God of Vengeance at New Yiddish Rep

I went to see New Yiddish Rep's production of "God of Vengeance" this past weekend. The play was an early one for Yiddish author Sholem Ash, but ambitious, telling the story of a brothel keeper who decides to purchase a Torah scroll as an almost totemic protection for his presumably virginial daughter, never mind that they live above the brothel and the daughter has been sneaking down nightly.

In fact, the play was one of the main reasons for my trip to New York, along with going to the Russian and Turkish Baths, because I am preparing to produce a play set in a bath house that makes use of an awful lot of Yiddish, and revolves around a performer with a background in Yiddish theater.

In the meanwhile, even though I have read about Yiddish theater for my entire adult life, I have never seen a live play in Yiddish, and am only now at the point where the Yiddish would be meaningful to me, rather than an almost totally alien language. And while I have been in steambaths before, even with old Jews, I have never been to an old-school New York shvitzbod, and both felt like things I needed to know about for my own show.

I have been a theater critic ever since I worked at my college radio station, which was back in, let's see, 1989, so I have reviewed theater for ... holy crap, 28 years. As a result it is almost completely impossible for me not to want to review "God of Vengeance," even though the run has ended.

The urge must entirely be habit, as I don't really have much to say about the show. I liked the performances very much. I found the direction sometimes gimmicky but generally effective. I appreciate that there is a theater company dedicated to Yiddish plays, and their mission statement makes explicit that they consider Yiddish theater to be a living form rather than a historic one. I hope that this will include commissioning and producing new works of Yiddish theater in the future, as that is how you make certain it remains living, rather than historic.

There are two aspects of the show I found tremendously interesting, and I am split on which one to discuss. The first is that two of the lead performers are not Jewish, but instead non-Jews who have had longstanding interests in both Yiddish and Yiddish theater.

I don't find this enormously surprising, as some seem to. There have been plenty of non-Jews who took an interest in Yiddish, and I would guess roughly 40 percent of the Facebook followers for this blog are gentiles. I spoke to the executive director of YIVO when I was in New York, and he told me that about 40 percent of the attendees and YIVO's programs are non-Jews.

It's not so strange. I have an interest in Mexican culture and history, and am not Mexican. People are curious, and they need not have a personal connection to develop a curiosity that leads to a passion. But I have become Facebook friends with both the performers in question, Shane Baker and Caraid O'Brien, and will interview both at some time in the future, so I can table any discussion of non-Jews in the world of Yiddish.

The other thing I found interesting about "God of Vengeance" was that many members of the cast were ex-Hasids. I had seen one before: Melissa Weisz, who was Juliette in "Romeo and Juliette in Yiddish." She was the subject of considerably speculation before the film opened, as she has a topless scene in it. She has since come out as queer, and I only mention these autobiographical elements because they seemed to inform her performance in the play. She played one of the prostitutes, dressed in a costume that resembled the 1930s S&M garb of the Sam Mendes production of "Cabaret." She is a lesbian in the play, or, at least, a predator who is comfortable using lesbianism to pull the brothel keeper's daughter into white slavery. She was suitably sharklike in this, seducing the girl with a grin that consisted mostly of bared teeth.

The play also featured Eli Rosen, Shmully Blesofsky, and Eli Rosen, all ex-Hasids. Hasidic Jews are one of the few remaining communities that produce Native Yiddish speakers (along with occasional transplants from Eastern Europe) and is a fast-growing segment of the Jewish population (Haredi Jews tend to have more children at a faster rate and starting from a younger age than other members of the Jewish community.) Along with this is a growing ex-Hasic movement, including a developing support network for those who wish to leave the movement. 

This is an extraordinary opportunity for Yiddish arts. "Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish" took advantage of it, filling the cast with ex-Hasids and drawing the story largely from their own experiences. New Yiddish Rep has obviously likewise discovered that this community is a valuable place to pull from for Yiddish-speaking actors. 

But there is also the very real possibility of this being an opportunity to waste an opportunity. These ex-Hasids are largely joining a more mainstream Jewish community that has almost entirely abandoned Yiddish. A large number of American Jewish groups are assimilationist, and the ex-Hasids might be eager for assimilation. There is almost no institutional support for Yiddish within the mainstream Jewish community, and, as a result, there is a risk that this community might leave it behind, as happened with previous generations of Yiddish speakers in America.  

There is probably no need to hurry, as Haredi Jews are going to continue to produce children apace, and a percent of those children will continue to exit Hasidism apace, and so we can expect a regular stream of new Yiddish speakers in the larger Jewish community as long as this trend continues. Perhaps they will come to the same conclusions themselves and create a support network for their own use of Yiddish and produce their own art in the language; they seem perfectly capable of addressing their own needs.

Still, I feel a keen, if distant, connection with these newly ex-Hasids. After all, I come from a Hasidic family as well, and sometime in my past, probably not too distantly, had ancestors who were ex-Hasids. We share a story, even if separated by decades. Perhaps we can also share a language, and share art.