In her own words, Deli Segal’s one-woman show “Pickle” is a “joyful celebration of Jewish culture and Jewish joy through the female lens.” Having seen the show just ahead of its run at the Soho Theatre in London, I couldn’t agree more.
This show, written and performed by British Jewish actress Deli Segal, tells the story of Ari, a 29 and 3/- year-old Jewish woman who, despite still living at home with her parents, is seeking to forge her own understanding of her Jewish identity. Through Ari, Deli invites her audience into the quintessential London Jewish experience through references that follow the track of the Northern line. This was immensely exciting for me to watch as a North Londoner myself — this is my little piece of the world, and there is something uniquely lovely and jubilant and massively affirming about seeing familiar spots like Golders Green Sushimania take center stage.
And this is a focus for Deli, too. In our post-show debrief, she talked about the lack of representation of British Jewish culture, and how alienating this can be. Referencing “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Deli outlines the challenges of navigating Jewish identity when the (already pretty limited) mainstream depictions of Jewish characters and culture are so fundamentally based in American stories. Not only does this shape your own understanding of yourself as a Jewish person, and inform your perception of what being Jewish can look like, but it also has a significant bearing on the understanding of non-Jewish people. Absorbing Jewishness through such pillars of truth as the famed “Holiday Armadillo” means having some concept of the culture, but a limited — and misleadingly transatlantic — one. As Deli points out, supposed knowledge of British Jewish culture can often come from “an American show made 20 years ago.”
In “Pickle,” Deli offers us a different perspective.
Alongside being unapologetically British, and unapologetically North London, “Pickle” is unapologetically female. In the opening scene, Ari hears the voice of her “Jewish conscience” (who she originally thinks is her mother) scolding her for hooking up with non-Jewish men. In all fairness, the specific non-Jewish man in question makes one too many “Schindler’s List” references. (He only makes one, which is too many.) But this isn’t really what it’s about. It’s about the chain. It’s about the suffering before us, and the unlikelihood of us being here, so how on Earth could you have sex with some uncircumcised idiot and feel OK about it?
Here, Deli speaks to the seeds of sex-related guilt that are often planted long before we can be aware of them — not just as a Jewish person, not just as a woman, but as both. The inherited responsibility to keep a religion living and breathing is a heavy load to bear and, as Ari can attest, may lead to existential crises at truly inopportune moments. And it’s in scenes like this that Ari as a character is the most real.
Like so many of us, Ari’s relationship with Judaism is a balancing act. She plans to keep her Jewishness on the down-low at work, and then references both the Holocaust and foreskins during an ice-breaker on her first day. She is scornful of both the very frum, like her “shomer negiah before she met Daniel” sister-in-law Rachel, and the not-at-all frum, who buy their challah from M&S. She’ll go to your Friday night, post-carol service pub trip but she’ll end up singing Amy Winehouse at karaoke. In so many places, she tries to mold her identity — often to make it smaller, or more unobtrusive, or to make it fit into someone else’s agenda. But it pops back up. Whether because of feelings of guilt or, ultimately, feelings of celebration, Ari’s Jewishness is central to who she is. She just needs to understand how.
And one surefire way to gain some clarity on what you want is to be shown an example of what you don’t want. For Ari, though, this journey isn’t entirely straightforward. Attending the aforementioned carol service, Ari contemplates whether “maybe this CofE [Church of England] stuff is for me.” She finds herself impressed by the architecture, and taken in by the priest (priest, is that right? She thinks so) and his discussion of climate change and kindness. More than that, she finds herself thinking that it “feels good to fit in.”
Watching this, admittedly, made me nervous. The media trope of Jewish characters attempting to reconcile with their religious identity, and finding moments of comfort and community in explicitly Christian spaces after having struggled to find these things in Jewish spaces, has been met with rightful criticism (for example in Netflix’s “Unorthodox,” when Esty is moved by the choral music in a church whilst she grapples with her relationship with Judaism). And it is definitely something that makes me uncomfortable. The distinction here, though, is that Deli is well aware of this as a set up. She shows us Ari’s movement through her engagement with a dominant Christian culture: the temptation to lean into it, and to embrace the sense of normalcy that can come with going slack and allowing yourself to imagine truly being a part of national cultural convention.
In our discussion, Deli referred to this as “the Christmas section of the play.” This, above all, demonstrates the very culture upon which she is commenting: it is the backdrop, the standard, the quiet framework in which we all live. As a persecuted minority, Jewish Britishness often exists in opposition to simple Britishness. There is a “Christmas section” in a Jewish play, not because we celebrate Christmas but because, despite the fact that we in many cases don’t, it makes up the world we live in. Ari, momentarily, is able to be a part of the default. But then, all of a sudden, she can’t. This isn’t her world and, try as she might, she can’t make herself fit into it.
Turmoil is a pretty universal element of the Jewish experience. As Ari says, “There is no easy route in Judaism.” And through the course of the play, she works to find a version of being Jewish that works for her, one that feels authentic and realistic and her own.
But ultimately, this is not a story of turmoil. “Tragedy and pain and suffering — they have a place,” says Deli. “But there is so much joy and so much vibrancy. The thing that redeems [Ari’s] faith in her faith is joy.”
The pulse of the religion is about continuing that joy, and fighting through whatever is in our way in order to do so. We belong to a culture within which we celebrate celebration — it is a priority, it is something we respect, it is holy. As we finish up, Deli offers yet another apt summary of the “Pickle” mission statement: “I want to be Jewish because I want to be part of that joy… I want to share that joy with other people.”
I can confirm that she does.
“Pickle” will play at the Soho Theatre in London from July 10 through July 12, with a tour to follow later in the year.