IN A 1951 ISSUE of the Israeli Yiddish journal, “Di Goldeni Kayt” (“The Golden Chain”), the prominent Yiddish writer, Sholem Asch (1880-1957), tells of the reaction of his literary mentor and hero, I. L. Peretz, to “God of Vengeance” (Got Fun Nekome), a play he had completed in Switzerland in the summer of 1906:
“I will never forget the Saturday afternoon when I read aloud in Peretz’s salon my play ‘God of Vengeance.’ When I finished, the entire room was still. Nobody said a word until Peretz called out: ‘Burn it, Asch, burn it.’ ”
How fortunate for theater-loving audiences that Asch did not follow Peretz’s advice. Of Asch’s more than 20 plays, “God of Vengeance” has been by far his best known and most frequently performed. By the time this play was first translated into English by Isaac Goldberg, in 1918, Got Fun Nekome had already been translated into Hebrew, German, Russian, Polish, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Italian and French.
Asch’s “God of Vengeance” has become famous or infamous the world over, depending upon one’s perspective. Those who admire the play praise its frank but sensitive treatment of such themes as lesbian love, prostitution, domestic abuse and the hypocrisy of organized religion – subjects rarely explored on stage in the early decades of the 20th century, especially in puritanical America. Indeed, not long after the first English production of “God of Vengeance” opened on Broadway in 1923, the “powers that be” declared the play ‘immoral” and arrested both management and members of the cast on obscenity charges.
In response to the allegation that “God of Vengeance” was “immoral and defamatory,” Asch defended his work in an open letter in “Opinions of Frank Crane and Other Prominent Men and Women” (New York, 1923): “I was not concerned whether I wrote a moral or immoral play, What I wanted to write was an artistic play and a true one…Jews do not need to clear themselves before anyone. They are as good and as bad as any race…I have written so many Jewish characters who are good and noble, that I cannot now, when writing of a “bad” one, make an exception and say that he is a Gentile.”
The so-called “bad” one to whom Asch is referring is Yekel Tchaftchovitch, who is the Jewish owner of a brothel in what is identified as “one of the larger towns of a Russian province.” He, along with his wife Sarah and their 17-year-old daughter Rivkele, live on the first floor of an old building, while four prostitutes ply their trade in the basement.
Asch portrays Yekel not so much as a “bad” man but rather as a “torn” man. On the one hand, Yekel is ashamed of his line of work and – by implication – ashamed of his wife Sarah, who was once herself a prostitute. On the other hand, his ownership of the brothel enables him to give generously to the Jewish community, whose rabbinical and lay leadership gladly accept his money while more or less turning a blind eye to its source.
In the first of three acts, Yekel arranges to purchase a Torah scroll, which he plans to keep in his daughter’s bedroom in order, through its holiness, to protect her purity and keep her away from the sordid goings-on in the brothel. Yekel vows to present this Torah to bride and groom on Rifkele’s wedding day as a guarantor of the sanctity of his daughter’s Jewish home. This Torah, though not assigned a single word in the script, is in many ways an independent and forceful character in the play.
In his preface to Isaac Goldberg’s 1918 English translation of “God of Vengeance,” Abraham Cahan, widely-read author and editor of the Yiddish paper, Jewish Daily Forward, comments on what he considers “the underlying principle of the new-born Jewish art…No human being is so utterly brutalized as to possess not a single spark worthy of the artist’s sympathetic, though ruthlessly impartial, attention…”
In his “sympathetic, though ruthlessly impartial” treatment of the four prostitutes in his play, Asch seems to epitomize Cahan’s vision of Yiddish art in his generation. During Act II, Hindel, the eldest of the four, calls out from her room to the others, “This is our way of making a living. And believe me, when one of us gets married, she is more faithful to her husband than any of the others. We know what a man is.” Further along in the same act, the four prostitutes run out to the street to dance in a May rain shower – a joyful act that appears if only for a moment – to cleanse them inside and out, to restore their lost innocence.
I am not the first person to sense that “God of Vengeance” is far more a play about questions than about answers. It seems to me that the central question in the play concerns the lesbian relationship between Rivkele and Manke, one of the four prostitutes “downstairs” – a relationship that Asch portrays as both physically passionate and emotionally tender.
Act III explores the implications of this relationship for Rivkele, for Manke, and for the other characters in the play – most especially, Rivkele’s heartbroken and increasingly deranged father. After his daughter’s unexplained disappearance for almost 24 hours, during which time she appears to have been intimate with Manke, Yekel, in mounting panic, demands an answer: “Are you –are you still as pure as when you left this house? Are you still a virtuous Jewish daughter? …Are you still a chaste Jewish daughter? – Tell me, at once!”
Attempting to cover her face, Rifkele replies: “I don’t know…,” her answer dressed in the dignity and the sorrow of her honesty.
At the end of the play, the audience can only echo Rivkele’s words, “I don’t know.” And the piercing pain of that unknowing keeps us humble, keeps us searching, keeps us human, keeps us alive.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is the rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.