of exploration and self-discovery. Nicely played by Garrett Young, his character wants to say Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, so Zalmy writes part of the prayer on a piece of paper and gives it to him. Searching for meaning in his life, Jonathan decides he wants to be Jewish because he feels that is what his soul is. He meets Shmuel, who is fiercely opposed to converting Zalmy’s new friend because the mother was Catholic and according to Jewish law you can only be Jewish through the mother. The new friend is adamant about the conversion and eventually, Shmuel agrees. Zalmy takes the would-be convert under his wing, inviting him into his home for the traditional Friday night Shabbat dinners and slumber parties. Along with this, Zalmy becomes increasingly curious about the secular world and stumbles upon an ice rink. He confesses to his friend that he sneaks out after dinner to watch the skaters, which he thinks is one of the most beautiful things he has ever seen and although totally forbidden, he wants to learn how to skate forward and back. Continuing the steps of conversion for Jonathan, Zalmy gives him tefillin*** and he learns how to properly wrap the leather straps around his arm. In the meantime, he makes mixed tapes for his friend consisting of secular and non-secular music in cassette tapes, which were popular in 1991, and gives him his Walkman to play them. Throughout the play, we see Zalmy’s almost insatiable thirst for knowledge outside of his narrow world and he even goes so far as to see “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway. Afraid of losing his friend, Shmuel begs him: “If you become secular, you will never see me or your family again. When it comes to relationships, almost all marriages in the Orthodox community are arranged, and now it’s Shmuel’s turn to be arranged. Both Yeshiva boys are virgins because there is “no sex until we get married” and there is no sex education either. In one of the funniest and saddest scenes at the same time, it’s a conversation between the two friends that sheds light on the lack of education on this subject. Shmuel tells his boyfriend that he knows nothing about sex. All he knows is that his stuff goes inside her and you have to pee inside her. Adding to his confusion, he realizes there are two holes and “How do I know which hole to use?” Meanwhile, jealous of Zalmy’s time with the would-be convert, he demands that he stop seeing him, to which he says “No”. Eventually Jonathan’s conversion is complete and we then see him in full Hasidic garb and like many converts who turn into “super religious”, he tells Shmuel that “Zalmy is not one of us”, which doesn’t get the reaction he expected. There’s a very short but interesting scene between Shmuel and Jonathan’s non-Orthodox Jewish girlfriend, Leah (Louisa Jacobson), in which she practically begs him to give her boyfriend back because “we had a life together.”

What’s interesting about Joelle’s well-written screenplay is that it doesn’t tackle what might be seen as the highly repressed way of life of Hasidic Jews, but simply illuminates the inherent flaws in education. base that lacks even a superficial understanding of the forbidden secular world. That said, relax because the denouement will leave you both smiling and curious with a surprising eye candy at the end.

* Trayf is a Yiddish word referring to food that is not kosher and prohibited by Jewish law.

**Rebbe: a Jewish spiritual leader or teacher

***Tefillin or phylacteries, are a set of small black leather boxes with leather straps containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah. It is the belief that when you put on tefillin you are connecting to the Infinite, doing Gd’s will and reminding yourself to be a better person.

Geffen Gambling House
Audrey Skirball Kennis Theater
The Geffen Theater
10886 Avenue du Conte
Los Angeles, California 90024

Course:
Tuesday to Friday: 8:00 p.m.
Saturday: 3:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m.
Sunday: 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.
Closing: April 10, 2022
Duration: 80 minutes without intermission
Tickets: $30 – $129
310.208.2028 or
www.geffenplayhouse.org

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