Oct 10, 2019
The popular narrative of American Jewish immigration at the turn of the 20th century centers on a population fleeing ethnic violence. Many American Jews will say that their families were forced to leave Russia because of pogroms, a word that conjures up images of Cossacks, with their tall black boots, comically long mustaches, and violent virility. While it’s true that the murderous force of pogroms pushed many Jews out of the Russian Empire, many turn-of-the-century Russian Jews also emigrated in search of economic opportunity, after industrialization destroyed traditional Jewish economies. America as the “golden land” still has a place in popular narratives, though the history of economic opportunity hasn’t captured historical memory like pogroms, perhaps because it seems less tragic, and therefore less sympathetic. 1 1 See for instance Steven Zipperstein’s recent book Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History (New York: Liveright, 2018). But when those migrating ancestors are remembered exclusively as victims and martyrs of anti-Jewish violence, the less dramatic, less one-dimensional story is lost—one centered around people making choices in a changing economy.
I was reminded of this American Jewish narrative after viewing the limited run of Reuven Glezer’s The Argentinian Prostitute Play, a play that explores the history of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who worked in the sex industry in Latin America in the late 19th and early 20th century. Here, any questions of economic opportunity are almost entirely neglected for another story: one of female victimhood, male violence, and an antisemitic Russia. The play opens up in a theatre company, where a troupe is coldly and arbitrarily beaten by the police, though which police, and where, is not clear. The playbill tells us this prologue is set in Ukraine in the 1910s, except the play gives little indication of its setting before shifting to an ambiguous, Spanish-speaking city (Buenos Aires in the 1920s, as the playbill explains), where the same troupe now runs a brothel. The rest of the story focuses on the brothel owners/theatre managers and their actors and sex workers.
Though “sex worker” is an anachronistic term, and was neither employed by the playwright, nor the historical figures under consideration, I use it here following the example of scholarship on this period, which uses “sex worker” and “prostitute” interchangeably to suggest that sex work is a form of labor, and not always coercive. See Mir Yarfitz, Impure Migration: Jews and Sex Work in Golden Age Argentina (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2019), footnote 3 for terminology. I’m grateful to Aleksandra Jakubacz-Gabay for alerting me to this source.
Malka, an energetic and passionate manager of the brothel (played by the talented Anya Avsharian), cajoles the brothel’s owner, Aron Feibush, to pay “her girls” more, before they leave him for another pimp. Feibush, meanwhile, is trying and failing to run Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and subject to the constant meddling of a Spanish donor, named Don Raphael, who we learn is “very confused about Jews.” One of the girls threatening to leave is Toiba, a teary prostitute in love with the actor playing Hamlet, though he doesn’t know “the truth about her.” His sister, and Toiba’s friend (plot twist!) does know, and tries to tear the two apart. The play follows Toiba’s efforts to seek out a different (the subtext being better) life, with Malka waffling between her devotion to Toiba and her commitments to Feibush and the brothel. Ultimately, after an attempted rape and a successful murder, the women band together and leave for a new life (and profession) in New York. In the final scene, they wrap the brothel’s bed sheets like a tallis, and recite kaddish for the prostitutes left behind, buried in a section of the cemetery designated for Jewish sex workers.
The question driving the play’s ninety minutes is more of an assumption: why were Jewish women and men involved in the sex industry, a history that seems so un-Jewish to the twenty-first century eye? The brothel owner, Feibush, is constantly reminded of his Jewishness by others, especially Malka, as if to ask why shared ethnic background with his sex workers isn’t motivation enough for him to abandon the profession. Feibush himself feels guilt about his profession, which spirals into rage, as he questions how a person like him (the subtext being a Jew) got involved in the sex industry (“a pimp is the furthest you could be from what you are,” he tells himself). Glezer’s answer, which Malka confirms whenever challenged by her female interlocutors, is pogroms. Though Glezer is invested in martyring victimized sex workers while chastising the fragile egos of their pimps, the real villain of The Argentinian Prostitute Play is anti-Jewish violence in Russia. At one point, Malka enters the stage with a newspaper, panicked over the news of antisemitic violence in Odessa. “It was no one I know this time,” she says. Later, another Jewish woman silently judges Malka for her role in Jewish women’s trafficking. In answer to these silent judgements, Malka defends herself, shouting, “You think I’m doing this for myself?” before instructing her morally-minded challenger to “go to Russia” where “every Jewish corner” is crawling with antisemitic violence. “I came here to escape,” Malka says, slumping down with her hands covering her face. If Feibush has betrayed his ethnicity, then Malka, Glezer suggests, has betrayed her gender, by assisting with the management end of the brothel.
The Argentinian Prostitute Play juggles a number of themes, never really settling on one to explore in depth. Glezer’s ninety-minute production scrambles to unite the threads of twentieth-century Jewish sex trafficking, inter-communal tensions, moral hypocrisy, and assimilation into a single narrative. At times, Glezer has his characters gesture towards these themes without actually exploring them, as when the Jews from Odessa approach a Jew from Spain and make a fuss about how “swarthy” he is, which I interpreted as a heavy-handed effort to communicate that inter-ethnic tensions existed between the two groups. At another point, Malka is enraged to discover her co-partner Feibush has claimed to “forget his Yiddish.” These and similar comments feel like homages to a history the play is vaguely aware of—that of Jewish migration and assimilation—rather than believable lines any of the characters might say. Glezer’s characters reference and describe cultural touchstones, such as the process of forgetting a language, that broadly signal to the audience a time and place, instead of making these processes and tensions an integral part of the narrative.
