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A Jewish Salesman

April 11, 2007

A Traveling Jewish Theatre in San Francisco is on a campaign to rediscover the "essential Jewishness" of Arthur Miller's 1949 play Death of a Salesman. With its new production, the company hopes to mine the drama for its Jewish roots, arguing that Miller turned his protagonist Willy Loman into a generic salesman in order to make the character more universal.

The production is wonderful in many ways, but Salesman is no more Jewish a play than Madonna is Jewish a celebrity. Beginning the play with Loman muttering "oy, oy" to himself (these sounds aren't in Miller's script) and ending it with characters standing around in yamakas at Loman's funeral does not make the play Jewish.

I found myself distracted by the premise. It seemed superimposed. I couldn't stop thinking of what the characters were saying and how they were behaving as clues to their Jewishness. I kept wondering if I could read Jewishness into the play's obsession with money. I fretted over the intermittent nature of Jeri Lynn Cohen's Brooklyn accent as Linda. I waited for the moment when someone would throw up their hands and yell "oy vey!" It was hard, in other words just to sit back and be immersed in the darkness of Miller's vision of America, which is every bit as resonant today as it was 60 years ago.

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