Downstairs at the Soho Playhouse on Vandam Street, singer/songwriter Daniel Cainer is telling Jewish stories.
Some are about his observant grandparents, some about his somewhat less rigorous parents, and others are about his own mish-mash Jewish life. Together they make up a charming one-hour performance called “21st Century Jew.” Cainer is a middle-aged Brit who grew up in Leeds and southeast London in a kosher Jewish home. Hailed as “the comic bard of Anglo-Jewry,” he uses music and clever lyrics to talk about what it means to be Jewish today — or at least what it means to him. The songs range from the very mildly naughty to the deeply poignant, especially when he sings about his grandfather Isaac. Isaac may have taken little Daniel to a cricket match rather than a baseball game, but the emotional resonance is the same.
Most of the songs are lighthearted, but Cainer does not shy away from difficult experiences. He sings about being beaten up on his way to synagogue and about the improbability of having Jewish grandchildren. His song about his feelings for Jerusalem is admirable for its nuance. The overall mood of the show is a kind of aching nostalgia: Cainer does not want to live an insular Jewish life, as his twin brother chose to do, he says, but something calls him to remember and appreciate it. It’s a familiar feeling.
This is Cainer’s second song-cycle show. He previously made waves at the Fringe Festival with his production of “Jewish Chronicles,” which was renamed “Gefilte Fish and Chips” for the American audience. That first show focused on his colorful extended family, while this one deals with his own grappling with his Jewish identity, a struggle that many will recognize. Although the show is explicitly Jewish, the wrestling with identity, heritage, and our connection to the past is universal.
Cainer’s British background makes him a bit more fearful than most American Jews. London after all is much closer to Paris and to Brussels than we are, and the English Jewish community is more tightly knit than its American counterpart. It’s odd that while most religious hate crimes in the United States are directed at Jews, few of us feel frightened in the way Jews in Europe do. That’s something we can feel grateful for.
The Fringe Encore Series is in its 10th season of producing the best of both the NYC International Fringe Festival and, now, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. By giving these shows continued production opportunities, the Encore Series serves to help performers hone their skills and gain further invaluable chances to showcase their art.
“21st Century Jew” is playing through Sunday.