There probably isn’t a soul in rabbinical school who doesn’t dream of revitalizing Judaism and making it relevant for the next generation. Rabbi Sam Isaac can be counted among them, a former tax attorney with some pretty unorthodox means to achieving that dream.
Rabbi Sam is the title character of Charlie Varon’s one-man play, whose run has just been extended at the Marsh Theater — and for good reason. “Rabbi Sam” is a highly thought-provoking piece of theater, with plenty of humor in equal measure.
The play’s promotional materials say the play is “for Jews, gentiles and everyone who has ever been to a meeting.” It will especially resonate with anyone who has ever sat on the board of a synagogue, or any other organization for that matter.
But even someone with limited board experience will find much to ponder and laugh about in these two hours. Varon, who is known for his one-man shows, manages to play 12 different characters this time, many of them board members of Congregation B’nai Am, a fictitious California synagogue.
With just a subtle shift in his chair, and a new accent or affect, Varon transforms from a food-obsessed president of the board (“Nobody tells my wife how many cheese Danishes I eat”) to a Holocaust survivor to the atheist widow of one of the temple’s founders.
Rabbi Sam’s arrival at B’nai Am immediately divides the congregation, with some members taking to his iconoclastic approach, others not knowing what to make of him, and some others being immediately put off (the old cliché about two Jews, three opinions comes to mind).
The rabbi soon raises the ire of Jerry Gomberg, a synagogue elder (doesn’t every synagogue have one?) who is always sending out updates on how to support Israel and the latest goings-on with Louis Farrakhan.
Gomberg has always done this, and has never been questioned by anyone, but when Rabbi Sam — who is younger himself, and has his eye on attracting and keeping the younger generation — asks what kind of message this gives the children, he seemingly loses Gomberg’s support right on the spot.
Varon’s Rabbi Sam is charismatic, a bit flashy, even. He preaches without notes and mentions Jesus a little too much for some members’ liking.
In one of his opening sermons, he bemoans the state of much of American Judaism as being stuck in the past, with most of its adherents following a kind of soulless “Museum Judaism.”
“Tevye is not going to save us,” he quips — a serious thought, of course, but also an example of how Varon turns even the more serious topic into a joke. The next scene has board member Harriet Kahn wondering whether it could really be possible that the new rabbi doesn’t like “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“We board members are going to hear about this,” she exclaims.
His sermons both inspire and infuriate. When he comes to the board with an offer from an anonymous New York donor who wants to give the rabbi $2 million to put toward free memberships and trips to Israel, as a sort of pilot project, the board is understandably dubious. Reactions range from “I’m feeling bought” to “We’ve got a rock star rabbi, let’s use him!”
Sam’s unconventional style eventually brings him to the point of a not-so-secret meeting where several board members will vote to keep him or fire him. What ultimately happens will not be divulged here.
The play leaves one thinking mostly about Jewish insularity, and how it plays out the in non-Jewish world around us. The fact that Varon spent three years on this work makes it seem as if with this project, he was attempting to work through this issue himself.
“Rabbi Sam” plays Thursdays through Sundays, through June 7, at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., S.F. Tickets: $18. Information: (800) 838-3006 or www.themarsh.org.