Note: “Bread of Affliction” is being judged this week for the American College Theatre Festival. It’s playing this Saturday, 7:30-8:15 p.m., in the JFSB Little Theater (Room B192) at Brigham Young University. Doors open at 7:00 p.m. and admission is free. They need a good audience, so if you live in the area, consider taking this excellent opportunity to see the play.
The BYU Experimental Theatre Company was invited to write a play for the Society of Jewish-American and Holocaust Literature, which held its national symposium in Salt Lake City in September. “Bread of Affliction,” written by Matthew Greene, was the end product of the invitation, and a very entertaining one, to be sure. The play is about a Jewish professor and his Gentile wife who are planning to have Passover with the professor’s family. While the professor lectures at a university, his wife is at home with his family, who are preparing the Passover feast and telling Jewish jokes. Much of the tension in the play comes from the professor’s disapproval of his family’s Jewish jokes, which, he feels, make light of a very serious, sensitive subject.
According to Matthew Greene and director Landon Wheeler, the play began first as a concept (finding humor in the face of persecution and suffering) that was built around an amalgamation of Jewish jokes that they pulled from a variety of sources. The concept was simple but effective, and Matthew did a good job of weaving the jokes into the narrative. I enjoyed the performance quite a bit. One of the things that interested me in particular about the play was its reception. From all accounts, the play was received very well at the Society of Jewish-American and Holocaust Literature symposium, and some of the most shocking jokes got the most laughs. When shown to BYU and Provo audiences, however, the reactions were a little reticent. Non-Jewish audience members weren’t sure if they should be laughing at Jewish jokes, several of which referenced the Holocaust and anti-Semitic stereotypes in rather bitingly ironic terms. Most seemed to lighten up after a while, though, once they got used to the style of humor and realized it was okay to laugh.
The whole concept of introducing a culture through jokes about that culture is a very interesting idea, and one that works well, I think. Telling jokes is a concise–not to mention peculiarly entertaining–way of plumbing the complexities of a culture. Some of the jokes in “Bread of Affliction” were Jewish jokes poking fun at Jews, others were Jewish jokes poking fun at Gentiles, and others were Gentile jokes poking fun at Jews. Having so many perspectives presented this way, one after another, and embedded within serious conversations about the Holocaust and Passover combined with playful family banter, gave the presentation a rich layering that had me thinking well after the play was over. One of my thoughts was, how many years of history and persecution does it take for a culture to be able to laugh at themselves like that? How is it that Jews can talk about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism with such biting irony?
The line of thinking, of course, got me wondering how Mormon humor compares. What function does Mormon humor serve in Mormon culture, and has it changed over time? Additionally, how comfortable are we with sharing our jokes with people outside our faith? I recently re-listened to an interview with Mormon folklorist Eric Eliason about his book The J. Golden Kimball Stories, which was published last year. I’ve just started reading the volume, and one passage in the introduction particularly struck a chord with me:
Some Latter-day Saints might wish to be rid of or downplay the [J. Golden Kimball story] cycle because of the sometimes embarrassing lack of polish or decorum in them. J. Golden Kimball stories can stir up Mormon society’s still simmering brew of civility anxiety concerning public image and the possibility of persecution. There are, however, important reasons why Mormon culture has seen fit to generate and maintain the cycle. Moreover, insiders are often not the best judges of what will endear outsiders to them. Consider, for example, the millions of goyim whose respect and understanding for Judaism have grown through the fiction of Chaim Potok, whose Orthodox family was concerned about negative reaction when he exposed tensions within their community.
I have to admit that one of the reasons I cringe at some of the Mormon films and novels that have come out within the past several years is that I’m constantly self-conscious about manifestations of my religious culture. I tend to watch Mormon films and get caught up in the proselytizing mode of thinking: “Hmm. I wonder what non-Mormons would think about this.” It also comes into play when I get really excited about a piece: “Oh! I wish hordes of non-Mormons could see this!” It occurs to me that in general, perhaps I should be a little more relaxed and a lot more forgiving of the Mormons works I consume. I think part of the problem is that there is such a comparatively small amount of Mormon art, and an even smaller amount that seems to get popularly consumed, so every piece becomes exaggerated in its importance. I like Eric Eliason’s suggestion to lighten up. We can’t know which of our works will touch people outside of our faith, but we can be enthusiastic about sharing Mormon art with them and letting them judge for themselves. We talk a lot about how Mormon art can’t succeed if the authors’ purposes are didactic and too self-conscious. Just as importantly, Mormon art can’t succeed if Mormon audiences are didactic and too self-conscious in their consumption of Mormon art.
Anyway, thanks to Matthew Greene and the BYU Experimental Theatre for such an entertaining, thought-provoking piece of drama. Good luck on Saturday. And just for fun, here was my favorite joke from “Bread of Affliction.”