“Indecent” Tells a False Story about a Yiddish Drama

In 1906, the great Yiddish writer Sholem Asch wrote a play called God of Vengeance about the owner of a brothel and his attempt to preserve his family’s respectability despite his profession—an attempt that ultimately fails when his daughter falls in love with one of his employees. When the play was eventually performed in New York in English, it was banned and some of the cast members briefly jailed. The play Indecent, which recently had its Broadway debut, purports to tell the story of this play and the scandal around it. While praising Indecent’s artistic merits, Edward Rothstein finds it ultimately both unconvincing and unfaithful to the dramatic work it sets out to celebrate:

Indecent distorts Asch’s play, presenting it as if it were primarily about tyranny vs. liberation. The tyranny is evident in the father who strikes his daughter and condemns her to join his troupe of trollops; the freedom is evident in the lesbian love scene. But Asch’s play has other concerns. Yekel, [the father], not only runs the brothel but his wife is a former prostitute. They bring up their daughter Rifkele to be untainted by their “sins.” The title God of Vengeance refers to Yekel’s fear that God will take revenge on him by luring Rifkele into his other world. And indeed, as his wife speaks with her, Rifkele, unseen, is being passionately kissed by the prostitute she loves. [And] the prostitute is seducing Rifkele to run away to another whorehouse (“You’ll see how nice everything will be. Young folks will be there aplenty—army officers—and we’ll be together”). This is quite different from the scene of liberation portrayed in Indecent.

Indecent also misses another issue. What bothered [Asch’s mentor, the Yiddish writer I.L.] Peretz [about the play] was not the brothel or lesbian sexuality. He objected to Asch’s distortions of Jewish belief in order to lure a non-Jewish audience, making Yekel melodramatically absurd. Indecent simplifies matters further: it isolates a single fragment of the play that strips Yekel of any humanity: he is simply an Orthodox tyrant—thus creating yet another distortion for yet another audience.

In a note posted outside the theater and supplied to critics, [the playwright] Paula Vogel emphasizes the effect Asch’s treatment of lesbian love had on her and suggests that the relevance of Indecent is particularly evident today given “an upheaval of fear, xenophobia, homophobia, and yes, anti-Semitism.” Unfortunately, such concerns were also grafted onto both story and history displacing Asch’s ambiguous, troubling drama with a contemporary political morality play. This is worth keeping in mind, though Indecent is so suited to contemporary sentiments and so finely executed, its pedagogy will likely go unnoticed.

Read more at Wall Street Journal

More about: Arts & Culture, I.L. Peretz, Sholem Asch, Theater, Yiddish theater

Universities Are in Thrall to a Constituency That Sees Israel as an Affront to Its Identity

Commenting on the hearings of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on Tuesday about anti-Semitism on college campuses, and the dismaying testimony of three university presidents, Jonah Goldberg writes:

If some retrograde poltroon called for lynching black people or, heck, if they simply used the wrong adjective to describe black people, the all-seeing panopticon would spot it and deploy whatever resources were required to deal with the problem. If the spark of intolerance flickered even for a moment and offended the transgendered, the Muslim, the neurodivergent, or whomever, the fire-suppression systems would rain down the retardant foams of justice and enlightenment. But calls for liquidating the Jews? Those reside outside the sensory spectrum of the system.

It’s ironic that the term colorblind is “problematic” for these institutions such that the monitoring systems will spot any hint of it, in or out of the classroom (or admissions!). But actual intolerance for Jews is lathered with a kind of stealth paint that renders the same systems Jew-blind.

I can understand the predicament. The receptors on the Islamophobia sensors have been set to 11 for so long, a constituency has built up around it. This constituency—which is multi-ethnic, non-denominational, and well entrenched among students, administrators, and faculty alike—sees Israel and the non-Israeli Jews who tolerate its existence as an affront to their worldview and Muslim “identity.” . . . Blaming the Jews for all manner of evils, including the shortcomings of the people who scapegoat Jews, is protected because, at minimum, it’s a “personal truth,” and for some just the plain truth. But taking offense at such things is evidence of a mulish inability to understand the “context.”

Shocking as all that is, Goldberg goes on to argue, the anti-Semitism is merely a “symptom” of the insidious ideology that has taken over much of the universities as well as an important segment of the hard left. And Jews make the easiest targets.

Read more at Dispatch

More about: Anti-Semitism, Israel on campus, University