When Sholem Asch’s 1906 play, God of Vengeance was first staged on Broadway in 1923, it was notable, primarily, for pissing off audiences, religious and secular alike. Why? Chiefly, a kiss shared by two women, the first of its kind on the Great White Way, and, to add insult to injury, the desecration of a Torah scroll, among other unsavory depictions of Jewish religiosity. As Yiddish speakers might say, the whole thing was a shonda, a shame.
New Yiddish Rep artistic director David Mandelbaum told the New York Post that, when the play debuted, the establishment Jewish community was “outraged” and condemned the production. The show’s manager, producer and 12 actors were, according to the Post, indicted for presenting an “obscene, indecent, immoral and impure” work and ultimately convicted for criminal obscenity.
What was lost amid the brouhaha is that God of Vengeance is, ultimately, not really about a same sex love affair. And that Torah scroll? In a production in the original Yiddish by New Yiddish Rep now running at LaMama, it gets through the action unmolested.
A play about faith and redemption is, undoubtedly, a less enticing prospect than one about forbidden romance and blasphemy. But it’s a more accurate depiction of what is, ultimately, a no less interesting show. Here, New Yiddish Rep presents a lively, impressive revival, anchored by a strong cast and steady direction by Eleanor Reissa.
God of Vengeance tells the story of successful brothel owner Yekel Tchaptchovitch (Shane Baker) who is determined to marry his daughter Rifkele (Shanya Schmidt) to a respectable man. He’s realistic about how his line of work colors his perception in his community, so he decides to commission a new Torah scroll— a costly investment that he hopes will improve his daughter’s chances.
“Downstairs is a whorehouse. Up here is an innocent girl who’s going to get married,” he says.
That fate seems likely, especially when Reb Eli (Mandelbaum), who has brokered the Torah arrangement with a scribe (Eli Rosen), seems eager to shrug off any objections to Yekel’s shady business and set Rifkele up with a young scholar who he’d like to see financially supported. But Rifkele isn’t, despite her father’s best wishes, “as Kosher as a Torah.” She has, in fact, fallen in love with one of her father’s prostitutes, Manke (Melissa Weisz), and secretly plans to run away with her to join an aspiring pimp Shloyme (Luzer Twerskey, a Brooklyn-born ex-Hasid making an assured stage debut) and his bride-to-be, Hindel, (Caraid O’Brien) another prostitute.
The events that follow are, predictably, tragic for Yekel. In this respect, it’s possible to see the story as a parable of nearly Biblical dimensions, a cautionary tale about the perils of treating divine favor as transactional. You can’t weasel your way out of sin, Asch seems to propose, even if you have a fat bank account.
That’s an old notion, but in other ways, Asch’s play is decidedly ahead of its time, particularly in the relationship between Rifkele and Manke. Unfortunately, the pair only get one major scene together, and it’s not quite enough to paint a picture of an epic love. Some of the lines are clunky—“So white, and firm, your breasts, and the blood in them cools under the hand like snow, like ice,” Manke says—and we don’t learn much about their interior lives or what drew them to one another with such magnetism.
Still, New Yiddish Rep’s talented and diverse cast—a mix of Gentiles and Jews, native Yiddish speakers and first-timers— carries the show through some of the rougher patches in Asch’s script, and serves, along the way, as a testament to the viability of Yiddish theater in the 21st century. The real shonda would be if it didn’t garner a wider audience.