God of Vengeance 88 224.
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It's been 100 years since Sholem Asch's angry melodrama God of Vengeance was first published. "Burn it," Asch's mentor I.L. Peretz advised the young playwright at its first reading in 1906. When the play premiered on Broadway in 1922, the critics called it "ugly, sordid and repellent," and the production was closed; the cast and crew were arrested, convicted and fined on obscenity charges. As late as the 1990s, its plot was still able to evoke outrage from Jewish audiences - and these were Jewish theater company productions.
In 1992, the Beersheva theater presented the play for the first time. Now, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Asch's death, the Yoram Loewenstein Studio production will premiere God of Vengeance at the Sholem Asch Museum in Bat Yam.
Why all the outrage? Perhaps because God of Vengeance reveals the seamy, unspoken and provocative elements that exist in the Jewish world: pimps, prostitution, domestic violence and the first ever onstage lesbian love-scene.
Its protagonist, Yankel Chapchovich, makes a good living from his brothel downstairs and has decided to make a bargain with God. His only daughter Rivkele has been brought up pure and chaste. To ensure a respectable marriage for her, and for the expiation of his sins, Yankel has paid for the inscription of a Torah scroll. But all turns to slag. Rivkele runs away, seduced by her friend and then lover, Manke, one of Yankel's whores.
Despite the widespread shock, Yiddish audiences delighted in the play from its first performance in 1907. It was quickly translated into several languages and has had successful runs all over Europe.
But it's not the subject matter that keeps the play alive, says Stephen Fife, whose English language adaptation of the Yiddish original was performed in New York and Atlanta. "Some of the characters either bargain with God, or own him in that they all have their subjective version of who God is. I think that's why the play has survived, because it takes a serious look at Jewish belief. There's a constant dynamism between kosher and treyf, between pure and impure. Life can't be divided so easily."
Fife attended the the Yoram Loewenstein Studio's production when it was first presented in June. This production, he feels, "is much more specific and connected" than the productions in New York and Atlanta that had "no sense of populating a real world." Director Lilach Segal's characters "have a real sense of what it means to be Orthodox and what it means to go out of bounds, to transgress."
For Segal, Loewenstein's second in command, God of Vengeance is very much about "people's thirst for salvation. The religious element is very strong, the idea of a true repentance, not just the form of it."
There is also the idea of, at the least, a better life for the children; an idea that must have resonated with the many immigrant Jewish communities in the early 20th century.
Fife is Jewish, was raised in Manhattan, and is still somewhat a struggling playwright despite the critical success of God of Vengeance and two other produced plays. New York's Jewish Repertory Theater commissioned him to do a new adaptation of the play for its 18th anniversary in 1992. He'd read the play in college, he recalls, "but not carefully. This time I was amazed by Asch's fearlessness, since he was part of his community."
Nobody really knows what impelled God of Vengeance say both Fife and Segal, "but all his plays," Segal points out, "were written from his love for people and his belief that the separation [caused by] religion is what creates enmity and alienation between them."
God of Vengeance can be seen at the Yoram Loewenstein Studio from October 8-22. For tickets call: 03-688-6514. There is also a presentation at the Bat Yam Auditorium on November 6.
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