Mar 17, 2017
“It won’t sell out,” Clare wrote in December, as Kate insisted on pre-booking the tickets to Got fun nekome (God of Vengeance) promised in lieu of a Christmas present. “This isn’t Warsaw in 1937.” As we crammed ourselves into La Mama’s packed black box theater for the final weekend of Got fun nekome’s January run, struggling to find two unoccupied folding chairs next to each other, Clare was glad to eat her words. Back with a vengeance, the play will in fact run for another two weeks this March.
Directed by Yiddish theater great Eleanor Reissa, New Yiddish Rep’s Got fun nekome brings ageless tensions between sacred and profane, respectable and shameful into stark contemporary relief. Yankl Tchaptchovich (Shane Baker) and Sore (Eleanor Reissa/Caraid O’Brien) try desperately to present an upstanding, observant household to the outside world and Jewish community while managing a brothel beneath their house. Their daughter Rivkele (Shayna Schmidt) is their key to absolution, a nice Jewish girl destined to marry into a good family and fulfil all the social expectations her parents cannot. Rivkele’s purity unravels as she forms a relationship with Manke (Melissa Weisz), a sex worker at her father’s business who lives downstairs.
Got fun nekome has been translated into and performed in many languages, but New Yiddish Rep made the bold choice to run it in Yiddish, while supertitles projected onto the screen above the stage provide English translation. As with any subtitled piece of work, audience members like Kate, who doesn’t understand Yiddish, must negotiate between reading the narrative and watching the dramatic action. Before the show, Kate worried about missing out on the theatricality of the production while Clare, who studied Yiddish at university, would not. After the show Kate asked Clare if she had missed anything, especially since the supertitles seemed much shorter than the lines spoken by the actors. But the supertitles were succinct and well-timed, so that non-Yiddish speakers could follow the gist of the dialogue a fraction earlier than it was delivered, allowing them to absorb the action on the stage. So much of the play is carried in the gesticulations, embodied interactions, and other non-verbal dialogue that non-Yiddish speakers do not miss much by losing some of the words.
After the show, waiting for our Uber in a Lower East Side gutter, we agreed that the production’s most impressive feat was to make Got fun nekome resonate with audiences more than a century after it was written, 1 1 It was even a New York Times critics pick. both aesthetically and in content. Rivkele wears headphones while she embroiders a mantle for her family’s Torah scroll. The sex workers downstairs wear gaudy skirts and shawls that recall 1980s fashion but could easily be at home in any club today, and while the men’s costumes might look dated, so does men’s fashion in Brooklyn in 2017, whether it is haredi style or hipster cafe garb, such as Shloyme (Luzer Twersky) wears.
But what makes the play truly contemporary are the ever-present questions it poses about gender, violence, and religion. Got fun nekome is one of the Yiddish theater canon’s most performed and most hotly debated productions. When Sholem Asch first presented the text to the Warsaw Yiddish literati in 1906, Y. L. Peretz told him to burn it. In the play’s first performances the major points of contention were the depiction of a lesbian relationship, the use of the Torah scroll in an ostensibly impure environment, and the potentially unsavory depiction of Jewish life to non-Jewish audiences. When the play first ran on Broadway in English, the entire cast was arrested, tried, and charged for obscenity.
What remains controversial in a Jewish context is the naked religious hypocrisy the play exposes, something New Yiddish Rep masterfully represents for the present. The stage is divided into the upstairs and downstairs of the Tchaptchovich home. The space upstairs is ostensibly kosher, separate from the brothel underworld; it’s a place where Yankl and Sore can entertain their religious establishment guests and present a respectable facade to the world. But the upstairs is simultaneously a space full of violent outbursts from Yankl and ostentatious displays of wealth, including the Torah scroll that the family treats as a moral status symbol and an amulet protecting Rivkele and her chastity from the family business. Downstairs, which is coded as treyf and sinful, the sex workers build sweet and supportive relationships, discuss their freedom from stultifying and abusive families, and dance together in the rain. If the kosher upstairs world is actually rife with rank hypocrisy, then what is the meaning of religious observance at all?
Even though the Torah scroll used onstage was a prop and not an actual scroll, Got fun nekome has faced heavy criticism for its depiction of a Torah scroll in a living space above a brothel. In 1982 in Israel, Beer Sheva Theatre’s production of the play was approved by the censor on the condition that the Torah scroll remain in the upstairs of the house, never permitted to enter the downstairs. New Yiddish Rep’s production employs this strategy too. The Torah scroll never enters the brothel space. Both in the play-world and in the physical staging, the Torah scroll remains upstage in the confines of Rivkele’s room. Got fun nekome remains within the confines of Jewish ritual tradition, even though its content is transgressive.
