Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
So what are these jokes about, what war are we entering, and who are the two Jews? Rozin has crafted a ninety-minute play by embellishing the true story of the last two Jews known to live in Afghanistan: Zebulon Simentov and Itzhak Levi. For five years, both men lived in the last standing synagogue in Kabul, the Afghan capital, or at least the shell of the synagogue that remained after enduring bombing raids, gun fights and other acts of war. If that isn't intriguing enough, the two men hated–really, truly, hated–one another, so much that they agreed to occupy different wings of the synagogue to keep their contact to a minimum.
Itzhak was near twice the age of Zebulon, and was a devout Jew who observed every Jewish law and ritual to a tee. He despised Zebulon's casual approach to his faith, along with the younger man's overt hedonism and materialism. Itzhak died in 2005 at eighty years of age, when Zebulon was a spry forty-eight. Zebulon stayed in Afghanistan and lived alone in that same synagogue until September 8, 2021, when he finally accepted repeated offers from one of the rescue organizations helping Afghanis leave after that Taliban reestablished control following the evacuation of American armed forces.
To give this peculiar circumstance, which is a footnote in the long saga of Jewish diaspora, dramatic structure, Rozin fabricated a plot that required them to interact on a daily basis, thus leave the door open for frequent verbal jousting, always concluding with a laugh. Mind you, only the audience is laughing–the two men are extremely agitated, all the more as they take out all of the anger, fear and loneliness brought about by the loss of their community on one another.
Rozin's conceit is that Itzhak–which he spells Ishaq–decides that he is called by God to repopulate the Jewish community in Kabul. How to do this? He will find a young Afghani woman willing to convert to Judaism, and she will bear his children. After Zebulon, spelled Zeblyan by Rozin, fires back that any woman would much rather carry his child than that of a stodgy, withered geezer like Ishaq, he points out a major flaw in Ishaq's plan: there no longer is a rabbi in Kabul to perform a conversion.
Ishaq's solution is to recruit a rabbi to move there. Far-fetched, yes, but Zeblyan's practical objection is that they no longer have a torah, a sacred scroll on which are written the first five books of the bible. No respectable rabbi can perform their duties without a torah. (Fun fact: their last torah actually was stolen during a spell when Ishaq and Zeblyan were imprisoned. They were released from prison because their guards could not stand their bickering).
Undaunted, Ishaq–who knows the entire torah by heart, down to its punctuation–announces that they will create a new torah. He will recite and Zeblyan will write out the text, which must be handwritten and letter perfect. Much as the men each hate the other, they find common ground in taking on this overwhelming task.
Thus begins their labor: secure a blank scroll on which to create a torah as a means of recruiting a rabbi in order to convert an Afghani woman to Judaism so that she may marry one of them and thus repopulate the Jews of Afghanistan. What could be simpler? As the torah increases in length, unversed Ishaq raises all sorts of questions to what is and is not included. For example there is a long list proscribing the animals whose flesh is considered unclean to the Jews, therefor not kosher, so why are elephants not mentioned? Didn't God know about elephants? Or why are certain sexual behaviors explicitly forbidden while others never mentioned. Are those never mentioned therefore allowable?
To Ishaq it is a question of interpreting the word of God in order to know his will; to Ishaq, God has left in quite a few loopholes with plenty of wiggle room for those who want to live their lives unfettered by religion, especially when it comes to expressing one's libido. The result is banter between the two that often is excruciating funny, while raising questions about how the torah, or by extension, any of the foundational documents rooted in antiquity, are to be understood in today's world.
The two actors in this play could not be better cast. Avi Aharoni is splendid as the sly Zeblyan, always looking for an angle in order to reconcile his debauched inclinations with the word of his God. At times Zeblyan comes across as naïve, though his ability to ferret out inconsistencies in the text he is copying reveals a sharp mind. As Ishaq, Nathan Keepers completely captures the self-righteous piety of a man who has bent his life in compliance with what he deems to be a supreme power, having no intention of considering the possibility that all of his piety was in vain. The two work beautifully in tandem, delivering laugh lines back and forth with precise timing, while always remaining fully in character.
Michael Hoover has designed a terrific set, the scarred remains of what was clearly once a most impressive synagogue with the middle eastern skyline of Kabul seen evocatively in the rear. Sound (by Anita Kelling) and light (by Todd M. Reemtsma) provide a series of explosions and rounds of gunfire that occur with alarming frequency, along with the wailing call to prayer from a nearby mosque. Morgan Rainford's costumes aptly reflect the distinctions between the character of the two men.
Seth Rozin, based in Philadelphia, is a prolific playwright–thirteen of his plays are listed on the National New Play Network's New Play Exchange, in genres ranging from dark comedy to biography to drama. Based on the wit employed in Two Jews Walk Into a War..., I hope to have occasion to experience more of his work. The current production at Six Points pulls off the difficult stunt of making the audience laugh and think at the same time. Playwright, director and cast have achieved a synchronicity of purpose that makes Two Jews Walk Into a War ... a great time at the theater whether your purpose is to be heartily entertained, to consider the foundations on which we prop our beliefs, or both.
Two Jews Walk into a War... runs through May 29, 2022, at the Six Points Theater Company, Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $25.00 -$38.00. Certain performances have limited seating capacity to allow for social distancing. For student rush information, general information and tickets, call the box office at 651-647-4315 or go to mnjewishtheatre.org.
Playwright: Seth Rozin; Director: Sally Wingert; Scenic Design: Michael Hoover; Costume Design: Morgan Rainford; Lighting Design: Todd. M. Reemtsma; Sound Design: Anita Kelling; Properties Design: Rick Polenek; Dramaturg: Jo Holcomb; Technical Director: Timothy M. Payton; Stage Manager: Laura Stearns; Rehearsal Stage Manager: Scott Gilbert.
Cast: Avi Aharoni (Zeblyan), Nathan Keepers (Ishaq).