This Asian Jewish Play Shows That Judaism Is Not A Monolith

Premiering auspiciously during Asian Pacific American and Jewish American Heritage month, "What Do I Do with All This Heritage" achieves its big goals.

I was running late when I walked through the doors of the Los Angeles’ Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) synagogue, and I was worried I might miss the beginning of the play I was there to see, “What Do I Do with All This Heritage.” It was the world premiere of the show, a collaborative production all about the Asian Jewish experience, taking place auspiciously during May, which is both Asian Pacific American and Jewish American Heritage month. The show was created by The Braid (a Jewish theater company) and The LUNAR Collective (the only national organization by and for Asian American Jews) and is the first ever theater show about Asian American Jews.

I needn’t have been concerned about running late. When I arrived, I saw the rabbi of VBS had provided kosher egg rolls and an Asian sesame salad in honor of the premiere. So I grabbed two of the egg rolls and sat down in the sanctuary as the house lights dimmed and the show began.

Before seeing the show, I had the opportunity to speak with some of the people involved in its creation, including Ash Quasney-Sandler (a writer), Lillian Mimi McKenzie (a performer), and David Chiu (a producer). Thanks to those interviews, I knew a few things that a typical audience member might not have known in advance. I knew there were more than a dozen original stories showcased in the play, all detailing various Asian Jewish experiences and all performed by five professional actors. I knew that it was styled like a salon: The performers stood with binders and read each story, taking on each tale and injecting the words with emotion and empathy, even though the performers might come from different backgrounds. I also knew that everyone I interviewed about the show had personal stock in how they wanted people to walk away from the performance.

Lillian, the performer I spoke with, told me that she wants people to walk away from the show feeling both proud of their Asian and Jewish identities and also mentioned that she feels “a responsibility, almost, to make connections in the community around [me].”

David, for his part, hopes the show can offer people a perspective on how expansive community can be. “In the wake of October 7, there is a temptation for us to retreat into our own corners because we feel like ‘no one gets me but my own people,’” he said. “But your little corner also contains people from all the other corners! It’s a lot more complicated and a lot more messy.” When sharing how the play got its name, David emphasized that the title isn’t meant to sound like a “groan,” but instead like a gift. Like, “look at all this heritage!

Knowing that everyone involved in creating the show had put so much of themselves into it, I was very excited to see it. As I sat in VBS’s sanctuary, eating my egg rolls and waiting for the action to begin, I reflected that this show had a lot that it wanted to do; I was curious to see how it would accomplish all its goals.

Photo by David Chiu

The show opens with a song utilizing the title of the show and then dives into a student’s humorous account of  “crashing” a Hebrew school before moving into an emotional piece based on this Hey Alma article about coming of age in an interfaith Muslim and Jewish family. I found the tonal changes to be one of the most successful and essential points of the show. Everyone I interviewed about the show agreed that the most important thing they wanted audience members to take away from the show is that being an Asian Jew is “not all pain and heaviness.” The joy — along with the challenges — of being an Asian Jew certainly shines through in the performance, both in the individual pieces and in the order and rhythm in which they’re told.

I found the balance most apparent in a piece titled “Aspiring Jewish K-Pop Star,” where the daughter of both Ashkenazi Ba’al Teshiva and Vietnamese parents finally feels understood by K-Pop. She wrestles with what it means to be modern Orthodox, go to a Yeshiva, dance and sing while also adhering to modesty laws. The story concludes with a dance to K-Pop on stage.

The story written by Ash, the writer I interviewed, came soon after the K-Pop piece. A moving account of dealing with anti-Asian hate at her Jewish day school, it was another emotional moment in the mixture of joy and trauma that the audience witnessed through this production. Dealing with those painful racist experiences at her school could have easily damaged the way that she viewed Judaism, but she persevered. For some writers of the show, including Ash, partaking in the project was a healing Jewish experience itself. “Working on this project last summer and then having a positive bat mitzvah experience this past spring was unexpected,” Ash (who is only 13!) shared. “But [it was] ideal timing because I had left my Jewish Day school experience feeling defeated there.”

At the end of the show there was a Q&A section, and those that played a part in writing and creating the show got up on stage with the performers. One of the writers took a performer’s hand (in a tender, utterly bubbe-like gesture) and explained the meaning of bashert to the audience. She, the writer, was from Kolkata, India; the performer’s family was not only from the same place… they lived two doors down from where the writer grew up. The audience exclaimed; it was an incredibly Jewish moment.

Photo by David Chiu

Sometimes as a community, we tend to have a very stereotypical perception about what “being Jewish” means, or what “being a Jew” looks like, sounds like, acts like. But being Jewish does not just mean eating bagels and lox, watching “Seinfeld” or other stereotypes based in Jewish media. Being Jewish is Honey Walnut Shrimp (one of the writer’s favorite Asian dishes), the Indian Jewish melody of “Halleluyah” (sung during the show) and Valley Beth Shalom’s rabbi joking that if you eat your Asian food from a takeout container in front of an open refrigerator door, no matter what, it’s kosher.

I’m an Ashkenazi Jew with Sephardi family and as a result, I have always worked to see Judaism beyond an Eastern-European lens. Watching this show, I was able to see Judaism from both an insider and an outsider perspective. I both knew the content and didn’t, and I found it to be refreshing. There is absolutely no question in my mind that this play will be meaningful for Asian Jews, but it will also be impactful for Jews of all backgrounds and those that are not Jewish. The show really emphasizes the importance of looking beyond ourselves.

“What Do I Do with All This Heritage” had big goals. The performance aims to tell many stories from a multitude of Asian Jewish perspectives, to show the necessity and limitations of who we call our community, to make the audience feel a range of emotion using drama and comedy and to prove that Judaism is far from a monolith. It does all that and much more.

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