There is a thing that occasionally happens in this job, when you run into a production that does more than entertain you or stimulate conversation or make you cry, and those productions are almost worth the whole paycheck. These are the rare productions that actually orient you, in relation to the world, to the people around you, and maybe even to yourself. That's what Too Jewish, Too! did for this cultureless fourth-generation American mutt, against all odds and for reasons I'm still trying to wrap my head around.
It's a cheesy show, all right? We'll admit that and move on, because the gall we feel when stumbling upon steaming mounds of showbiz cheese has nothing to do with what we actually feel about the art and everything to do with how we want our dates to look at us after the show. Too Jewish, Too! is too polished, too schmaltzy, and too manipulative, and you and everyone you know will likely cringe a little upon first contact with it. Ignore that internal groaning; ignore those hipster neurons screaming about what an unfashionable scene you've stumbled into. You're sitting there anyway, right? Might as well stick around and see what there is to see.
Here's what you'll see: Avi Hoffman playing Avi Hoffman and piano player Phil Hinton playing piano player Phil Hinton. To begin, Hoffman raps a little about this show and its relation to Too Jewish, the 13-year-old sister production running in rep with Too Jewish, Too! If Hoffman's got his numbers right, he has to date performed the original Too Jewish more than 2,000 times.
Too Jewish, Too!
Too Jewish, Too! Written by and starring Avi Hoffman. Piano by Phil Hinton. Running in rep with Too Jewish through September 9 at the West Boca Performing Arts Center, 12811 Glades Rd., Boca Raton. Call 888-284-4633, or visit www.newvistatheatre.com.
Those not familiar with Hoffman's MO will get clued in pretty quick, but I'll save you the trouble. The first Too Jewish found Hoffman relating the ancestral tale of Jews coming to America. It was a love letter to those folks, and this is its continuation — a paean, first, to the Jews who invented Yiddish vaudeville and, second, to the rapidly naturalizing community they represented. Both shows are, as near as I can tell, attempts to pin down elusive concepts like "identity" and "community" and give them form, function, and narrative. To do so, Hoffman draws on shared memories of vacations in the Catskills, klezmer music, old Yiddish curses, and half-forgotten comedians. Myron Cohen and Henny Youngman rise up like ghosts in Hoffman's patter, and, as reference follows obscure reference, laughter erupts, hands clap, and heads nod all across West Boca Performing Arts Theater (capacity: 844).
I'd like to tell you why this struck me as so wonderful, but to do so will require a brief digression. I apologize in advance and hope you'll bear with me.
My last name is Thorp, because my father's father's father is full-blooded English. I am not very English. Vying for genespace on my paternal side, I've got a big hunk of Sicilian (12.5 percent), some Penobscot Indian (6.25 percent), and a touch of French (6.25 percent again). I identify as Portuguese because my mom's full-blooded Azorian. There are nine major islands in the Azores archipelago, and I have no idea which one my grandparents' parents came from.
This distresses me always, but never more than on evenings like this one, when I'm brought face to face with a bunch of Americans, just like me, who through blind luck have lived lives in a sustaining cultural context more complete and complex than I can probably imagine. I am a child of the late 20th Century, brought up by loving parents in a world where my earliest cultural touchstones were limited to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the presidential addresses of Ronald Reagan, and a weird fixation on Gone With the Wind (loved it when I was 5, haven't watched the thing since). For a large part of my childhood, my family lived with my mother's mother, a woman whose parents had emigrated through New Bedford and settled in the Portuguese mill town of Fall River, Massachusetts. As a child, my grandmother spoke Portuguese in the house and read the newspaper to a father who'd never learned English. Whatever Azorian traditions managed to survive the financial hardscrabble and deprivations of first-generation immigranthood — fish head soup, a secret recipe for linguiça, a Novena in a sing-song dialect that may now be gone from the world — have disappeared in the hundred years since my mother's people arrived on the continent. Four generations on, I know exactly one word in Portuguese: borboleta, which means "butterfly."
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This may be good and healthy. In any case, it's certainly the way of the world. And however you want to judge it, it certainly means that I am not the kind of guy Avi Hoffman means to reach with Too Jewish, Too! You might not be that guy either.
But it doesn't matter much. There is a moment in Too Jewish, Too! when Hoffman delves into the metaphysical and spends a few seconds describing the process by which immigrant Jews internalized the American dream. He might view those moments as throwaways — they certainly glide by with no more ceremony than is afforded any other point Hoffman makes in the show — but to this cultureless fourth-generation American mutt, missing most of Hoffman's Yiddish jokes and not quite hip to the traditions lovingly roasted in the songs he's excavated from vaudeville's lost canon, it located the show in a place that even a clueless outsider could understand and respond to.
Jews, said Hoffman (or so he seemed to say), responded to the American experiment not by naturalizing themselves fully or by ghettoizing themselves and avoiding cross-cultural pollination, like the Muslims of London or the Hindus of Paris. Rather, he said, they took the American prospect and made it an intrinsic part of "their Jewishness." I'd never thought about anything in those exact terms before, but it made sense the moment Hoffman slurred into a rewritten version of "Tennessee" Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons" (in which the singer owes his soul not to the "company store" but to "the delicatessen"). This was not Russian music, Spanish music, Turkish music, or Eastern music. This was quintessentially American music and part of a strain of American folk culture that is no less valid than any other for having received its genesis on Second Avenue rather than in a bayou.
Watching those hundreds of heads nodding, hundreds of hands clapping, and hundreds of mouths laughing and singing the words of songs I never knew existed, I thought, Shit! Why not me? Why don't I have this? Which isn't to say there's anything weird about this notion or about anything in Too Jewish, Too! What's weird is that this is a vision of America that not everybody can claim a version of. And what's wonderful about Hoffman's show is that it kind of makes you think you could claim a version, if only you were willing to make it.