It was one of the most controversial plays in 20th-century theater, the tale of a Jewish brothel owner who tries to buy respectability by commissioning a Torah scroll, only to see his dreams destroyed by his daughter’s running off with one of the prostitutes. Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance” (“Got fun Nekome”), is just as famous for being shut down by the authorities in Jazz Age New York as for its seamy, sordid subject.
Translated multiple times into English, “God of Vengeance” now returns in the mama loshen, in a production by the New Yiddish Rep that opens on Christmas Day in the East Village. The production comes as Paula Vogel’s “Indecent,” which centers on the lives of the actors who were prosecuted for appearing in Asch’s play, prepares to come to Broadway in April after a downtown run last summer.
“God of Vengeance,” written in 1907, premiered at the Deutches Theatre in Berlin in 1910. By the time it appeared in English translation on Broadway in 1923, it had been produced to great acclaim on the Lower East Side and in a number of European countries, having been translated into Russian, Polish, Czech, Norwegian and other languages. But it shocked the interwar authorities in New York, along with many members of the Jewish community, who, led by Rabbi Joseph Silverman of Temple Emanu-El, were especially unnerved by the main character’s despondent, flagrant desecration of the Torah scroll at the end of the play. The police arrested the producer, Harry Weinberger — a civil liberties lawyer renowned for producing the plays of Eugene O’Neill — along with a dozen members of the cast on obscenity charges; a jury swiftly convicted them, although the convictions were later vacated on appeal.
There have been a number of English-language revivals of the play in recent years, including in a 1999 one by Yiddish translator and actress Caraid O’Brien, who produced it at Show World, a former porn shop in Times Square; three years later, an adaptation by Donald Margulies moved the action of the play from Poland to the Lower East Side. But this is the first production of the play in its original language in more than a century; by coincidence, it will be performed next door to the theater in which the play was first staged in New York.
The New Yiddish Rep, under the direction of David Mandelbaum, has won plaudits in recent years for its Yiddish-language productions of classic English-language plays such as Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” and Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” While “God of Vengeance” is less well known, it is considered by scholars to be one of the greatest plays of the 20th century in any language. The new production, which will provide supertitles in English, stars versatile Yiddish performer Shane Baker as Yankel, the brothel owner. The cast also includes the director, Eleanor Reissa, as Yankel’s wife, Sarah, along with Shayna Schmidt as their daughter, Rifkele, and Melissa Weisz as Rifkele’s lesbian lover, Manke.
In an interview, Baker told The Jewish Week that while the play is famous for showing the first lesbian kiss on Broadway, the lesbian relationship is not what enrages her father; indeed, he may not be able to comprehend that his daughter is gay. “Yankel doesn’t seem to grasp what she means when she admits that she’s not pure and kosher any more,” he said. “It’s probably because she was with Manke, not because she was turning tricks.” Yankel, who lives with his family in an apartment above the whorehouse, wants more than anything is to preserve his daughter from what is taking place downstairs. What resonates the most for the actor, he said, is the theme of parents “trying to live out their own redemption through their children,” not wanting their offspring to repeat their mistakes.
Reissa called the play “a tragedy, or even a catastrophe,” but yet “passionate, dynamic, exciting, sensual, stimulating and thoughtful.” Even those characters who normally earn our censure, Reissa said, earn our sympathy; they oblige us to ask if we “have ever sold aspects of ourselves for some other good.” As a woman directing a play about whores, Reissa added, “I didn’t want to be disrespectful to women who have to sell their bodies to make a living. I wanted to give them dignity. I didn’t want to make this into a peep show.”
Mandelbaum, who founded the company in 2008, noted that he is particularly pleased that some of the actors in this production were raised speaking Yiddish in ultra-Orthodox families; they went “off the derech” (off the path), as the expression goes, and left that world behind. “They may have no grounding in either Jewish or non-Jewish drama and literature,” he said, “and Yiddish doesn’t necessarily bring up pleasant memories for them. But they haven’t given up on the language. And they certainly don’t need me to explain how grounded this play is in religious tradition.”
While the Folksbiene has found great success with its revival of the operetta “The Golden Bride” (which is about to launch a national tour), Mandelbaum conceded that his agenda is to preserve the Yiddish language. “The Yiddish stage tradition can’t be carried on with just musical theater revues,” he said. “When they go to those shows, nobody is really listening to the Yiddish.”
O’Brien, who translated the play for her 1999 version, plays one of the sex workers in this production. She pointed to recent news reports that human trafficking is still a major problem in the city. “Asch is so brave in all of his writing,” she said. “He exposes social injustice, shining a light on things that no one wanted to look at because they were too awful to behold.”
“God of Vengeance” starts previews on Thursday, Dec. 22 for an opening on Sunday, Dec. 25 at LaMaMa, 74A E. Fourth St. (betw. Bowery and Second Ave.). Regular performances are Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. There are also a number of added performances. In Yiddish with English supertitles. For a detailed schedule and tickets, $36, visit newyiddishrep.org or call (800) 838-3006.