Glowing Review of Bad Jews by Joshua Harmon (all about Daphna’s Iconic Lines)

Reading Bad Jews was the perfect antidote to my book-rage, courtesy of “An American family” in Risk! (which I talk all about in my rant review here), tackling the same issue of American assimilation in Jews.

Bad Jews is the story of Daphna Feygenbaum, a “Real Jew” with an Israeli boyfriend she met on Birthright. When Daphna’s cousin Liam brings home his shiksa girlfriend Melody and declares ownership of their grandfather’s Chai necklace, a vicious and hilarious brawl over family, faith and legacy ensues.

I went into this carefully paging through the pages, hoping to land into the story and get a feel of what direction this was going, either a) it was going to be a disaster on par with what raised my wrath in the first place to turn to this book or b) it was going to be exactly what soothes the raging storms in my head courtesy of that story. I practically went into the play with my eyes squinted close in fear. Thankfully (!!), Bad Jews came to settle for the latter soothing option.

In one line: I can’t even begin to explain how much I appreciate this play simply for existing. It not only raises vicariously important questions regarding religion and identity in Jews, but it dares to answer them expertly.

Also, thanks to the rising tempers established between Daphna and Liam from the very start, my breath was tight, following along their clap-backs from line to line, like a Ping-Pong match. Bad Jews is a genuine, concise story that moves at a delicious pace, thanks to Daphna’s lines.

Speaking of which, it’s while paging through the play that I stumbled along this exchange between Daphna and Liam’s shiksa that hooked me in like a spell.

DAPHNA
People are just people?
MELODY
Yes. People are people. It doesn’t matter that you’re Jewish or I’m—
DAPHNA
It doesn’t matter that I’m Jewish?
MELODY
No.
DAPHNA
It doesn’t matter?
MELODY
No.
DAPHNA
Well it matters to me.
MELODY
Ok.
DAPHNA
It matters to me very much.
MELODY
Right, but—
DAPHNA
And it’s mattered to hundreds of generations of my family.
MELODY
I know—
DAPHNA
But to you: meaningless.

This conversation right here is what I want to see more of. I’ve never seen such a daring character speak my thoughts aloud.

And I’m beyond grateful it didn’t stop here. There’s an incredible piece of writing that follows, and I want to shout it from the rooftops, but in the meantime, I’m sharing it here since that’s the closest route of action. The text’s long but such a worthful read, what with the quick pace that assures a smooth ride:

“You could actually date a woman who was your intellectual equal but instead you find these tepid little Bambi creatures to impose this hyper-masculine hegemenonical totalitarian regime on even though you like to like think you’re like this like super sensitive in touch sensitized like dork-chic Chicago grad student who’s like uber-liberal and totally devoted to the preservation of these little cultural studies because studying Japan is definitely worthy of five years of intensive labor, but studying torah for all of ten minutes is only worthy of total utter snide sniveling disdain; if you found yourself in the middle of a rain dance you would be soooo respectful trying to do every movement perfectly to like honor every Native American who ever lived, but if you found yourself in the middle of a hora— I’ve seen you in the middle of a hora— you look like you want to fucking die; if someone asks your religion you proudly state, “I’m an atheist” but the second anyone starts a little Israel-Palestine discussion, it’s like, find me a stopwatch and let’s count to ten because it won’t even take that long before I hear, “As a Jew …” because then you’re a Jew, but only when you can use it to bash all things Jewish which somehow makes you stand a little taller, doesn’t it, puts a little pep in your step like you’re so fucking enlightened even though you reek of fucking cliché; you haven’t lit a menorah since the nineties, but hello Facebook photos of you in a Santy Claus hat ho-ho-hoing it up next to the Christmas tree you put up in your apartment, and it was kind of obvious that, for whatever reason, you actually liked wearing that cheap fake crushed red velvet hat with the shitty white pom pom on the end, or maybe it wasn’t the hat, maybe it was just getting to stand under the mistletoe and smooch paper-cut-lips Melody, amazing, dynamic, smart-as-shit Melody, the icon of your ideal woman, because we know, a woman who’s actually trying to make something of her life and her intellect is worthy of your harshest criticism but a woman with zero career goals and maybe point two brain cells and less than no talent is a genuinely good person, you two must be so genuinely happy, spending time with her must be a scintillating experience, in fact, I myself had the chance to talk with her this evening and she really does offer up an intellectual feast for the mind, I can only imagine the topics you two must cover in your daily conversation, subjects like, how cute she looks on the bunny hill, or, how cute she looks in her Talbots secretary outfits, or really what it all comes down to: hhhhow nice it is to fuck an ethnic-free bush!
Yeah Shlomo. You’re right: your girlfriends aren’t inferior. You are.”

Mic drop. I truly think this deserves to be displayed in a museum.

Daphna touches upon 1) Jews assimilating so much so that they don’t define themselves as Jews and try to leech on to any other culture that has an opening. 2) Celebrating Hanukah is shameful yet putting up a Christmas tree doesn’t hold any religious aspects for you… 3) Crushing Liam to the GROUND.

The aforementioned is also the most thought-out argument I’ve ever laid my eyes on, and I’m raging that Liam didn’t address the TRUEST of objections and reasonings. Like, how can you hear all this and still think you’re right? HOW?

“Ah, yes, don’t respond to my truth. Dismiss me.”

Even going the extra mile of calling him out for what he really is: an anti-Semite. Non-practicing Jews can be just as severe in their hatred since they’re rebelling against their people and know exactly where it hits hard.

