An Epic Novel-Turned-Celebrated-Play Puts a Jewish Face on the Supposed Evils of Capitalism

September 24, 2020 | Adam Kirsch
About the author: Adam Kirsch, a poet and literary critic, is the author of, among other books, Benjamin Disraeli and The People and The Books: Eighteen Classics of Jewish Literature.

Originally written in Italian in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, Stefano Massini’s single-volume verse novel The Lehman Trilogy has recently appeared in English. Later adopted for the stage, it won much praise when it appeared at London’s National Theater in 2018. Both book and play tell, with a heavy dose of poetic license, the story of the Lehman brothers—founders and namesakes of the once-great investment bank was named—and their descendants. In Massini’s hands, their remarkable rags-to-riches story becomes what Adam Kirsch calls a “didactic pageant about capitalism, America, modernity—and Jewishness, which plays an unsavory role in the proceedings.” Kirsch writes:

The Lehman Trilogy draws [an] equation between Judaism and capitalism, repeatedly using the imagery and vocabulary of one to describe the other. This tendency was toned down somewhat in Sam Mendes’s version of the play at the National Theatre, but in the novel, it is unavoidable. . . . The New York Stock Exchange is “a synagogue/ with ceilings higher than a synagogue.” Lehman Brothers’ publicity strategy is “the bank’s new Talmud.” Business successes are greeted with cries of “Barukh HaShem,” and at the end of the book, the ghosts of Lehmans past gather to recite kaddish for their dead bank. “This is the famous Wall-Street tribe/ bloodthirsty, cruel people/ known for their human sacrifices,” says a figure in a dream-scene parody of King Kong, with Bobbie Lehman playing the role of the ape.

Massini seems to intend such conflations of Judaism and capitalism as a critique of the latter rather than the former. In The Lehman Trilogy, Jewish practice is one of the humane things that melts into air under capitalism; for instance, full-fledged mourning in the family’s early years shrinks to a perfunctory moment of silence in the later ones. Massini is a Catholic, but he prides himself on his Jewish knowledge, referring to mourning as “shiva and sh’loshim” and giving most chapters Hebrew or Yiddish titles. . . . But these signs of affection for Judaism strike a discordant note in a story that refurbishes the old tropes of left-wing anti-Semitism for a new audience.

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