“TRAYF” – A glimpse into the non-secular life 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 is happening within 80 minutes of operation is quite fascinating and a burning look, but without judgment on the restrictions inherent in the world of Hasidic Jews, as evidenced by the two main characters of Joelle.
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 survivor of the Holocaust, 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 admits to his friend that he sneaks after dinner to watch the skaters, what he thinks is one of the most beautiful things he has ever seen and although completely prohibited, he wants to learn 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 of secular and non-secular music on tape, which were popular in 1991, and gives him his Walkman to play them on. 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. As for 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”. Finally, Jonathan’s conversion is over and we then see it in a complete hassidic outfit and, like many converts that turn into “super religious”, he tells Shmuel that “Zalmy is not one of ours”, which doesn’t get the reaction he expected. There is a very short but interesting scene between Shmuel and the non -Orthodox Jewish friend of Jonathan, Leah (Louisa Jacobson), in which she practically begs him to return her boyfriend 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 under 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 infinity, doing Gd’s will and reminding yourself to be a better person.
Geffen Gambling House
Audrey Skirball Kennis Theater
The Geffen Playhouse
10886 Avenue du Conte
Los Angeles, California 90024
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
Running time: 80 minutes – No intermission
Tickets: $30 – $129