Way back in December, a few folks from Gather saw Alex Edelman’s Just for Us at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Below, a conversation on how it felt to be in the audience, the overlap between Edelman’s experience and Gather’s mission, feeling like you belong, and more!
Courtesy of Woolly Mammoth Theatre.
Samuel Milligan, GatherDC Communications Coordinator: Hey Julie! So, the day before we left for winter break, you and I both, separately, played a little midafternoon hooky to go see Alex Edelman’s critically acclaimed and nearly-impossible-to-get-tickets-to show at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Just for Us. Let’s start simple: what did you think?
Julie Silber, Gather, Inc. Director of People and Culture: I want the record to show that I did log in early to take care of things in order to log off an hour early…but I have no regrets. It was my first one-man-show experience and I had no idea what to expect — Is this truly just one human man talking for ninety minutes? Is this for me!? — but I have to say it flew by. Coming in knowing the very broad themes of antisemitism and white nationalism, I wasn’t expecting to laugh so much! I was really thinking about it for a while, and was so bummed the show was ending the next day or else I absolutely would have begged, borrowed, and stolen to find two more tickets to see it again with my husband.
Samuel: I was also sad to see the show so late in its run – there was no time to successfully recommend it to other people or, just spitballing here, blog about it while the show was still ongoing! But I thought the show was fascinating – and worth continuing to talk about – for a bunch of reasons. Firstly, it was wickedly funny! Edelman did an amazing job using humor to flesh out those big themes he wanted to wrestle with – antisemitism, insularity, Jewishness, the desire to be liked, and more.
One thing that I’ve thought about a lot is that it didn’t seem like the show’s humor was meant as relief or reprieve from thinking about topics like whiteness or bigotry; rather, an integral part of the character Edelman constructs on stage is that he can never step away from being the funny, witty, aiming-to-please person he is, even faced with the prospect of physical harm. I’ve returned to that again and again: the idea that this character can’t do anything but live as his authentic, sincere self. What stuck out to you?
Julie: I knew the show was “Jewish,” and that’s kind of all I knew – but I was still surprised at how connected I felt to the content of the show. The entire time, it was very much a “Yes, I am with my people here” kind of feeling. The unabashed Jewishness of the jokes and the small religious and cultural and childhood markers all felt so familiar to me. Even though I very much did not grow up in the same modern Orthodox background as Edelman, there was this thread of sameness that felt uniquely comforting compared to other shows and media I consume. Every time he referenced something, I would say: Ah, yes, I recognize this because I am this. It’s not something I get from media all too much.
Samuel: Did you notice that there were different centers of gravity for the laughs? I’m thinking particularly of how the “Shul Runnings” joke – a nickname Edelman tagged his Winter Olympics-competing brother with – got a lot of laughs in some parts of the audience and a sort of confused silence from others.
Julie: I actually did not notice this, which is interesting to me! It may have been based on where I was physically sitting – I was seated in the center area, whereas I know you were more toward the back – but I distinctly remember him prefacing that joke by saying “This may be niche,” and then getting a huge amount of laughs. After the show, my friend and I both commented how it felt like his preface was a joke within itself: that this may be niche at other shows, but in such a deeply Jewish setting with a – as I was experiencing it – deeply Jewish crowd, that joke was, well, for us.
I think a lot of the show felt like that for me. I consume a lot of Jewish content in my life through the bubbles I’ve created for myself: my workplace, my Instagram feed, the online communities I seek out. Still, I can’t say that I find multidimensional depictions of Judaism in too much media. Feeling surrounded by this uproarious laughter at all these small, little things that I just know would have gotten blank looks in a different crowd felt good, and full, even with the heavier themes at play in between the lighthearted banter.
Samuel: Putting my Gather employee hat on, I was fascinated by the Christmas story Edelman tells. He said something on stage to the effect that doing something that is centered in Jewish values may not always “look” Jewish to other people. How does that resonate with you?
Julie: It resonates a hell of a lot! It’s something that I continue to grapple with – and conversely, has been my gateway into a meaningful relationship with Judaism as an adult. Hearing Edelman say he’s also constantly told he’s at once too Jewish and not Jewish enough made me wonder if that questioning is the most Jewish thing with which every Jew grapples. Just like him, I have a distinct memory of learning I was Jewish, and that that meant I was in some way different from my peers. Pretty much since then, from a myriad interactions in both Jewish and non-Jewish spaces, I’ve always had this pervasive feeling of not being Jewish enough. I’ve had people tell me I don’t look Jewish. I’ve had people tell me I’m not actually Jewish because just my mom is Jewish. I’ve had people tell me my Judaism isn’t valid because it isn’t of a particular denomination or a “good enough” level of observance. It didn’t turn me off from Judaism so much as it built this barrier that I then felt I needed to climb and prove to myself and others that no, Judaism is for me, too, and no one else gets to decide that for me.
Largely thanks to my five years working and learning at Gather, honestly, I’ve found that the heartbeat of my Judaism is centered in Jewish values. So many of Judaism’s laws, traditions, and values are built around actively creating a more just society, caring for the land, and being a good human being to others…it’s okay to not understand every single commandment, but I think it’s so clear that Jewish law ultimately values justice and care.
Samuel: I think Edelman wanted us, as the audience, to see his mother’s example – sticking to her principles even when her husband and their rabbi initially pushed back against her actions – as something to be praised. The tension between living to fulfill your personal expectations and living to meet outside expectations is very real, inside and outside religious contexts.
Even if you yourself are happy from moment to moment, we have such ingrained ideas of what finding community “should” look like that oftentimes people find themselves seeking the aesthetic of community over the practice of community. My fulfilled life isn’t going to look exactly like someone else’s fulfilled life, just as Edelman’s parents’ fully realized Jewish practice may not have appeared exactly the same as their rabbi’s version of a fully realized Jewish practice.
Julie: I think that’s so right – and important! Edelman mentions early on that his family makes him feel like he’s not Jewish enough, while his non-Jewish friends think he’s one step into the rabbinate. So much of what I’ve learned at Gather is that an essential part of Judaism is this rich tradition of questioning, debating, and grappling throughout the centuries. It’s really beautiful to be able to find meaning in one area of Judaism where a friend of mine may not find resonance there at all. And that’s okay.
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