This past February 14th marked the 116th anniversary of the publication of Theodor Herzl’s manifesto The Jewish State, which lay the groundwork for the modern Zionist movement and the state of Israel. That same evening a special event took place in the Jerusalem Theater: a performance of Herzl’s play The New Ghetto, written in 1894, just a few short weeks before he began composing The Jewish State. It is commonly understood that the turning point for Herzl—the moment he realized there was no escaping from anti-Semitism even in enlightened Western Europe—was the Dreyfus Affair that began in the fall of 1894. Yet The New Ghetto, written shortly beforehand, is proof that, as some scholars have argued, a proto-Zionist sensibility had already been roiling in Herzl’s mind.
Last month’s production was a historic privilege for those who attended it: it was the first time the play has ever been performed in Israel. (More on the nature of the performance in a moment.) The New Ghetto tells the story of Jacob Samuel, an assimilated, well-to-do Viennese Jewish lawyer who finds himself caught between the literal and figurative ghetto of the Jewish community and the non-Jewish world outside it. The play depicts events that follow Samuel’s wedding to Hermine Heilman, the daughter of a prominent Jewish businessman. Hermine chose to marry Samuel over Wasserstein, an uncouth stock trader who is obsessed with making money and thereby embodies the Jewish stereotypes so widespread in Western Europe at the time. Samuel, on the other hand, is an honorable man who is moved to respond to the suffering of others, even when his law practice suffers as a result. He seeks to earn the approval of his non-Jewish peers and to echo their aristocratic values in his own conduct. But they never grant him that approval, with one good friend Franz breaking off their friendship because it might hinder his nascent political career in an anti-Semitic, nationalist political party.
The play is full of such references to events that took place in the time of its writing, like the duels that were occasionally provoked against Jews by anti-Semitic Austrians. In one, Armand Mayer, a refined young Jewish officer in the French engineering corps, was killed by the Marquis de More, a far more experienced swordsman and founder of the Anti-Semitic League of France. Such events, shrouded in the veneer of nobility, were in fact brutal acts of anti-Semitic aggression. In The New Ghetto, Samuel is initially provoked into a duel by the craven Count von Schramm, only to ignominiously extricate himself by apologizing. That works once, but, by the end of the play, Samuel feels compelled to accept another duel, in which he dies. His words, among the final lines of the play, are prescient: “Jews, my brothers, you will only be allowed to live again when you . . .” At this point in Herzl’s final version Samuel trails off, leaving unspoken the words “learn to die” that had existed in an earlier draft (and that were restored in Jerusalem Theater production I saw).
The content of The New Ghetto was a departure for Herzl, who had never before publicly associated himself with the plight of the Jews in so forthright a manner. In many ways he resembled his play’s protagonist Jacob Samuel: assimilated, worldly, interested in the approval of polite Gentile society and put-off by the overly parochial concerns of his fellow Jews. The play seems to be the working out of this psychodrama; the final duel is a moment of catharsis wherein Samuel excises his desperate need to fit in among European society and is thus able to escape identifying with a nation that ultimately does not want him. In part for such reasons, the original performances in both Vienna and Germany ruffled feathers. The prominent Viennese-Jewish playwright Arthur Schnitzler, a friend of Herzl’s, objected to the play’s disturbing closing lines and to its flawed and sometimes unsympathetic Jewish characters.
On others it had a more positive and profound impact. In The Interpretation of Dreams Sigmund Freud, a contemporary of Herzl’s, describes the effect a performance of The New Ghetto had on him. The play left him with “a tangle of thoughts” that produced a dream in which he was forced to rescue his own children from the ancient city of Rome. To him that meant a “concern about the future of one’s children to whom one cannot give a country of their own, concern about raising them so they may become independent.” At this point Freud differed from Herzl, seeing the solution to the Jewish question as something to be dealt with psychologically rather than politically. And along psychological lines the play indeed shines a light on the pathologies that inhere in supposedly enlightened Western societies, and how Jews are also not immune to the effect of these pathologies, which result in bifurcated identities and unhealthy feelings toward Judaism and other Jews. Such insights regarding assimilation and Jewish identify are still relevant, especially for Jews living in the Diaspora.
This was made quite clear by the Jerusalem Theater revival last month. The revival is thanks to the efforts of Yehuda Moraly, a retired professor of theater at Hebrew University and the founder of a project to translate forgotten German, French, Yiddish, and English plays of Jewish interest into modern Hebrew and to produce them in Israel. He and his wife Sara are responsible for the new translation of The New Ghetto. The previous version, translated in 1898 by the Hebrew and Yiddish writer Reuben Brainin, though a fascinating time capsule into the biblically infused Hebrew of Eliezer ben Yehuda’s time, is necessarily heavy handed; the modern Hebrew version, on the other hand, is both punchy and evocative. (Until now, an accessible English translation of The New Ghetto has been difficult to come by. Luckily, that will change with the release next year of a new comprehensive volume of Herzl’s work, called Herzl’s Zionist Writings, which contains a fresh and dynamic translation of The New Ghetto by Uri Bollag.)
