Joe Farkas would not miss a seder dinner at his parents’ home for anything in the world.
When Pesach - the Hebrew word for Passover - is mentioned to Lala Levy, she does not know what the word means. The 22-year-old went to a seder dinner once in fifth grade and didn’t like it.
The characters in Alfred Uhry’s new Broadway play, “The Last Night at Ballyhoo,” come from two different Jewish worlds. Farkas was raised in Brooklyn, where Judaism was a central part of his identity, and Levy and her family grew up in Atlanta, where upper-class Jews focused on assimilating into the larger society and Eastern European Jews were viewed with embarrassment.
Adding special meaning to the ethnic conflict is that the play is set in 1939, with Hitler casting a shadow over the dividing line created in American Jewish society between those who traced their heritage to Germany and those whose ancestors came from Eastern Europe.
But the issues of prejudice within ethnic groups that the play raises and the larger question of how one defines Judaism carry particular resonance this Passover season, which begins Monday at sundown. Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews are engaged in heated debates over the legitimacy of their movements here and in Israel.
“What I was really trying to write about was tolerance within your own ethnicity,” said Uhry, best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Driving Miss Daisy.”
The play’s themes could apply as well to northern and southern Italians or Scottish people from the highlands and lowlands, he said in an interview.
Still, he said, there is a connection to the internal discussions in Judaism today, particularly when one side thinks it is better than the other and that only it knows the way to be Jewish.
Uhry labels “absurd” the recent statement by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada, a small rabbinical group, that two more liberal branches of Judaism are “not Judaism at all.”
Just because another expression of being Jewish “is not Judaism to them” does not mean Conservative or Reform Jews are any less Jewish, he said.
Uhry also takes issue with legislation in Israel today that would invalidate conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis.
“I thought the state of Israel was established for Jews to be Jews in. It didn’t say what kind of Jew,” he said.