The play rushes through these thematic gestures in order to cycle back to its favorite niche: scenes where men relish in their own power, or try and grasp at it, while women wallow in their own helplessness and victimhood. The short acts cycle through relentless tension, and are less interested in exploring questions about history than in reaffirming the bloody trail of female victimhood at the hands of men. The furious men are believably and skillfully acted by Ben Natan, Mateo Ervin, and Shawn Zylberberg, with Zylberberg doing particularly well as a sleazy Don Raphael. Tessa Ramirez-Keough does an appropriately treacly Toiba, dressed in bright red and wearing black lacy gloves, in case we weren’t already sure about her occupation.
Glezer’s play was selected from thousands of submissions to participate in the Broadway Bound Theatre Festival, an off-Broadway theatre showcase that provides playwrights support to develop their productions. He collaborated with director Zeynep Akca, who said she was attracted to the story of the Jewish sex trade because of “the timelessness of the material.” Plays in the Broadway Bound Theatre Festival are produced with the help of crowdfunding, and The Argentinian Prostitute Play was clearly a labor of love, though an unfinished one at best. After its short run as part of the festival, it is unclear where or when the play will run next. The version I saw was the final production, but the dialogue still felt occasionally stilted or forced. At times, the characters spoke in formal English with affected cadences and a hint of a British accent, while at others they spoke in a New York-inflected English with American Yiddish slang (think “shmegegge”).
If the play is set in the 1920s, as the playbill suggests, there are some chronology problems, as the Russian Civil War (during which Russian Jews experienced an assault of pogroms) ended in 1921, and Jews were granted civil rights with the creation of the Soviet Union in 1922. Glezer seems to have chosen the 1920s period because of Raquel Lieberman, to whom the play is dedicated, a victim of the sex trade who exposed her traffickers in Buenos Aires in the late 1920’s. To take the play to task for all of its historical inaccuracies is perhaps a bit unfair, given that The Argentinian Prostitute Play is a piece of art. However, the play does seem to be historically minded. One of the play’s genuinely funny moments relies on historical irony, when the troupe is forced by their Spanish funder to perform Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Hebrew, and the actors stumble over the strange and antiquated language. Furthermore, in a statement about his work, Glezer professes a desire to “remember” the story of “desperate men doing terrible things, of the women they forced into their machinations, and of the length people go to for their freedom.” However, current historical research challenges this assumption that nineteenth- and twentieth- century sex workers were only involved in prostitution because they were forced into it by men. The Argentinian Prostitute Play’s main thesis is that Jews worked in the sex industry because they were fleeing anti-Jewish violence. But Jewish prostitution did not begin in Latin America in the twentieth century, but rather in Eastern Europe in the nineteenth. Glezer presumably leaps from history to myth in order to make his characters more sympathetic. Because he never distinguishes between sex trafficking and sex work, and takes for granted that all women were coerced into sex work, this effort at sympathy is confused. Glezer suggests that he is willing to apologize, first for victimized sex workers and then for the Jewish men and women engaged in the sex trade, but only if their behavior can be explained by the fact that they themselves were victims of pogroms.
Seeking some clarity after watching the jumbled inconsistencies of The Argentinian Prostitute Play, I reached out to Aleksandra Jakubczak-Gabay, a PhD student at Columbia University who studies the international sex trade and Jewish women’s trafficking. Jakubczak-Gabay, who had also seen the play, told me that her research works against some of the very assumptions Glezer makes in this work. Traditional historiography portrays Jewish women as forced or tricked into prostitution, whereas Jakubczak-Gabay argues that Jewish women’s choice to enter prostitution was an economically conditioned one that inspired moral outrage from male Jewish elites, leading to the panic over a “White Slave Trade.”
Special thanks to Jakubczak-Gabay for sharing her unpublished manuscript with me. For examples of traditional historiography, she cites Edward Bristow, Prostitution and Prejudice: the Jewish Fight Against White Slavery, 1870-1939 (New York: Schocken Books, 1983), among others.