Hence my fuming upon Liam using “love” to his defense… YOUR IDEA OF “LOVE” DOES NOT TRUMP MORALITY. This right here is exactly the influence of Western culture that brainwashes people into giving everything up for Oh, Love heart-eyed sigh. It’s the idolization of “amour” that led the infamous playwright Molière to marry his own daughter. Or Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that is pure puppy love, yet deemed to be the love of a lifetime, and without one must simply die. 

As I heard in a moving lecture, love isn’t merely physiological or romantic; something deeper has to found to establish a wider connection that will last the rising statistics. Sharing values and intellect is a great starting point; Get on it, Liam.

So, as you can read, Bad Jews got me beyond passionate and riled-up with words, thankfully, this time for the better. I cherish it when a book can get a good discussion out of me.

…Which is why I have to include one last piece of Daphna, who I’m low-key obsessed with, thanks to her excellent lines:

DAPHNA
Don’t you know what— don’t you see how this little object is— don’t you care?, that if you put that around her neck, you’re killing something.
LIAM
Killing something?
DAPHNA
Something that matters.
LIAM
It doesn’t matter.
DAPHNA
You are Poppy’s grandson. You know it matters.
LIAM
Not to me.
DAPHNA
You’re getting a Ph.D. in cultural studies!
LIAM
So?
DAPHNA
So culture matters! Who people are, matters. Look at the Nobel Prizes— look at how disproportionately Jewish people have achieved in economics, literature, science—
LIAM
Are we really gonna do chosen people talk? Really?
DAPHNA
22%! That’s the percentage of Nobel Prize winners who are Jewish.
LIAM
Now you’re memorizing Jewish statistics? Fuck.
DAPHNA
Do you know what our global population is? It’s not 22%, not even close.
LIAM
So in the hopes of more Jews winning Nobel Prizes I should marry a Jew? Is that seriously your point?
DAPHNA
No my point is, play this out. You get married, you two get married and you have kids, so they’re half-Jewish and half-Delaware. And that kid marries someone who is Asian, and they have a kid, so that kid is a quarter Jewish, a quarter Delaware, and half Asian, and that kid marries someone who is half-black and half-Puerto Rican and they have a kid, and so that kid is—
LIAM
They’re American!
DAPHNA
In a couple generations, all these kids are running around bearing the hyphenated names of cultures that no longer exist. It’ll be just one giant globalized corporate world populated by one kind of people, who all speak one language and shop at the same store and all look the same. That’s how it ends up unless—
MELODY
No, it’s like that John Lennon song! It’s our country, like, succeeding. Like, progress! No nations, no religions, no—
DAPHNA
A world without Jews is progress? 

Melody, a) nobody asked your cosmopolitan worldview b) John Lennon was anti-Semitic, so stop bringing him up as this leading example when you have no clue and c) the only reason people like Melody exist is for people like Daphna to put them in their place. I thrive off of this. Thank you, Daphna.

DAPHNA
How does your half-Jewish daughter teach her one-quarter Jewish daughter to be Jewish? Exactly how does that work?

And one more epic mic-drop for the road:

“DAPHNA
Ok. So stop. You know what? Let’s all stop. Let’s all decide, right now, we’re going to stop being Jewish. That’s what you want? You think you’re the first person to ever question it? Cause I bet there were people before us who had questions too, but they kept practicing. They didn’t stop. None of them did. And they didn’t exactly have it easy, but they never stopped. And this thing that people in our family were doing in 1900 and in 1800 and in 1500 and in 200 and in 500 BCE made it all the way here to us. That alone has got to at least give you pause. And so now, when it’s easier to be Jewish than it has ever been in the history of the world, now when it’s safest, now we should all stop?
I can’t. I can’t.
And if I know you at all, you don’t want me to stop either. Because if I stop, if we all stop, it will be gone. And you can’t get it back. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

This has been echoing in my mind all day.

I’ve included so many of Daphna’s incredibly revealing lines so that I can return time and again, since it perfectly words my thoughts on paper, in case I ever need a refresher of my opinions before discussions occur with a Liam™…

Towards the end, the most pivotal scene had me nearly screaming inside. The stakes were raised so high, I could practically hear the characters screaming off the page, and it made for such an exhilarating, fulfilling ending.

DAPHNA
Don’t put that …
Don’t you put that …
DON’T YOU FUCKING PUT THAT AROUND HER NECK!

At this point, when Daphna’s anger at the shiksa is spilling over, I was at the very edge of my seat, low-key hoping for the story to end with a certain someone ending up injured… I got my tiny, victorious moment when Melody exposed her true face after her ongoing “peace love & unity” façade.

“MELODY
Take me to the hospital. I want to go to the hospital.
LIAM
Really?
MELODY
Yes! I’m bleeding! And that thing is rusty! I could have been—
LIAM
It’s made of gold, gold doesn’t—
MELODY
It was in someone’s mouth! I could have an infection. I want to go to the hospital.”

This right here shows how undeserving she is to join this family and wear something as sacred as the Chai necklace that Poppy saved through the Holocaust as the only family heirloom and symbol of his family massacred by the Nazis. So Melody, kindly, go back to sleep and starve.

Bad Jews should be required reading for any Jew contemplating non-Jews. It raises so many epic scope themes and ideas through thrilling truths that one must hear at least once in their lifetime. A few of those include, as the author notes in the preface: “Why was I born a Jew? What is the value of Judaism today? What does it mean when someone born a Jew moves away from the religion, and chooses not to pass it on to the next generation? What does it mean to watch something go extinct?”

I’ll recommend this play over and over to anyone that’ll listen.

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