Reuven Russell had an idea: Bring a lot of Jews together to listen in on a painful argument about faith, genocide, friendship, and forgiveness, in time for the season of repentance.
His idea came to fruition Sunday night, as members of all corners of New Haven’s Jewish community filled Long Wharf Theatre for a performance of and conversation about a play called “The Quarrel.”
Based on a 1991 film of the same name (itself based on a short story by Chaim Grade), the play follows two childhood friends who meet up again by chance in a Montreal Park. They chose opposite paths in life, one becoming a secular writer, the other founding a religious yeshiva. Over the course of the play the pair relives the hurtful break-up of their friendship, the guilt they feel over their families’ deaths at the hands of the Nazis, and their contrasting world views. Especially about how to view God in light of the Holocaust.
One of the characters was played by Reuven Russell (pictured above at a reception following the performance), a New Haven-based actor (and son of famous New Haven comedian Joey Russell). (Sam Guncler portrayed the other main character.) Reuven Russell wanted to bring the production to New Haven in time for the Days of Awe, the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which begin next week. Long Wharf signed on. So did Joseph Telushkin, the rabbi and author who co-wrote the original film; Telushkin and the actors stayed around for a formal discussion of the play with the audience.
The goal of “The Quarrel” wasn’t to get one of the friends to “win” the argument, to convince the other of his theological view, Telushkin pointed out. Rather, it was to delve into the complexities of their individual views in a way that the two men could achieve an understanding. Could forgive each other. Could make peace. They walk away friends, not converts. Their example set by the characters offered an example not just for Jews approaching a soul-searching holiday, but perhaps for an entire blue state/red state-divided country that seems engaged in a never-ending quarrel stemming from fundamentally divergent world views.