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Spiritual Awakening

March 25, 2009

Charlie Varon's visionary Rabbi Sam leaves audiences rapt

Several years ago, through a strange sequence of events, Charlie Varon found himself delivering the Yom Kippur sermon at his synagogue in San Francisco. Though lacking any formal rabbinical training, the writer and performer prepared for his debut in the pulpit as he might a short play — writing, rewriting, and rehearsing with his longtime collaborator, director David Ford. Apparently, the sermon went well. So well, in fact, that Varon decided that despite his success onstage over the years with such shows as Rush Limbaugh in Night School and The People's Violin, he had missed his true calling. Varon started reading catalogues for rabbinical schools, but ultimately decided to create a play about a rabbi — a three-year-effort — instead of putting himself through five years of Jewish theological training.

The decision, at least as far as Bay Area theatergoers are concerned, turned out to be a good one. Developed as usual in conjunction with Ford, Varon's latest tour-de-force solo project, Rabbi Sam, gives us a strong sense of the kind of rabbi he might have been had he decided to don a prayer shawl instead of continuing to follow the theater artist's path. But while Varon's flair for storytelling and generous rapport with audiences would make him a great preacher, I think he'd be wasted on the genuflecting hordes. I don't make this assessment glibly: God knows organized religion is in desperate need of input from imaginative souls to shake it up and make it more meaningful in the modern world. But as Rabbi Sam so powerfully shows, when a sermon starts to resemble a work of art, people often come to blows.

Just as Varon was thrust prematurely into the pulpit, so Sam Isaac, the protagonist in Varon's 12-character solo play, finds himself hired to lead a dwindling Jewish community in the town of Semanitas, California, with only three years of rabbinical experience to his name. The rabbi, a former East Coast tax adviser to the rich, fervently attacks his new job with the messianic goal of creating "a Judaism that is once again a burning flame." From Isaac's very first impassioned sermon — a role Varon embraces with the smitten enthusiasm of a teenager falling in love for the first time — it becomes quickly clear that this rabbi isn't cut from the same shmatte as those who have gone before him.

Sliding, with the smooth eclecticism of the jazz musicians playing in Bruce Barth's moody musical score, from a conversation between Moses and God at the burning bush to an anecdote about lunching with Leona Helmsley to a statement about the emancipation of the slaves as being "a Jewish act," Rabbi Sam soon raises eyebrows at the Congregation B'nai Am. By the end of his sermon, he's blown apart more fundamental tenets of Judaism than there are days of Hanukkah. Not even kosher cooking and Fiddler on the Roof escape this cowboy cleric's kamikaze approach to his faith. The congregants understandably don't quite know what to make of their new leader. As Leon, an old-world Holocaust survivor (whom Varon engagingly portrays as a gentle old duffer with a wry sense of Borscht Belt humor) puts it: "Have we hired the brilliant spiritual revolutionary of our time, or is he a nut job?"

B'nai Am's more progressive congregants see Isaac as a much-needed harbinger of new life. But not all community members share their enthusiasm. When Isaac announces that a secret donor on the East Coast wants to give B'nai Am $2 million to "reinvigorate American Judaism" by funding heavily discounted synagogue memberships and a free trip for all congregation members to Jerusalem, the trouble really begins. Some board members greet the anonymous gift as a mitzvah. But others, notably house skeptic Jerry Gomberg (a curmudgeonly, Louis Farrakhan–baiting conservative whom Varon nevertheless imbues with empathy), start to see Rabbi Sam as little more than a snake-oil vendor in a yarmulke. "Rabbi, whatever you're selling, I am not buying," Gomberg flatly tells Isaac when the rabbi tries to win him over. Before long, Isaac's future career looks exceedingly tenuous. But will earning a reprieve truly bring the rabbi's struggle to an end?

One of the main jobs of an artist is to shake up the status quo. Yet as the lives of Lorca, Van Gogh, J.S. Bach, and countless other visionaries attest, doing so often leads to blackballing, or worse. In many ways, Rabbi Sam is a lone artist practicing his craft in the unusual medium of religion. His services are as strange and beautiful as they are controversial. A Shabbat sermon featuring an entertaining yarn about stealing the synagogue's Torah, taking it to the beach, and watching the ocean sweep it away particularly underscores the rabbi's (and, implicitly, Varon's) deep engagement with the world and desire to connect with his congregation/audience as both an entertainer and a mensch. But as the ever-perceptive Leon says of religion as an art form: "It's not a canvas. It's not a symphony. It's — it's — sheep. You are a shepherd with a few very difficult sheep."

In his essay "A Great Awakening," the scholar Jonathan Sarna notes, "The most creative ideas for revitalizing Jewish life often flow from the bottom up, rather than from the top down, and from outsiders rather than insiders." This statement holds true not just for Judaism, but also for many aspects of life. Just as it takes outsiders in Rabbi Sam like the Holocaust survivor Leon, and Sarah Schimmel, a belligerent atheist (and the most hilarious and keenly observed character in Varon's play), to recognize the artist in the rabbi, so it takes an tax attorney turned rabbi — not to mention a theater artist moonlighting as a Yom Kippur preacher — to recognize the creative potential in religious faith.



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