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22 October 2011

What's Jewish About Avenue Q?

I have a new job as the Director of Cultural Arts at the Jewish Community Center of Kansas City.  Though all Jewish Community Centers are structured a bit differently, most of them have a fitness component, an education component and a cultural arts component;  like a Y with college classes and great performances.  It's a brilliant formula for creating community and I'm sure to write more about it in future blog posts.

One of my marching orders is to expand the offerings of the Cultural Arts department and increase the level of "Jewish-ness," for lack of a better word, in upcoming performing arts seasons.  Another of my marching orders it to find ways to connect the current performing arts season to Jewish culture.

This is easy with a play like Beau Jest, coming up in December.  But it wasn't so easy with a production like Avenue Q, which opens November 5th.

What's Jewish about Avenue Q?

I had to answer this question for an essay that is featured in our Playbills.  It stumped me for quite a while.  Then, in one of those flashes of clarity that always seem to happen at 3:00 a.m., I lit upon a connection.  Here's what I wrote for the Playbill.  Enjoy.

One of the main tenants of Jewish thought is the concept of tikkun olam; repairing the world.  Making it a better place. 

One of the most wonderful functions of theater is its ability to provide reflection; to hold a mirror up to the world around us, enabling us to see ourselves more clearly.  Theater allows us to view our problems through the lens of fiction.  It allows us laugh at ourselves.  To cry.  To feel.  It opens us up to the experiences of others in a way that can make us more understanding and tolerant.  Theater makes us more human.

So what does this have to do with an R-rated production with full-puppet nudity?

Avenue Q is a coming-of-age parable, satirizing the issues and anxieties associated with entering adulthood. Its characters struggle with the schism between the world of Sesame Street and the world in which they now, as adults, must live.  Big Bird told them that they were “special” but they have discovered they are no more “special” than anyone else. This world in which they now find themselves is a far cry from the world they grew up watching on television; that world had simplistic problems and happy resolutions.  This world?  Not so much. 

So perhaps Avenue Q is about kids growing up with the concept of tikkun olam and then trying to find ways to live that philosophy in a world that makes it remarkably difficult to do so. 

You can do anything.  You can be anything.  You can change the world.  But can you?  Can you really?

In “Money Song” the cast trades riffs back and forth about how good it feels to help others.  The song culminates in with the lyric, “Give us your money! / Every time you do good deeds / You're also serving your own needs. / When you help others / You can't help helping yourself.” 
Seems cynical, right?   But real.  All too real.  And with a good outcome.  Even if the intent of helping others is to make yourself feel better, you still helped.  And by helping, even in your small, self-centered way, you have made the world a slightly a better place.  Sounds kind of like one of the most often quoted portions of Pirkei Avot; “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (2:21).” 
Avenue Q is full of cynical optimism.  Life sucks, but everything is temporary -- the good and the bad. It’s funny and raunchy but also poignant and full of life lessons. 
But in a way, Avenue Q also represents the distance between the heady concept tikkun olam and Pirkei Avot 2:21.   You are supposed to fix it. You can’t fix it.  You still have to try. 
To quote a character in Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, “An awful place, this sea, this gulf between the Intention and the Act, that people call ‘the world.’”  Avenue Q provides a possible blueprint--a racy, profanity-laden, hysterically funny and extremely uncomfortable blueprint, but a blueprint nonetheless--for navigating the gulf.

Krista Lang Blackwood, Director of Cultural Arts