Best of The Summer: Alex Edelman’s “Just For Us” — A Nuanced Exploration of Judaism and Standpoint
I first learned of Alex Edelman through a series of Instagram Reels created by the Jewish feminist publication called Hey Alma. No, actually that’s a lie. I first encountered Alex Edelman when my mother sent me an article about his apartment on the Upper East Side as a reminder (as if I didn’t already know!) of the type of son-in-law I am expected to acquire.
However, Hey Alma’s content as an introduction to Edelman would be fitting. In the reels, Edelman is presented with a series of objects and phenomena to classify as Jewish or not: tequila, waving at the wrong person by accident – to the former Edelman says yes, the latter no, suggesting instead that calling your teacher mom is – ultimate frisbee (yes if it’s at the University of Maryland). It’s a 21st-century adaptation of the Lenny Bruce bit, but where Bruce categorized pumpernickel bread and baton twirling, Edelman takes on more elusive concepts, like ASMR and pimple-popping videos. Edelman, in far more meta and uncertain times than those of Bruce’s era, continues the Jewish tradition of elucidating where the ancient religion fits into the contemporary world. Edelman is the perfect person to do this.
At first glance, he looks entirely of his demographic. A well-educated white male in hip sneakers with the right amount of neuroses, but the particularity of his upbringing – Edelman grew up in an Orthodox home – has removed him from the “typical” experience of white male hood. This, as it turns out, is the premise of his one-man Broadway show (1) Just for Us, detailed through Edelman’s participation in a white Nationalist meeting in Queens.
On a rainy Thursday afternoon, my sister and I (sisters who go to Broadway together… Jewish!) caught the tail end of the show’s run at The Hudson Theater for a 5PM performance. Edelman begins, (after a bit on Coco the Gorilla adoring Robin Williams and admitting to paying 800 dollars (2) on Zoom American Sign Language lessons during the pandemic in order to act out this bit) noting the rather strange start time to the show. He refers to the performance as a “MatinEVE, ” which I enjoyed, for selfish reasons, but also because it brought back childhood memories of my name being associated with the night before Christmas. I was granted a type of institutional insight into a holiday I did not partake in. This would prove poignant as Edelman details the time his Orthodox Jewish family celebrated Christmas, in earnest, at his mother’s behest for a bereaved friend. He and his brothers had no idea what Christmas was but welcomed the opportunity for celebration and gifts. A day after learning who Santa Claus was, the Edelman boys celebrated his arrival. Edelman’s younger brother jumped up and down on their plastic-covered couch yelling, ‘Santa came!’ to which Edelman replied using an often-utilized retort of excitement and achievement, ‘Baruch Hashem!’
Earlier, to posit the stark contrast between the grieving friend Kate and the atmosphere of the Edelman home (whose take on Christmas included stockings with names written in Hebrew and a Christmas tree in their garage), Edelman explains his fraught relationship with whiteness. As a child growing up in Boston, Edelman always wanted to be white. After he states this, he waits for a second, picking up on the awkward and palpable confusion from the audience. ‘I know, I know. Dream achieved!,’ he says. But he uses the apparent contradiction to explain the racial caste system of Boston that contextualized his coming to be. In Boston, Wasps – the type of passengers on the Mayflower, automatic acceptance to Harvard even if illiterate, members of country clubs (in the case of the family friend Kate, wearing a pantsuit and a Hermes scarf) – reign supreme. Irish Catholics trail behind (one forgets that the Kennedy family fits into this category), and finally somewhere far far behind all Christian sects are the Jews, who live in places like Brookline (where Edelman’s from) and Newton. I’ve never understood how Judaism could fit into a city so associated with America’s colonial origins. The Boston Tea Party and bagels with schmear seem like opposing poles. This is, of course, Edelman’s point. He introduces his hometown by saying: ‘I’m from a racist part of Boston called Boston.’