Clearly on a shoestring budget, the Mikro theatrical ensemble performed the play as something closer to a reading than a full-blown theatrical production. Background scenery took the form of projections of period film footage, while musical accompaniment was provided by an excellent piano player who doubled as the character Rabbi Friedhamer. The actors themselves cleaned up after the production, lifting tables and chairs and returning them to their backstage location. Despite or because of this, there were touches of the sublime. Wasserstein in particular—the traditionally minded, and money-obsessed Jew who could easily be portrayed as a buffoon—was played with sympathy and pathos by Kerem Wilder. In a departure from Herzl’s original script, Moraly has him cry out the sh’ma after Samuel suffers his final defeat, an inversion and transformation of stock Jewish tropes amplified by the performance’s presence on Israeli soil.
Herzl’s original play ends with the death of Jacob and his desperate and futile wish to escape the ghetto. Moraly’s production instead has the actors gather afterwards together to sing a song by the great Israeli songwriter Naomi Shemer based on a poem by the Russian-born Hebrew poet Shaul Tchernichovsky, himself a contemporary of Herzl. The song, “Omrim, Yeshna Eretz” (“They Say, There is a Land”), is an Israeli classic and an ode to the Land of Israel that expresses a longing to fulfill ancient prophecies of return. Its appearance at the end of the play was a powerful move. The sight of the semi-professional Israel actors performing The New Ghetto, their casual, ad-hoc energy more a product of modern Israel than of stuffy bourgeois Vienna, their ease with their Jewish identities, their willingness to break into a classic Israeli folk song with only dubious connection to the world of the play—all these testify to the success of Herzl’s vision. The audience took great pleasure in the production, with applause that lingered beyond what is customary.
I too was moved by the play and, like Freud, I experienced a bit of the uncanny feeling that I had heard this or seen this before. This was not only because of the primal sense of alienation, the condition of the “wandering Jew” that Herzl brings to the surface in his play, but also because the content is in fact familiar in a literal sense as well. Two years ago, the great British playwright Tom Stoppard released a play called Leopoldstadt, named after the traditionally Jewish neighborhood in Vienna, which he announced would be his final play. Stoppard, the author of Arcadia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and the Academy Award-winning film Shakespeare in Love, has described the writing of Leopoldstadt as “unfinished business,” a reckoning with a Jewish history that few of his fans even knew existed. Stoppard was born Jewish, to a traditional Czechoslovakian family that was forced to flee Europe in World War II, first to Singapore and then to India. While overseas, Stoppard’s father volunteered as a doctor in the British military and was killed in an attack by a Japanese submarine. His mother remarried an Englishman named Kenneth Stoppard, and Stoppard was subsequently raised from the age of nine in English boarding schools and the Anglican faith.
Leopoldstadt was formerly Vienna’s Jewish ghetto—the same ghetto to which The New Ghetto obliquely refers. Stoppard’s play is mostly not set there, though. Instead it takes place in the refined Vienna drawing room of a wealthy assimilated Jewish family. It begins at the turn of the 20th century and runs through several generations from the First World War until just after the Holocaust. At the center of the drama is Hermann Merz, a wealthy factory owner who converted to Christianity to try to break into aristocratic Austrian society. He is married to Gretl, a Gentile Austrian woman of noble extraction. Among their extended family are others who have married out. Symbolizing this, at the start of the play, the apartment contains a Christmas tree that Hermann’s son Jacob has decorated with a Jewish star.
This moment, in 1899, is roughly contemporaneous with the Third Zionist Congress, and the specter of Herzl himself hovers over Leopoldstadt, sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly, sometimes in derision, sometimes in praise. Hermann believes that Austria, not Palestine is the Promised Land. “Don’t fall for this Judenstaat idiocy” he tells his brother-in-law Ludwig, a mathematician who despite his talent is unable to obtain full-professor status because he is Jewish. Hermann asks him, “Do you want to do mathematics in the desert or in the city where Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven overlapped, and Brahms used to come to our house?” Hermann states with confidence that
the 20th century is upon us, and centuries don’t come round again like the seasons. We wept by the waters of Babylon, but that’s gone, and everything after, expulsions, massacres, burnings, blood libels, gone like the Middle Ages—pogroms, ghettos, yellow patches . . . all rolled up and dumped like an old carpet, because Europe has gone past them.
Ludwig, for his part, hails from the world of East European Jewry, the Ostjuden, rather than cultured Vienna. He is not sure anti-Semitism is in its dying stages, and notes that while middle-class Austrian Jews reject Herzl’s writings, the Ostjuden of Eastern Europe are fascinated by them. “His book [is] is going around like an infection,” Ludwig tells Hermann. “A Jew can be a great composer. He can be the toast of the town. But he can’t not be a Jew. In the end, if it doesn’t catch up on him, it will catch up on his children. Ordinary Jews understand this.”
