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The Brothel-Owner and the Milkman

Susan Reimer-Torn
April 28, 2017


by Susan Reimer-Torn

ON MARCH 26, 1923, shortly before curtain time, the cast and producers of Sholem Asch’s play, God of Vengeance (pictured above) were arrested by a vice squad and thrown into jail to await trial on obscenity charges. The arrest took place fifteen days after the Yiddish play had its English-language debut on the Great White Way, with hopes of crossing over to the American mainstream. It would not be not until the 1964 production of Fiddler on the Roof that a play depicting the traditional Jewish world of Eastern Europe enjoyed a long-running triumph on Broadway, eventually enchanting crossover audiences worldwide. In the shared themes and subtle differences between these two plays, we can find clues to their very different fates.

Got fun nekome (“God of Vengeance”) is a tale of brothels, unscrupulous rabbis, and lost faith, written by the 27-year old Asch in 1907. The play tells the story of a hypocritical Jewish brothel- owner who seeks to preserve his own family’s “purity” by keeping his daughter on a short leash and paying to have a Torah scroll written, only to have his dreams of piety and bourgeois gentility shattered. Within two decades, the play had been produced to great acclaim all over Europe and Scandinavia, with its original Yiddish script translated into several languages. The first non-Yiddish version was mounted in German by no less a theatrical luminary than Max Reinhardt, whose production created a sensation at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin in 1910. After playing to so many sophisticated audiences, why would the play be shut down in midtown Manhattan, even after a favorable reception by major New York critics?

The play’s alleged offense was sexual indecency: For the first time ever, two women, one a prostitute and the other the brothel owner’s daughter, shared a long, passionate kiss on stage. This violation of the moral code, sacred to puritanical Americans if not to their hopelessly decadent European counterparts, served as a workable pretext to throw the director and thirteen actors into the slammer, later to be freed on $300 bail, to await trial. Their indictments ignited a free-speech campaign led by Harvey Weinberger, the show’s producer and a famous civil rights advocate, who took on the censors in a legal battle. (Meanwhile, once bail was posted, performances resumed and the publicity was arguably a plus for box-office receipts.)

The campaign against God of Vengeance was spearheaded by Rabbi Joseph Silverman, spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El, the most prestigious and wealthy congregation in America. Silverman contacted his friend the district attorney, and together they cooked up the obscenity charges, prompting fast action by the vice squad. It is tempting to conclude that the more genteel members of the Jewish community were mortified by the brutish, criminal-minded Jews in Asch’s drama, but while public shame on the part of the German-Jewish community, surely played a part, a closer look at Silverman and his milieu reveals more complex stakes.

SILVERMAN was not a self-protecting elitist with his head in the sand. In 1895, he distinguished himself with an unusually interventionist shout-out to Jews urging them to show solidarity with Armenians who were being massacred by the Turks. He famously decried the tendency “to divide man into stronger, weaker, upper and lower classes,” while “nature often breaks through all banks and shows us, beneath the exterior clock of form, a simple, finite mortal man. We are all alike before God.” If Rabbi Silverman railed against Asch’s raw play as “libelling Jews,” it was largely in response to the rising xenophobia of his day.

The fate of Jewish immigration to the U.S. was being debated in Washington. Within a year of the vice-squad raid, Congress would enact the Johnson-Reed Act, instituting discriminatory immigration quotas based on the racist and antisemitic theory of eugenics. Silverman was trying to forestall the calamitous consequences for Jews, which were nonetheless realized in the form of restrictive quotas that would ultimately help condemn millions to the Nazis’ death camps.

The Jewish opposition to the play might best be understood in contemporary terms by recasting the setting and characters: Imagine the effect today of a well-crafted play about Muslims that featured honor killings and money laundering, just as the travel ban and immigration quotas are being debated on Capital Hill. Does the right to free speech and artistic expression override the damage such a portrayal might inadvertently cause?

THIS PAST New York theater season brought God of Vengeance and its turbulent history back into the spotlight. A newer play, Indecent, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel, was a smash hit at the Vineyard Theater in the spring of 2016 and opened on Broadway this month. Co-created with director Rebecca Taichman, Indecent explores the controversial historical events surrounding the 1923 production of God of Vengeance. (Paula Vogel likes to describe Indecent as “product placement” for the Yiddish play within her play.)

Almost simultaneously, the New Yiddish Rep produced the original Got fun nekome at LaMama and in a less cramped staging at St. Clements Church, with Asch’s 1910 text declaimed once again in multi-accented mameloshn by a variegated cast while English subtitles were projected on screens. In a post-performance talk-back at St. Clements, Vogel pronounced Asch’s work, “one of the great plays ever written in any language.”

All this theatrical activity has generated much commentary on Asch’s play and the many social forces at work in 1923 that led to its shutdown. Vogel likes to calls it “a perfect storm,” because just as Jewish theater artists were venturing uptown, eager to offer the raw and compelling human truths unique to Yiddish theater, Henry Ford was widely propagating his antisemitic propaganda about the international conspiracy of Jews. “Today there is also a perfect storm,” Vogel told her audience, “with anti-immigration, anti-women, anti-gay, antisemitic know- nothings. We are coming back full circle.”