Edelman’s upbringing was certainly distinct, not only because of the religious environment he grew up in but in growing up in a place where his religion was in contrast to a perceived norm. Perhaps this point only holds because Edelman grew up in a religious family. As a Jew in New York, where Judaism has become the unofficial cultural standard, I don’t remember feeling as strong a sensation of alterity. It was only with age that I learned that the traditions, viewpoints, and jokes shared at the dinner table (perhaps that of a high holiday), were somehow related to being Jewish. In fact, as a child, I had a firm belief that my father was Christian despite looking like Bernie Sanders and Larry David’s other long-lost cousin. But Edelman did understand the particularity of his worldview from early childhood. At the age of five, he attended a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. When he reached for a slice of pizza with meat on it his grandfather kicked (yes, kicked!) his hand away and told him he couldn’t eat that because he is Jewish. When young Edelman asked what being Jewish means, his grandfather told him, ‘It means… you’ll never be happy!’ While a hilarious thing to tell a child (perhaps the account was exaggerated for comedic effect — this joke landed one of the loudest laughs of the whole show), Edelman is quick to note how his grandfather further explained that to be Jewish was to be part of an ancient tradition of inquiry where individuals don’t take things at face value.
It almost makes sense, then, that nearly twenty years later when an invitation to a meeting in Queens for anyone “questioning their Whiteness” pops up on Twitter, Edelman decides to attend. In doing so, Edelman ends up engaging in a nuanced conversation about religion, standpoint, race, and identity surpassing the dialectical standard of 21st-century media – a concrete example of the Talmudic expectations placed upon his five-year-old shoulders being fulfilled. Edelman achieves said nuance by working from a retro notion of irony. Compared to the 21st-century impulse to label anything as ironic, mostly wearing Duck Dynasty hats, Edelman attending the meeting is actually ironic – he makes reference to another truly ironic occasion by discussing his younger brother training for the Olympics as part of Israel’s skeleton team in Munich – by supplanting his own experience in Boston and a legitimate contemporary political conversation into an entirely different context. (3)
The first thing he recounts about the meeting is his arrival (I suppose that was an obvious choice). He tells us about meeting a woman whose preferred pastime is completing large puzzles and framing them, eating a free muffin (he later discusses whether this is white privilege), and meeting a cute girl named Chelsea – ‘You never know?!’ Until a man questions his presence there, you almost forget he’s interacting with people who want him and his ilk washed from the face of the earth. As the meeting commences, and he takes a seat, this reality becomes cemented as the attendees discuss how Jews are actively taking over the world and how diversity threatens the livelihood of white people. But what’s remarkable is that Edelman endures this without ever making himself the victim. He even empathizes with the attendees at the meeting for not being more successful in their political project — ‘you can’t even get sixteen Nazis together without having a Jew involved!’ The reason for this refreshing response is because Edelman isn’t really a victim. Even with deeply anti-Semitic and anti-Judaic thoughts being hurled in his direction, he has put himself in a place where he isn’t supposed to be. What they’re saying is wrong, but it isn’t a space for Edelman. And yet, his ability to attend the meeting is a fulfillment of his youthful aspirations of whiteness. He has become white, but only by hiding a tremendous part of his identity. In the abhorrent context of the meeting, Edelman has found himself complicit in the white Supremacy that could threaten his own life. This all comes to a head when the meeting attendees realize he’s Jewish, to which he freely admits, and his future wife Chelsea tells him the meeting is “Just for Us!” He is not one of them. He must leave. The endless layers of reality puncture the room, luring the audience into silence. Any notion of an ethical binary has been eviscerated.
What does it mean to be a Jew in the 21st century? If we’re to follow Edelman’s example, though he eschews the title “good boy” repeatedly throughout the show, it means to be a mensch. When recounting his departure from the meeting, I almost expect Edelman to say “Take care!” He’d spent a few hours with these people, and seemed to get a glimpse of who they were beyond their political beliefs. But Edelman had already seen the veracity of political beliefs, and the limited ability humanity has to alter them, and so baruch Hashem, he merely says goodbye.
- While I had uncertainty at first how this show would be categorized and exist within a theatrical framework, it turned out to be a dramaturgical smash (no decision came across as arbitrary) thanks to the collaboration between Edelman and his late director, British dramaturge Adam Brace.
- Truly my first reaction to this anecdote was relief that Alex Edelman had 800 dollars to spend.
- It evokes Naomi Klein’s newest book Doppleganger about the right misappropriating the left’s talking points for entirely opposite ends.