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Searching for a Jewish-American identity in potent ‘God of Isaac’

T. Isaac Sherman plays Isaac Adams, with Anita Silvert as his mother in James Sherman's play, "God of Isaac." (Photo: Evan Hanover)

When does assimilation become erasure? In a sense, that is the most important question at the heart of “God of Isaac,” James Sherman’s deceptively serious comedy about Jews in America, circa 1977. First produced by Victory Gardens Theatre in 1985 (when, as now, it was directed by Dennis Zacek), the play is receiving a revival by Grippo Stage Productions, the company that last season produced another Sherman play, “The Ben Hecht Show,” and whose mission is to “focus on cultural diversity, give voice to Jewish playwrights and ideas, and use theater to fight anti-Semitism.”

When: Through Aug. 27
Where: Grippo Productions at Piven Theatre, 927 Noyes, Evanston
Tickets: $39
Info: www.grippostagecompany.com
Run time: 2 hours, with one intermission

Another question looms, too: Has time been kind to “God of Isaac”? The answer requires a bit of a Talmudic approach. On the one hand, “yes,” for the issue of anti-Semitism has certainly not gone away, and, as Sherman suggests, knowledge of Jewish history and thought by assimilated Jews in this country can sometimes be limited to Anne Frank, “Fiddler on the Roof” and the classic Jewish deli (an endangered species in the age of kale). On the other hand, “no,” for Jewish humor (by way of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, among others) has evolved since the residual glory days of the Borscht Belt, when the Jewish mother tended to be the primary target of most jokes. So this and other stereotypes can feel a bit heavy-handed at times. Yet one thing remains constant: Edgy humor remains the staff of Jewish life.

The catalytic event in “God of Isaac,” which is set in Skokie in 1977, was the announcement by Frank Collin, head the Nationalist Socialist Party of America (NSPA), that he and his neo-Nazi cohorts planned to march through that predominantly Jewish Chicago suburb where many Holocaust survivors happened to live.

Annabel Steven (from left), is Shelley, with T. Isaac Sherman as Isaac Adams and Jolie Lepselter as Chaya in James Sherman’s play, “God of Isaac.” | EVAN HANOVER

The announcement drew national attention, and after the march was initially cancelled, the ACLU (at the urging of a Jewish lawyer) defended the NSPA’s right to freedom of speech and assembly, while a Jewish law professor argued that the Nazis’ march was a reminder of the most destructive movement in history [and] was not constitutionally protected.

At the center of the play is Isaac Adams (T. Isaac Sherman, the playwright’s son), a “nice Jewish boy” who grew up in Skokie, works as a journalist, and has just married Shelly (Annabel Steven), a beautiful blonde “shiksa” who works as a model.

Beyond the rote learning for his bar mitzvah, and his loyalty to sandwiches on rye bread with mustard, Isaac is wholly detached from his Jewish identity. But something of an awakening begins to occur when the neo-Nazis announce their march. It will result in a search for knowledge in books, in conversations with both a rabbi and the local Holocaust survivor who works as a tailor, in memories of his late father, and encounters with his very alive mother. It will wreak havoc with his marriage.

Along the way, Isaac receives letters from his “first love” and schoolmate, Chaya (Jolie Lepselter), a Jewish girl with a shopping habit, who subtly pines for him even after she has married someone else, and who possesses a somewhat stronger sense of Jewish identity. And here comes a bit of a spoiler alert: Seated in the audience of the theater is Isaac’s “real-life” mother (played to perfection by the aptly chic Anita Silvert), who interferes at just the right moments in what is one of the play’s most hilarious conceits.

The play’s other conceits involve a touch of brilliant cultural appropriation as Sherman puts a zany Jewish spin on scenes from such classics as “The Grapes of Wrath,” “On the Waterfront,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “My Fair Lady.” These brief but inspired comic riffs are superbly played by Brian Rabinowitz, Charles Schoenherr, Lepselter and Steven, and are enhanced by Liana Prokopis’s ideal costumes.

As it turns out, there is no single answer to the question “What does it mean to be Jewish?” They range from the chilling motto of the Holocaust survivor (“You survive until they kill you”), to a bit of self-identifying behavior by Isaac (that got the biggest laugh) involving the impulse to fold and save grocery bags and store them in the space between the sink and the fridge.

Ultimately it might just be that the very act of asking questions is the true key to Jewish identity.

T. Isaac Sherman (center) plays Isaac Adams, with Charles Schoenherr (left) and Brian Rabinowitz (right), as Lubavitcher rabbis in “God of Isaac.” | EVAN HANOVER