The time is ripe for a new Yiddish production of Sholem Asch’s barrier-breaking drama “God of Vengeance,” and the New Yiddish Rep has risen to the task.
A revival of the play, directed by Eleanor Reissa, with English supertitles, is running at La MaMa’s First Floor Theatre through January 22. The original production of “Got fun Nekome” premiered in 1907 around the corner on Second Avenue, where it outraged the contemporary Jewish establishment with its story of a brothel owner who commissions a sefer Torah to help his daughter make a respectable match. The play’s lesbian subplot caught the attention of playwright Paula Vogel, whose own play based on the scandal, “Indecent,” was a hit off-Broadway and is making a move to Broadway this spring. That’s a lot of hullaballoo for a turn-of-the-twentieth century melodrama written by a 26-year-old Asch.
Reissa’s interpretation of the play subverts the usual focus on social and religious hypocrisy to concentrate on the psychology of the tormented brothel owner, Yankel Tchaptchovitch. A brutal man in a brutal business, Yankel (Shane Baker) freely admits his sinfulness, but believes deeply in the possibility of redemption through the holy act of commissioning a sefer Torah, assigning it almost magical properties. He is encouraged in that belief by Reb Eli (David Mandelbaum), a local fixer who is eager to make a match between Yankel’s adolescent daughter, Rifkele (Shayna Schmidt), and a Talmud scholar. Yankel vows to support the young man and provide him with everything he needs, including the Torah. Yankel’s wife and business partner, Sarah (Eleanor Reissa), also is excited by the idea that she may rise in the town’s social circles through her daughter’s marriage. But Sarah is much less rigid than her husband, and more pragmatic. They have nothing to be ashamed of, she tells Yankel. They are business people, just like the rest of the merchants in town. Their product happens to be more lucrative, that’s all.
Of course, Rifkele must remain pure and virginal, untouched by the dirty business of the brothel, for this deal to go through. What Yankel doesn’t know is that Rifkele has formed a close friendship with one of the prostitutes in the basement, Manke (Melissa Weisz). It’s the relationship between these two that drew Vogel’s attention, and that caused an uproar when the original play featured the first lesbian kiss in New York. Rifkele clearly is in love with Manke, but Manke’s feelings are more ambiguous. She is planning to leave Yankel’s house to go work for Shloyme (Luzer Twersky), and she has promised the madam there that she will bring a dear friend with her. Hindel, the madam (Caraid O’Brien), brags to her lover Shloyme that a fresh young whore will put them over the top.
When Yankel finds out that Rifkele has been with Manke, he is shattered. He truly believed in the Torah’s redemptive powers. How is it possible that his daughter has been defiled? As people in many societies today do, Yankel sees the chastity of his daughter as the basis of his honor. If she is spoiled, he is undone. Reb Eli and Sarah try to convince him that all is not lost. The prospective groom doesn’t know anything and the match still can go through. Yankel, however, is a true believer, and wants nothing to do with this sort of deception. If God did not accept his gift of the Torah and took revenge for his sin on Rifkele, then he is done with God. The desire for vengeance is a human quality and not worthy of the Creator. Yankel’s black-and-white view of the world contrasts with the more forgiving attitude taken by Reb Eli, but who is the “better” Jew? Is Yankel that different from the scrupulous scholar?
The acting in the performance I saw was uneven, but the leads were all strong. Baker and Reissa are convincing as a couple who seem to share the same goal but ultimately have opposite perspectives. Mandelbaum, the New Yiddish Rep’s artistic director, makes Reb Eli more than just a sleazy opportunist. O’Brien staged her own production of the play at Show World in 2001.
Sholem Asch was a controversial writer throughout his life, living in his native Poland, Palestine, France, and the United States. Later in his career, he published three novels that had to do with the life of Jesus, which caused an outcry and accusations of promoting Christianity. His characters though always had vitality and energy. Like Yankel, they struggle to find a place for themselves in a broken world.