How tempting it is to claim, as one gets swept into the fervor of the small community of non-Hasidic Yiddish speakers in America, that the once-belittled and murdered language is making a comeback. Not that it’s really possible to imagine that a few summer language programs or a run on klezmer CDs can restore Yiddish as an international tongue that was spoken by millions and produced a vast and varied literature, music, and theater. But don’t say that to the students in one of those language programs or to the musicians practicing licks at Klez-Camp every winter. They’ll hurl the nastiest Yiddish curses at you, for they are true believers in the contemporary vibrancy of this almost extinguished tradition.
The tough question for those who want to make Yiddish theater in the 1990s is how to convey that vibrancy, how to make it thrive on something more than nostalgia. Taking over the 83-year-old Folksbiene Theatre this year, Zalmen Mlotek and Eleanor Reissa promised to “carry the theater into the next century.” In an interview with the Jewish Standard, Mlotek, a well-known expert on Yiddish music, reasoned that if the Klezmatics can fill Town Hall, the Folksbiene can find a new audience.
But what theatrical innovation can parallel the Klezmatics’ ecstatic Jewish soul music, which is inflected by the drive of Led Zeppelin and the swing of jazz? As their violinist Alicia Svigals once told me, the band is “providing the soundtrack” for young American Jews searching Yiddishkayt for a usable past. Theater— not least because it depends on language— is a trickier business. It’s not a popular art form in general, and Yiddish theater in particular, like the language itself, is often thought of as something cute and schmaltzy: the proper medium for eye-rolling comic shtick or sappy songs about grandma— never mind that this stereotype contradicts what Yiddish artists actually wrote. Nonetheless, young people recently flocked to a production of Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance that played in Target Margin’s “What Is a Laboratory?” series.
One of the toughest and most self-critical plays in the Yiddish canon, God of Vengeance is a 1906 moral melodrama about a man who runs a brothel but has tried to raise his daughter as a pure maiden, fit to be married off to a rabbi’s son. The daughter, however, has fallen in love with one of the women in her father’s employ, and the play features steamy love scenes between them— as well as scenes of rabbinic hypocrisy and domestic violence. After running successfully in Yiddish for many years, the play premiered in translation on Broadway in 1923 and was soon closed for obscenity, prompting a contentious trial. After decades of almost thorough neglect, there has been a run on God of Vengeance lately: Joseph Chaikin directed a production in Atlanta this fall; Donald Margulies has written a powerful adaptation; Rebecca Taichman has been developing a work at Yale based on the play and the trial; students at UMass-Amherst have presented it.
The play’s tragedy depends on a moral universe defined by religious practices that a current audience is not likely to understand. What’s more, that moral universe is schematic, absolute, and archaic, yet the play has no emotional force unless it is fully established. The “What Is a Laboratory?” production, directed by Carolyn Cantor (no translator credited), didn’t know whether to take that world seriously or to camp it up. Mostly, actors chose the latter option, offering cartoon characterizations, which were exacerbated by Cantor’s decision to settle the ambiguities that do exist in the text with broad, flattening strokes. Still, the sheer interest in this queer and prickly play shown by young artists should offer a useful clue to the Folksbiene as it looks for new life.
Imagine the thrilling possibilities, for example, of a God of Vengeance performed in Yiddish (with simultaneous translation, of course, which the Folksbiene supplies) or of another classic directed by Chaikin or Taichman or Michael Greif or David Herskovits or even Anne Bogart or Liz Diamond. Or commissions of new works by Margulies or Tony Kushner or Jenny Romaine. The Folksbiene would rock.
Instead, the first offering under the new leadership, Zise Khaloymes (Sweet Dreams), is, well, the old shtick and schmaltz. There’s a winning cast— led by the supreme Mina Bern— and a wonderful score, but Reissa’s script relies on simplistic dramatic and philosophical formulas. The hero, Debbie Smith (née Dvoyreh Kliger), is a 40-year-old struggling actress and daughter of Holocaust survivors, so ashamed of her Jewish identity that she resists a role offered to her in Israel. In clichéd sketch-comedy scenes, she seeks salvation from a shrink, a masseuse, a beauty consultant, and other fixers, before learning from her African American roommate that she should be proud of her heritage. This lesson sinks in when she arrives in Israel, a country the play giddily describes, with astonishing naïveté, as inhabited only by Jews, and at that, Jews who live without fear. The plot hinges on an old and troubling teleology that posits Israel as the answer to the Holocaust, and as the true source of American Jewish identity. Apart from being false, that is exactly the message that young Jews turning to Yiddishkayt have rejected. And unfortunately, exactly the message that will keep them away from the Folksbiene.