Vogel does not side with either the 1923 censors or their opponents. She does say, “Theater was and is the canary in the mines; when it is attacked, alarms go off.” But while thoughtful people still line up on both sides of the free-speech debate, in Indecent and off-stage, Vogel explores some of the less obvious reasons this particular play provoked censorship.

She refers to the serious Yiddish theater’s long history of frank realism and unflinching psychological insight.Yiddish theater could do this with a certain safety, as it always had a bonded relationship with its audiences: “It was not so much communicating at them, as communing with them about things they knew,” says Vogel. Eastern European Jews were not concerned —not yet — with the image they were presenting to a wider world, and their much-loved plays, novels and poems were heretofore relatively unexposed to uptown arbiters of American Jewish culture.

God of Vengeance’s debut on Broadway was a game-changer. There were those like Rabbi Silverman who thought it gravely unwise to depict Jews as violent criminals, religious hypocrites, prostitutes, and pimps. Others saw in Asch’s depiction of his characters — particularly his women — an inspired, even an uplifting, window onto humanity.

Vogel, who is Jewish and gay, wonders “when we will live in a world in which we don’t have to worry about our communities being presented with their paradoxes.”

GOD OF VENGEANCE goes beyond an unflattering picture of its Jewish characters. It also plays fast and loose with gender stereotypes. By 1923, there had been plenty of plays with “working girls” in full view of Broadway audiences, including George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession. None of these were brought up on obscenity charges. Was the difference really the lesbian kiss?

Surely, it was easier to indict the homoerotic kiss than to confront the disquietude produced by these young women. Far from stock characters, they are full-fledged human beings with endearing personalities and impressive insight into the circumstances of their lives. One explains that she feels more free in the brothel than she did under the tyranny of her male-run household. They dream of their departed mothers, recite poems, and rush out into the spring rain, speaking of their longing and sensuality in lyrical tones. We understand the abuse and limited choices that brought them to the brothel, and we exult with them in their moments of stolen sisterhood and freedom.

The relationship between Rivkele, the brothel owner’s coming-of-age daughter, and Menke, who lives and works downstairs, has gorgeously erotic overtones. Yet it is in no way sensationalist. It is a portrait of two kindred souls seeing one another’s beauty in an achingly tender encounter. When Rivkele seeks Menke, she is longing for a true home. Their erotic friendship is a seduction of mind and body, wherein both abused women find sanctuary.

Asch wrote, “The[ir] kiss is not only an erotic one. It is the unconscious mother love of which they have been deprived.” Vogel remembers being blown away by the relationship between the two women when she first read the play as a student at Yale decades ago, just as she was coming into her own lesbian identity. “I still think it’s the greatest love scene between two women I’ve ever read,” she says.

Asch showed remarkable insight about their mutual attraction while defending the play from obscenity charges: “This is the innocent longing for sin and the sinful dreaming of purity. Menke loves the clean soul of Rivkele and Rivkele longs to stand near the door of such a woman as Menke and listen within.” Rebecca Taichman, Indecent’s director, concurs. “I believe that for Asch, the love between two women was the purest love that could exist in the world,” she says.

In the New Yiddish Rep production, Shayna Schmidt plays Rivkele as withdrawn, introspective, and protective of her emergent and somewhat mysterious personhood. She is not played as she was in the past, as a passive victim of Menke’s and the rogue pimp’s advances. Rivkele is a young woman with her own budding, if muted, sensibilities, who reaches out to the world beyond her father’s tyranny. Manke helps Rivkele step over the threshold to self-discovery and a taste of freedom.

Asch’s depiction of these women may have startled audiences. But it’s likely that what terrified them was the spectacle of manhood unraveling. This is not merely a matter of a play’s sleazy criminal types, something to which audiences were well accustomed. What they needed to shut down was Asch’s attack on the self-image of the Jewish American male.

A COMPARISON with the much warmer reception of Fiddler on the Roof is revealing. At first glance, the much-loved 1960s musical, based on stories by Sholem Aleichem, has little in common with Asch’s drama beyond the Yiddish-language sources and their setting in a world of traditional European Jewry. Both plays made it to Broadway, albeit decades apart. Why did one have to struggle for its right to be seen while the other was embraced?

The initial contrast in sensibilities is stark: Fiddler’s protagonist, Tevye, is a downtrodden, humble, gently philosophical milkman who trudges and toils while indulging in mildly-challenging arguments with God. Yankl, the central anti-hero of Asch’s play, is an abusive, violently tormented owner of a brothel who is out to strong-arm his God into a deal: Yankl will use his ill-gotten gains to sponsor a Torah scroll, which will, in turn, keep his daughter Rivkele untainted so that she may be given in marriage, along with a fat dowry, to a scholar and become the mother of children who will assure their grandfather’s sorely-needed redemption.