Another charge leveled at Got fun nekome was that it portrayed Jews badly to gentiles. We the writers are gentiles and we found ourselves having this very discussion after the play: does it make Judaism or Jews look bad or deviant? Not to us. The play’s message that wherever hierarchies exist, so does hypocrisy, moralism, and expectations that no human can possibly live up to resonates with us. There is nothing particularly Jewish about the tensions the play explores. We agreed with some of Asch’s comments in the open letter he penned following the obscenity debacle in 1923, defending the play from critics within the Jewish community. For Asch, Got fun nekome wasn’t designed to create unblemished Jewish characters “for the benefit of the gentiles”; he dealt with moral questions applicable to any group of people. His Jewish characters and Torah scroll could easily be replaced with Christians and crucifixes. Asch also made clear that Jews did not need to defend themselves to anybody. This comment rang true for us, living in a period where the violent actions of small minorities are held up to represent entire faiths and communities. Our gutter debate then turned to issues of gender, sex work, and state-sanctioned homophobia.
For Kate, who has a background in dramaturgy, one of Reissa’s most subtle yet interesting production choices is the use of sound to frame the play’s gendered relationships. Each time a man entered the space military drumming accompanied them as they proceeded down the walkway connecting the outside world, the home’s upstairs, and the brothel below. This gave male entrances an ominous feeling, as though the characters were facing imminent attack. In many cases, this entrance was followed by the abuse of women in the space, whether physical or emotional. The majority of this abuse was at the hands of Yankl, who drunkenly degrades Sore for her former life as a sex worker and shakes Rivkele bodily, punishing her for entering the brothel. Contrary to this, wind chimes ring during the tender scenes revealing Manke and Rivkele’s unfolding romance, portraying their relationship as tranquil and safe as long as they remain in one another’s arms.
In the second act, Hindl (Caraid O’Brien), Basha (Mira Kessler), and Reizl (Rachel Botchan) discuss their work in the sex industry. For Kate, this scene, written in a period long before her birth and in a language she doesn’t know, resonated profoundly. Basha recounts fleeing her hometown and a forced marriage, and Reizl questions whether working in the brothel is any more liberated. For Basha, sex work gives her financial flexibility and independence—freedom—and Hindl argues that sex work is no more demeaning than any other kind of labor. Kate was immediately transported to living room conversations with friends—debating intersectional feminism, sex positivity, gendered exploitation, and labor rights.
For Clare, an activist and organizer, Got fun nekome is impossible to divorce from the present political moment. By coincidence Clare booked tickets to the play for the same weekend as the presidential inauguration, a day she spent marching among 400,000 New Yorkers in protest of Donald Trump’s attacks on women, immigrants, and people of color. Perhaps it was just proximity, but Yankl’s abuse, exploitation, and attempts to establish alternative facts about his family’s righteousness reminded us of somebody else. As the spring performance opens we can only think about how, if Rivkele and Manke were to fall in love today, they might soon face an executive order allowing employers, landlords or businesses to turn lesbians away if homosexuality offends their religious beliefs.
The play also reminded us both of the political power that art, and particularly theater, can wield. 2 2 For more, check out Anna Elena Torres’ conversation with Ezra Berkley Nepon, author of Dazzle Camouflage: Spectacular Theatrical Strategies for Resistance and Resilience (2016) and Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue: A History of New Jewish Agenda (2012). Kate recalled the scandal last November when the cast of Hamilton confronted then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who was sitting in the audience, with a demand that the incoming government protect the rights of every person living in the United States. In the Twitter storm that followed, then President-elect Donald Trump demanded an apology (never received), claiming theaters should be “safe spaces” apparently free of controversy and debate. We could imagine the same words uttered about Got fun nekome not so long ago. The spectacle reminded Clare of the slogan graffitied on the Odeon theater in Paris during the wave of protests and strikes in 1968: “When the National Assembly becomes a bourgeois theater, all the bourgeois theaters should be turned into national assemblies.” Theater should be a space to challenge, entice, and provoke. New Yiddish Rep’s Got fun nekome stands in such a tradition.
Got fun nekome will run for two weeks, March 14-27, at Theatre as St. Clement’s, 423 West 46th Street. The play is performed in Yiddish with English supertitles. In a recent podcast Shane Baker described the spring iteration of Got fun nekome, directed by Aaron Beall, as a “hurricane.” We encourage everyone to allow themselves to be swept up in the Yiddish theater like we were. In April, Paula Vogel’s contemporary play Indecent, which explores the moral panic that has surrounded Got fun nekome during its hundred year history on the stage, will make its Broadway debut.
Kate is a Drama and Public Relations major at the University of Queensland in Australia and a Festivals and Developments Officer for Underground Productions, UQ’s resident theatre society. Clare is the Associate Director at Yiddishkayt in Los Angeles