Furthermore, her research traces the links between local prostitution markets in Eastern Europe and international prostitution markets. In The Argentinian Prostitute Play, Toiba’s friend tries to cajole her away from the brothel to take a job in the bakery, where she works. In reality, Jewish women who resorted to prostitution had few promising job alternatives. Jakubczak-Gabay’s research shows that Jewish women engaged in prostitution while still in their Eastern European hometowns, where grueling factory labor offered no chance at a living wage. From there, Jewish women often entered brothels abroad, leaving their small hometowns for opportunities overseas. In Buenos Aires, a prostitute could make much more money than she did in Eastern Europe. As Mir Yarfitz argues in a recent work on Jews and sex work in Argentina, Eastern European Jews were excluded from agricultural labor in Eastern Europe—predominant sectors of the Argentinian economy for other European migrants—had little access to education, and were skilled in urban artisanal fields for which there was little demand in Argentina. Thus, like other marginalized groups, migrating Jews, both men and women, were drawn to these “gray zones” of employment. 4 4 Yarfitz, Impure Migration
Glezer’s work doesn’t consider that twentieth-century Jewish prostitutes and pimps may not have seen an inherent contradiction between their Jewishness and their line of work, as he clearly does, and as a result the play works to resolve this assumed contradiction, rather than ask why such an assumption exists in the first place. The final scene, where Toiba and Malkah wear the brothel’s sheets as a tallis, works as the play’s conclusion precisely because it resolves the play’s tension by bringing the Jewishness and the sex work together—we are meant to see the prostitutes as both defiant and redeemed for their engagement with Jewish rituals. It’s also telling that this engagement with Jewish religious rituals occurs only after they vow to abandon sex work. But I’m not convinced that the figures most likely to hold ideas of the Jewish religion as incongruous with sex work, and that those most likely to be sentimental about Jewish purity and virtue, would have been the men and women working the sex trade. By ascribing his characters a guilty consciousness over their line of work, Glezer tells this story without telling it, or he tells it the way sentimental listeners are most willing, or able, to hear.
The Argentinian Prostitute Play doesn’t consider that prostitution may have granted twentieth-century women a relative degree of independence. This failure of the imagination leads the play to ignore the more interesting elements of the story it tries to tell: questions of agency in difficult economic conditions, and the clashes between independent, migrating women and religious purity mores. Instead, Glezer serves up a sensationalized story of the Jewish sex industry, with as much knife stabbing, stripping, and suffering as possible. In all of this melodrama, the play wears its influences on its sleeve. At one point, the struggling actor and object of Toiba’s affection is haunted in his sleep by some sort of spirit, a cross between Hamlet’s ghost and the grandmother of Fiddler on the Roof, a genre self-consciousness intended as a nod to the play’s forebears. If the recent successful run of Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance says anything, it’s that Jewish brothels make for good theater. But Asch told the story of Jewish religious hypocrisy to drive home that Jews were humans too, as contradictory as anyone else, yarmulke or not. By trying to apologize prostitution away with pogroms, Glezer ignores the very humanity he tries to restore. While I continued to root for the play as it went on, hoping to be pleasantly surprised, it concluded with one of the women singing “Oseh Shalom” at the end of her kaddish, using that familiar American tune I associate with Reform synagogues or summer camp. This contemporary twist is surely out of place for a twentieth century kaddish by Eastern European immigrants in Latin America. It wasn’t clear to me whether it was intentional, either—a disappointing ending to the play.
After leaving the Lion Theatre on 42nd Street, where The Argentinian Prostitute Play held its short run, I felt the need to recalibrate why we tell stories of history again, whether on stage or at a conference. There’s the “remembering” Glezer mentioned, the oft-repeated explanation for why history, and especially fictional and artistic representations of history, should matter. “Remembering” is more of a description than a causal explanation, though. It is true that what Glezer does in this play is some variant of remembrance. But “remembering” isn’t enough justification in and of itself, especially when there’s more forgetting involved than anything else.
In his statements, Glezer writes how a mentor once discouraged him away from “relevance” in his art, and that The Argentinian Prostitute Play became relevant without his doing, as stories of “antisemitism and violence against women” filled the news. In an interview, the play’s director Akca speaks directly to this question of relevance, saying, “I hope that by reflecting upon 1920s Buenos Aires we can find answers to problems today.” Here, Akca suggests that we remember because we see a relationship between our histories and our current existence, which we hope to correct or change by the act of remembering. I, too, believe history matters for these reasons. But personally, I’m not convinced that men exhibiting cruelty toward cowering women on a stage shows the relationship between our past and present at all, or that it stands for anything. It’s not just Glezer. His play is symptomatic of such “representations” that eschew politics for a story of morality, as though any discussion of politics or economic conditioning would undermine the purity of their art, while discussions of morality would give it an aura of timelessness. Another recent artistic representation of the Jewish sex trade in Latin America is the The Third Daughter, by Talia Carner. In an interview with Lilith magazine, Carner ignores immediate economic factors much like Glezer does, saying, “I have no explanation for this Jew-on-Jew crime, other than to look at the effect of trauma on human beings in general, who can become immune to the pain and suffering of others. Maybe as a nation, we suffered so much trauma that individuals within our society showed these symptoms.” Carner also drives home the incongruity she sees between Jewishness and sex work: “We view ourselves as a people of virtue and high values,” she says (whether this excludes the possibility of “virtue and high values” among non-Jewish sex workers, she does not elaborate).
With The Argentinian Prostitute Play, Glezer has tried to tell a story of right and wrong, and cast judgment on what is good, what is evil, and which evils can be forgiven in the right circumstances. In doing so, he has lost sight of the human scale of those who inhabit both his play and the historical record, and the relevance this history does have to our world today. Meanwhile, the history of Jewish women prostitutes in Eastern Europe and Latin America, and the stories of their lives and choices, have yet to be told.