‘Jews, God and History’

‘Jews, God and History’

Writer from Elizabeth riffs about life at a performance in Manhattan

Michael Takiff (Joe Henson)
Michael Takiff (Joe Henson)

Everyone has heard the old line that if you have two Jews you get three opinions.

Michael Takiff has done that one better. He has three opinions all by himself.

Mr. Takiff is the author and performer of “Jews, God and History (Not Necessarily in That Order),” which opened on May 18 for a three-week run at the Siggy Theater at the Flea in Manhattan. (The off-off Broadway venue is named after supporter Sigourney Weaver.)

The play is in many ways an exercise in incongruity.

“I’m an atheist,” Mr. Takiff says. But an atheist who adds that the Lord “must remain our God.” It is this dichotomy he offers in his performance, raising questions he hopes his audience answers.

Mr. Takiff, 66, grew up in Elizabeth, supposedly (according to the publicity material) the great, great, great, great, great-grandson of the legendary chasidic sage Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev. That is “supposedly,” because when asked in a Zoom interview if he inherited any of the rabbi’s (you should pardon the expression) saintliness, he demurs.

“I had an uncle, my Uncle Milton, who had a book and calculated and somehow figured out we were descendants of this great sage,” Mr. Takiff said. “Uncle Milton was committed to grandiosity, so there’s no way to confirm it. It’s sort of a fun fact. I’ll take it.”

Whether or not there is an actual blood connection, however, Mr. Takiff says he shares one special trait with the rabbi — argumentativeness.

“He’s famous for questioning God,” Mr. Takiff said. “Putting God on trial for saying to God we’re atoning for our sins, but you have things to answer for, too. And in my show I ask the same questions, challenge some assumptions of how we look at God.

“I don’t want to make too much of my being a descendant of this sage, but I do take from him that he was willing to question, willing to ask these questions. I will not say that I am a particularly observant or religious man, but I’ve thought a lot about it. We as humans and we as Jews have many different ways of looking at God, especially in the modern age. Especially in the post-Shoah age. And I present different ways of looking at this question.”

Mr. Takiff began asking questions in Elizabeth, where his family attended services at the Orthodox synagogue at the Jewish Educational Center. “We were Orthodox by affiliation, but not necessarily by practice,” Mr. Takiff said. “My father was a strong believer and felt comfortable at the Orthodox synagogue. It was also the closest shul to our home.

“There was an extremely charismatic rabbi, a magnificent personality. But we were not Orthodox by observance. We were not kosher strictly. But we did avoid the big stuff. We didn’t eat shellfish. We didn’t eat pork.”

That produced one of Mr. Takiff’s “Jews, God and History” riffs. The way he explains it in the show, kosher meat is too expensive. As long as you walk past the pork section of the supermarket meat counter, “you’ve fulfilled your obligation to your people.”

Similarly, cheeseburger? Okay? But milk with a pastrami sandwich is a “grievous sin against God’s chosen people.”

Those probably are not the rules he learned at the JEC’s Hebrew school or during his bar mitzvah lessons. Perhaps he picked them up during “a period in my life, maybe 19, 20 years, where I didn’t enter a synagogue except for the occasional wedding or bar mitzvah.” But then, he got married.

“My wife and I had a child and we wanted to raise him in the tradition,” he said.

They joined a synagogue near their home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “They’re tolerant of all levels of observance,” Mr. Takiff said. “It was really meaningful to me when I started going back. During the singing, though so much of it was different with the Sephardic accent, but the melodies and the words were the same that I remembered sitting next to my father in this synagogue many years ago in New Jersey.

“It’s really an emotional connection. I think that’s what it is rather than my saying I believe the words in the prayer book. It’s more away to say yeah, I’m in. I’m part of this tribe. This is who I am. This is my identity.”

It should be noted that being a Person of the Book fits Mr. Takiff well. He’s written a few serious works, including “A Complicated Man: The Life of Bill Clinton as Told by Those Who Know Him,” published by Yale University Press, and “Brave Men, Gentle Heroes: American Fathers and Sons in World War II and Vietnam.” Published by HarperColllins/Willliam Morrow. The latter was chosen as a critics’ pick by the Washington Post and called “a superb oral history [that] would do Studs Terkel proud.”

Mr. Takiff is less serious in the show, where he does some old Catskill schtick. Abraham was all in on the covenant deal until informed he has to cut off what? He also touches upon some familiar tropes. If we’re chosen, where was God when we were slaughtered? Why do so many Christians have trouble understanding that not everyone celebrates their holiday?

But the high point for me was after discussing the survival of the Jewish people he notes that’s not enough. “If we cannot demand more of ourselves than that we merely survive, we might as well stop trying,” Mr. Takiff said. “If we forget our past, we have no reason for a future.”

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