Just around the corner from where it first opened, Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, challenging and controversial in so many ways since its debut in 1907, has opened at La Mama in its original Yiddish (with English supertitles) in a new production by New Yiddish Rep. Upon its later Broadway run in English in 1923, the play’s cast and producers were arrested on obscenity charges, much as with Mae West’s Sex. With its frank depiction of lesbianism and prostitution, it’s no wonder.
Somewhere in early-20th-century Eastern Europe, Yankl and his wife Sarah are landlords to a brothel. Upstairs, they maintain an ostensibly normal Jewish home with their newly marriageable daughter Rivke. Despite his line of work, Yankl sincerely wants to keep Rivke pure and uncorrupted by the goings-on downstairs and marry her to a respectable scholar. So, with the connivance of the local rabbi/matchmaker, he pays for the creation of a new Torah, imagining it will lend legitimacy and honor to his home and family.
Yet the seamy side of life, with its irresistible sense of freedom, is pulling Rivke away. Not only does she yearn to escape her restrictive (and violent) father, she has fallen for one of his prostitutes.
In the decades since the 1923 Broadway run, the all-around dishonorable behavior of the play’s leading men made it controversial in yet another dimension. Producers and even Asch himself worried that its negative portrayal of Jewish religiosity and its depiction of a Jewish community’s immoral underworld might nourish anti-Semitism. That’s just one reason the play remains of more than historical interest.
Far from “obscene, indecent, immoral and impure” as the 1923 indictment charged, the love between Rivke and the poetically minded prostitute Manke is the story’s one redemptive element, expressed in beautiful language and culminating in a non-graphic yet dreamily passionate love scene. What might strike enlightened viewers today as obscene, instead, are the hypocrisy of the rabbi, who is motivated only by Yankl’s money, and the casual violence perpetrated by the men against the women. Yankl routinely beats Rivke, seemingly without objection from her practical mother. Schloyme, the manager of the whorehouse, strikes his fiancée Hindl, the head prostitute, without batting an eyelash.
But while their traits may not be soul-saving, the characters are multidimensional. Hopeless as it may be, Yankl’s desire to protect his daughter is sincere. The Torah scribe whom the Rabbi brings to meet Yankl seems honestly devout (though the overall tone can lead one to wonder about everybody). We meet two other prostitutes who seem reasonably content with their lots in life; one seems happy enough even as she rhapsodizes about the rural charms of her home village. Even the cynical Hindl harbors an ambition to open a “house” of her own with Schloyme.
There’s more on this fascinating piece of living history, including how it inspired Paul Vogel’s Broadway-bound Indecent, in “But Is ‘God of Vengeance” Good for the Jews?” in American Theatre. Simi Horwitz’s article discusses the production’s mixed cast of ex-Chasids and non-Jews and the perspectives of the director, producer, and cast members.
For our purposes, we must ask: Is this God of Vengeance good for the audience?
It’s fascinating for anyone with an interest in Jewish history and culture. It’s vividly staged and costumed, and well acted. The English supertitles are adequate for the most part, although even with my very limited Yiddish – just isolated words and phrases picked up in my childhood – I could tell when the written translation wasn’t capturing all that was spoken. The projected words also can’t fully convey the tone; many times the Yiddish speakers in the audience laughed at lines whose humor escaped me. Nonetheless it was a rewarding experience, and with plenty of humor it was also an enjoyable one from an artistic standpoint despite its gloomy story.
Don’t expect the piercing sentimentality of a Sholem Aleichem tale. Despite the humor, this is not a happy story, nor does it carry a message of hope, and for the most part these are not admirable people.
What a revival like this cannot do is tell us how audiences of 1907 or 1923, Jewish or otherwise, saw Yankl, Schloyme, Hindl, and the cynical Reb Eli, or how offended they really were by Rivke and Manke’s love.
What it can, and does, do is give us vivid portraits of certain people, people who were reflective if perhaps not emblematic of their culture and times, and show us the painful lack of choices life offered them, especially the women.
It also comments acidly on our own times, when a black man with a Muslim name can become president, and large segments of society recognize and welcome LGBT people, yet intolerance, hatred, and religious hypocrisy still drive politics and social discourse. Then and now, believers in a god of vengeance have ample reason to fear.