A closer look at the two plays reveals that they do, in spite of obvious differences in tone and sensibility, share a central theme: Both are father-daughter stories about men destabilized by their little girls’ sexual ripening. In the classical manner of a King Lear mistrusting Cordelia, or of Shylock fretting over Jessica, not to mention many a Talmudic sage discomfited by a female offspring’s beauty, these men are disarmed by the question of whether their daughters will respect or betray, honor or humiliate them. It is only a daughter who can redeem their shortcomings ­— or, if she chooses, deal a death blow to all that holds up the increasingly shaky pillars of the paternal world. Her prerogatives are dictated by her own desire, her desirability, and ultimately, by how she uses those powers.

When faced with his daughters’ heretical matrimonial choices, Tevye reasons, while Yankl takes off his belt and rages. Tevye politely argues with God, while Yankl disavows the God of Vengeance, whom he can no longer appease with his conniving.

When his third daughter marries a non-Jew, however, Tevye draws a line in the sand and disowns her. His heart is broken, but his dignity is intact. By comparison, Yankl the brothel owner has no heart, only a bottomless pit of moreh, fear of divine retribution. From his first encounter with Rivkele in the play, he has to persuade her to approach him, repeatedly assuring her that he will not hurt her. Past experience has taught her to keep her distance. When he suspects “deviant” behavior, Yankl beats not only Rivkele but also her guilty-by-association mother, herself a former prostitute whom he cynically married but considers forever tarnished.

For Yankl, there is only one path to redemption, and he is perversely obsessed with it: Rivkele his daughter. She is not a person or even a girl, but is referred to as di besula, a Hebrew-Yiddish word that means “the virgin.”

When his scheme unravels, he loses all agency and sinks into stammering, befuddled impotence. As opposed to his pro-active wife, who arranges for Rivkele’s return, Yankl is disarmed. He stares into space, repeating the same blasphemous words over and over. In these scenes, we see the charlatan behind the brute, the utter fallibility of the tyrant, the castration of the father whose presumed strength has failed him. In his despondency, Yankl even desecrates the Torah scroll.

Such disturbing male mental disintegration is best kept out of sight, while Tevye, with his manly determination and dignified heartbreak, entertains empathic audiences worldwide.

In one of the play’s most powerful scenes, Yankl confronts Rivkele when she returns from her time with Menke. “Are you pure?” the deranged father shouts at his daughter over and over. After a long silence, she finally responds, clear as a bell: “I don’t know.” We have entered a world where pure and impure are no longer fixed, diametrically opposed categories. Rivkele — and, by extension, the other women — are inaugurating an alternative world with shifting, ambiguous, poetic values that threaten everything Yankl and his ilk have come to rely upon. At the end, she packs up a suitcase and leaves, and with her breakaway, Yankl and his world are shattered.

ASCH’S GREAT-GRANDSON, David Mazower, now a senior staff journalist at the BBC and commentator on Yiddish culture, emphasizes how Asch was ahead of his time when it came to writing about women. At an interview in the archives of the Yiddish Book Center, he reflects on Asch’s “groundbreaking perspective,” his ability to see life from women’s point of view, something that Mazower’s grandmother, who was Asch’s daughter, always confirmed.

The cluelessness of the esteemed Forward editor, Abraham Cahan, is revealed in his 1918 introduction to the play. Attesting to the very advanced nature of Asch’s views. Cahan’s describes Yankl as a man gripped by spiritual conflict, “a creature of the gutter stirred by the noblest ambition known to a father in the world of Orthodox Jewry.” He does not seem to grasp Asch’s critique of these so-called noble ambitions. For Asch, with his natural empathy for women’s lives, fetishizing a daughter’s “purity” falls far short of paternal nobility.

Escaping paternal tyranny within an Orthodox world is a theme that takes on particular relevance in the recent productions. Five of the current actors are themselves self-exiles from the khasidic world (hence their fluency in vernacular Yiddish.) Melissa Weisz who plays Menke with restrained but alluring sensuality, left an arranged marriage and the highly insular Satmar world of Brooklyn to attend college and become an actress. Weisz commented to the New York Times that she is frequently brought to tears reliving a story of father-daughter estrangement that that so painfully echoes her own. Malke Goldman (a stage name), who plays another young prostitute, has also left the world of ultra-Orthodoxy, as have three of the young male actors. Their affinity with the story-line informs their acting, as each time they enter that hermetic world and enact the decision to leave, they revisit its emotional fall-out.

Sholem Asch’s career, while never again quite so controversial, was prolific well after the Broadway adventures of Got fun nekome. In one of his later plays, Jephte’s Daughter, he returns to the theme of fathers and daughters, this time in a variation on a well-known Biblical tale of literal child sacrifice. While most literary treatments of the classic theme bemoan the loss of the daughter’s life due to her father’s impetuosity, Asch once again is on the cutting edge. In his version, the daughter is willingly sacrificed, not to the god of Abraham or her own father, but to Moloch the sybaritic pagan deity worshipped by her mother. In A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature, we read, “The daughter rejoices in the father’s vow and is glad to answer the wild call of Moloch, the savage sun-god whose fiery darts warm her longing limbs.”

We have only to imagine what the vice squad would have made of all that.

Susan Reimer-Torn is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and the author of Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return.