Yesterday was the opening night of the Jerusalem production of Division Avenue. The aptly titled play written by Miki Bone is ostensibly a story about hipsters, Hasids, bicycles and a street called Division Avenue in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn where they all intersect. Yet as residents of Jerusalem, we know all too well about the poignancy of the idea of “division” when it comes to interactions, or lack thereof, between Hasidic and non-Hasidic communities, between age-old tradition and the encroachment of the modern world. The production, which took place at the AACI‘s J- playhouse, was interestingly cast mostly with a crew of Nachlaot residents including Yoseph Needleman, the author of Cannabis Chassidis, a seminal work that brings to light the links between Judaism and Marijuana, and Ayo Oppenheimer, the founder of Jewrotica a web site and organization that thoughtfully explores the intersection between Judaism and sexuality.
The show opens with freshly shaven Efraim (played by Yoseph Needleman) sitting alone center stage, resolutely cutting off his payos. The significance of such an act of defiance and rejection was not lost upon the Jerusalem crowd. In the next scene, set in his parents’ kitchen, we learn that Efraim is a recent widower whose wife died in a car accident. She had been out exploring the world beyond her Satmar community, sometimes drinking in bars, when she met her end. Shortly thereafter, a grieving Efraim lost his job (working for his Father-in-law) and was thus forced to move back to his parents’ home. Efraim’s parents, Gita and Moishe, are played excellently by real-life husband and wife team Yedidya and Susan Fraiman. Gita spends the entire play ironing and despite her fastidious attention to her domestic chores, still lovingly keeps tabs on Efraim by tracking his iPhone. Efraim’s parents know that their son is troubled but they try hard to keep him within the fold. Moishe meets his son in the park in order to study Talmud and engages his help in a lawsuit whose aim is to keep scantily clad bicyclists from invading the neighborhood.
Enter Sarah, played with just the right combination of playful sensuality by Ayo Oppenheimer. Efraim and Moishe’s study session is interrupted when Sarah, a young social worker new to the city, passes out in front of them. Efraim rushes to her assistance as the plot thickens. Moishe is obviously concerned because not only is Sarah scantily clad by Satmar standards, she is also one of the dreaded bicyclists threatening the sanctity of the neighborhood with her wildly immodest attire.
We next meet Dean, played by Ronnie Adamowicz. Dean is the very masculine and very gay civil rights lawyer hired by Moishe to pursue his lawsuit against the cyclists. Dean is also Sarah’s room mate and childhood friend. Dean and Moishe strike up a friendship and in one scene, Efraim recruits Dean to help him come out to his Father. Dean then has to explain to Moishe the difference between “coming out” as a Homosexual and “getting out” of a stifling and restrictive community as Efraim longs to be free, but he is not “a gay.” Hilarity ensues!
Efraim eventually meets up with Sarah and seems smitten by her despite the fact that she is a Catholic from Texas. She too is taken by Efraim’s sad story and exotic struggles. There are some awkward and funny revelations when Efraim shows up for dinner at Sarah’s house and finds out that the not very gay looking Dean is her room mate. I know at this point many in the audience were curious about whether or not Efraim ate the chicken parmigiana that Sarah had ordered (or if he merely put the cheese aside…). In a later scene Sarah offers to help Efraim study for his GED so that he can apply to and attend College. Soon she is shaving his face and the situation progresses from flirtatious to very hot. This is when Moishe decides to barge in, followed shortly by Dean. Moishe then assumes that the pantsless Efraim and the flushed Sarah were engaged in the pursuit of the world’s oldest profession (a man has needs after all!) and that Dean was the pimp that arranged it all. Shortly thereafter the truth is revealed to Moishe who then presents Efraim with a heartbreaking ultimatum.
Division Avenue deftly combines humorous moments with touching scenes of humanity and drama. Director Eryn London assembled a cast possessed of a great chemistry and kept the attention focused on the personalities with a sparse set and a quick pace. The AACI’s J-Town playhouse is a spartan venue, to say the least, but kudos go out to all involved in the production. Presenting Division Avenue in Israel, and particularly in Jerusalem, is an inspired choice and you will walk out after seeing this play, into the stark and industrial Talpiot neighborhood, thinking about how this play set in Brooklyn, parallels your daily experience in our holy city. I mean, imagine setting Division Avenue in Jerusalem? Efraim could be a member of any of a number of Hasidic groups that live in Meah Shearim and Sarah could be a Modern-Orthodox Jewess. The play would not lose any of its drama! Or imagine Efraim as a Modern Orthodox Jew and Sarah as an Eastern Jerusalem Palestinian! The point is that life is full of divisions. Breaching those divisions is sometimes necessary, sometimes fulfilling and enriching and sometimes fraught with heartache and pain.
Division Avenue will be playing eight more times. The next show is Saturday night and the production runs through March 8. Visit the AACI web site for tickets and schedules.