A century after the groundbreaking Yiddish drama “God of Revenge” by Sholem Asch was performed at the Schenley Theater in Oakland (where Hillman Library now stands), the controversial play again was resonating with members of Jewish Pittsburgh.
During a Feb. 11 roundtable reading and discussion of Paula Vogel’s Tony Award-winning play “Indecent,” which will have its regional premiere at the Pittsburgh Public Theater in April, seven actors brought to life the story of the Jewish playwright and the actors who dared to break with the artistic mores of the American stage of the 1920s.
The reading, held at the Senator John Heinz History Center, was preceded by a snapshot of the vibrant Yiddish theater scene in Pittsburgh in the early 20th century, delivered by Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program and Archives. Through archival records, Lidji showed the significant scope and vitality of Yiddish theater here and its impact on connecting Pittsburgh’s 55,000 Jews to art and to each other.
More commonly translated as “God of Vengeance,” the drama featured the first same-sex kiss between women on Broadway, the desecration of a Torah, and was set in a brothel. “Indecent” chronicles that play from its origin in 1907 Warsaw, through its successful tour of Europe, its enthusiastic reception at a Greenwich Village theater, to its premiere, and then closure, at the Apollo Theater on Broadway, when it was shut down by the vice squad and its actors and producers arrested and successfully prosecuted for obscenity.
It is set against a backdrop of Jewish persecution in Europe, Jewish immigration quotas in the U.S., and the tenuous tightrope early 20th-century Jews walked between melding into American culture while retaining their own.
“Indecent” covers a lot of geographical, chronological and existential territory, asking not only what it means to be an artist, but what it means to be a Jew. It underscores issues of anti-Semitism, homophobia and censorship.
“When I first read this play, I was struck by the way it honors this extraordinary moment in history,” said Marya Sea Kaminski, artistic director of the Pittsburgh Public Theater.
“God of Revenge” came to Pittsburgh in 1920, three years before the obscenity trial, with a touring company that included world-renown actor Rudolph Schildkraut, Lidji said. He described what it must have been like for the Jews of Pittsburgh to head to Oakland to see “one of the most famous actors in the world” perform a play written by “one of the most famous playwrights.”
One hundred years later, members of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community — including congregants from the synagogues targeted in the Oct. 27 massacre, heads of local Jewish organizations, university scholars, artists and members of the LGBTQ community — discussed the themes emerging from the 45-minute reading of “Indecent” and their significance.
That Asch was the first Jewish playwright to be produced on Broadway, and his play was closed down for obscenity, resonated with attendees. Jewish characters in “Indecent” worry about Asch’s play representing Jews in a negative light, and as a result, fanning the flames of anti-Semitism.
“If you must throw stones,” one character says, “throw them outside the tent.”
The struggle of a Jew, another character says, “is how do we as Jews show ourselves as flawed and complex human beings?”
Jews must strive to be “paragons,” yet another character argues. When a story hits the newspaper of a person behaving immorally or illegally, the impulse is to hope he is not Jewish.
The issues are current, perennial.
In the discussion after the reading, one audience member commented: “It’s hard within the Jewish community to have conversations. There is a fear of airing your dirty laundry, of putting everyone in danger.”
The play articulates the precept that “you never expect [anti-Semitism] to happen to you until it does,” said Carnegie Mellon University student Adira Rosen, who discovered swastikas in a university library book while researching “God of Vengeance” several weeks ago. “Then you ask the question, ‘now what?’”
“God of Vengeance” is a play that “resonated around the world,” said Kaminski. “To have it resonate so deeply on a local level is inspiring to me.” Theater is best, she said, “when it is connected with civic experience and discourse.”
She intends to continue to partner with Lidji in expanding the conversation around “Indecent” and its rich and recurrent themes.
“We are always trying to find new ways to use the materials in the archive and to make them relevant to people today,” said Lidji. “This is a play that is steeped in history and it is a unique opportunity to show how history can become a work of art.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.