ATLANTA (Sep. 10)
The Jewish Theatre of the South’s upcoming production features a Jewish brothel owner, a loving lesbian relationship and domestic violence.
Since when is this Jewish theater?
Since 1907, when European audiences attended the first performances of Sholem Asch’s Yiddish drama “God of Vengeance.” The play proved so potent when it was translated into English and performed on Broadway in 1923 that the entire cast was arrested on obscenity charges.
Mira Hirsch, the 33-year-old founder and artistic director of the Atlanta-based Jewish Theatre of the South, says what appealed to her about the play was Asch’s frankness in tackling societal taboos as well as his mixing of Jewish and gay themes.
“God of Vengeance,” which is playing from Oct. 28 through Nov. 22, tells the story of Jewish brothel owner Yankel Chapchovich and his wife, Sore, a former prostitute, who live in a large Polish town at the turn of the century. Yankel has commissioned a Torah scroll to protect the purity of his marriage-aged daughter, Rivkele.
Her parents plan to marry her off to a scholar. But they don’t know that Rivkele already has a lover — Manke, a young prostitute. Like the other women in Yankel’s employ, she plies her trade beneath the Chapchovich home.
“Down there is a brothel, a house, while up here a young virgin lives, who will someday make a pure bride,” Yankel says in an adaptation by Stephen Fife. “There must be no mixing, none!”
But of course the worlds do collide, with wrenching results for a man who thought he could purchase God’s protection.
Fife’s adaptation, prepared with the help of Yiddish scholar Nina Warnke, trimmed about an hour from the play, leaving a 90-minute production. He adapted the work for New York’s Jewish Repertory Theater, which performed “God of Vengeance” in 1992. He says his version has not been produced professionally since then.
Obie Award winner Joseph Chaiken will direct the Atlanta production, a decision that thrills Fife, who says he worships Chaiken, the founder of New York’s Open Theatre 35 years ago.
Fife’s adaptation uses such coarse language as “bitch” and “whore” because those words, he says, convey the original grittiness of the young playwright’s script.
“Asch, especially at 21, was very angry. His whole thing was rawness. He wanted to take Yiddish theater into a more gutsy realm,” Fife says.
“You end up with some very visceral language, the seamy side of Jewish life, but there’s also a real thirst, a hunger, for God.”
Interestingly, the play’s heavy themes — and forthright depictions of Jewish pimps, prostitutes and connivers — didn’t initially trigger outcries. It was released in 1907 and quickly translated into German, Russian, Polish, Hebrew, English, Italian, Czech and Norwegian, according to “The Pakn-Trager,” the magazine published by the Yiddish Book Center, that featured the play in a 1996 issue.
It was only in 1923, when “Got Fun Nekome” was playing as “God of Vengeance” at the Apollo Theatre on Broadway that the furor started. The cast, producer Harry Weinberger and the Apollo’s manager were charged with presenting an obscene and immoral play.
The New York Times reported that the theater had received letters from patrons complaining the play was anti-Semitic. Indeed, the Jewish Daily Forward’s Abraham Cahan received the same reaction in an interview with Rabbi Joseph Silverman of Fifth Avenue’s Temple Emanu-El.
“This play libels the Jewish religion,” Silverman told Cahan. “Even the greatest of anti-Semites could not have written such a thing.”
Actor Rudolph Schildkraut, who portrayed Yankel, responded: “I have played this role for 13 years, and in three languages, and never has anyone considered it immoral.”
But a New York jury did, after 90 minutes of deliberation. The verdict was reported on the front page of both The New York Times and the Forward, according to an article in The Pakn-Treger. The producer and Schildkraut were each fined $200.
Hirsch, of the Jewish Theatre of the South, says the immigrant Jewish community believed its desperate efforts to assimilate were being thwarted by a play depicting Jews as lowlifes and hypocrites. “It was really an issue: Do not embarrass us,” she says.
Hirsch grappled with similar concerns nearly 80 years later and concluded that the play is more than a lewd foray into a Jewish family’s misguided quest for decency.
“There’s a reason it’s not called `God of Mercy,’” she says. “This is a morality play,” he says. “Yankel really wants the best for his daughter. It’s not a black and white play; he’s a multi-level character.”
After making a successful pitch to the Atlanta Jewish Community Center, which funds the theater, she was free to schedule rehearsals. They’ll start in early October.
Though she defends the play, Hirsch admits she — and others in Atlanta’s Jewish community — might feel differently if it were presented by anyone but the Jewish Theatre of the South.
But in this case, she says, “We’re the people who are overseeing it and saying, `This is appropriate; this is not.’”