As Leopoldstadt unfolds, so many similarities to The New Ghetto appear that it seems as if Stoppard may be doing something similar for Herzl’s play to what he did so famously in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for Hamlet: expanding and commenting on a prior work. Like Herzl’s Jacob Samuel, Hermann Merz also narrowly avoids a duel with an Austrian cavalry officer. Unbeknownst to Hermann, this officer is also sleeping with his wife, and in a humiliating twist it is the officer who demurs, preferring not to lower himself to fight a Jew, especially one whom he is cuckolding. The names of central characters, such as Hermine and Jacob, are shared too; seen in this light, albeit with a squinted eye, even the surname Merz seems to evoke Herzl. And, of course, both plays have essentially the same title, and Leopoldstadt’s residents, even if they no longer physically inhabit this ghetto, are still subject to discrimination and oppression, in addition to their own mental entrapment. This new ghetto of the mind is in some ways just as burdensome as the physical one of the recent past: when faced with the complete failure of their dreams of assimilation, the central characters find it difficult to consider any alternative other than complete disintegration or death.
Leopoldstadt did not get the stage run it deserved, thanks to its release right before the COVID-19 lockdowns began. And what critical attention there was mostly focused on its devastating but inevitable conclusion—the Holocaust—rather than its dialogue with Herzl. One exception was a review published on the anti-Israel website Mondoweiss, which noted with approval that Herzl is largely kept to the margins of the play and that Hermann criticizes his “Judenstaat idiocy.” The idea that Stoppard actively rejects Zionism as a solution to anti-Semitism in the Diaspora is a tedious misreading. In fact, Stoppard understands and amplifies Herzl’s argument. Hermann’s critique of Herzl actually exposes the character’s own blind spots and delusions as someone who believes that it’s possible, and desirable, for Jews to relinquish their status as a separate people and nation and integrate fluidly into Western culture. The fate of Hermann’s descendants only sharpens this critical portrayal, which goes beyond politics. Stoppard depicts Jewish traditions like the Passover Seder and brit milah with tenderness. And when Hermann and Gretl, who live as Christians, finally attend a Passover seder as a family, Gretl delights in its beauty, and Hermann is forced to confront the fact that while he has downplayed his Jewishness to fit in with Gretl’s upper-class Austrian milieu, he has forsaken a treasure that is richer and more meaningful than he had understood.
The truth is that in some ways Leopoldstadt is even more Zionist a play than The New Ghetto, Stoppard having the benefit of hindsight that Herzl did not. He seems to invoke Herzl early on as representing another path, an alternative to the trajectory taken by the Merz family in Austria. This path, however, is soon crowded out, first by the snobbery and denial of Hermann and his family, and then by historical factors, like British restrictions and Arab intransigence, which put escape to Palestine out of reach. Yet on a level of substance, nothing really changes, and during the period following World War I. as conditions for the Merz family deteriorate, Jacob reflects “if the Jews had had a country like most people, they would have developed a society just like any country other country . . . and lived the usual sort of lives; but as perpetual outsiders they had no place at the table except to be the bank.”
By the end, Leopoldstadt reads like an expansion of The New Ghetto. The latter ends on a note of despair. “Only by dying will they let us live,” says Jacob Samuels. The former dramatizes how awful that death will look like—something even a visionary like Herzl did not imagine. But Leopoldstadt depicts it, ending with the near-decimation of the Merz family despite its talents and its success at integration. Toward the end, Leo, a Merz grandchild who is a likely stand-in for Stoppard himself, learns the game of cat’s cradle. As terror overtakes the family, he fiddles with the strings of his new game, still in the same drawing room, now overcrowded and ransacked of valuables by the Nazis after the Anschluss. His uncle Ludwig points out the hidden order that underlies the seemingly random overlap of strings: “Each state came out of the previous one. So there is order underneath. Mathematical order! But how can we discover it?” Each state out of the previous: this is something of a metaphor for Stoppard’s own artistic method, his conception of the Jewish experience, and perhaps even for the building up of the state of Israel out of the events that Herzl lived.
Leopoldstadt is a remarkable play. Aside from its dramatic merit, it expresses something of the inner life of a prominent playwright, hardly known for engaging with issues surrounding Jews or Judaism, as he works out his own Jewish identity and confronts with clarity the horrors of the Jewish experience in history. After I read it, I lamented to my husband, both of us new immigrants to Israel, how frustrating it is that we’re not likely to see it performed any time soon. But hopefully one day a Hebrew translation will allow Israeli audiences to appreciate it. If that happens, it will be fitting that we saw The New Ghetto first—and that we saw it not on Broadway or in the West End but in the Jerusalem Theater, watching a spirited group of young actors channel turn-of-the-century Vienna in modern Hebrew and sing a Naomi Shemer song to cap it off. Stoppard’s vision of Jewish history is a largely self-contained one, with repeated patterns of tragedy that would not be out of place in a Greek drama as well. Herzl, on the other hand, suggests that it is possible, on the rare and remarkable occasion, to break such patterns. Watching The New Ghetto, as its actors brought Herzl’s once-forgotten words to life, I was struck by an appreciation for a larger context in which his prophecies have come true.
More about: Arts & Culture, Israel & Zionism, Theater, Theodor Herzl