Paula Vogel Brings Her Love of Yiddish Center Stage
T. Charles Erickson / Huntington Avenue Theatre
By Robert Israel
At a performance of Paula Vogel’s one-act play Indecent, as the audience enters the auditorium, 10 men and women seated onstage appear as apparitions—some holding instruments, some wearing fedoras, all dressed in funereal sackcloth.1 They compose a minyan, or quorum, required by Jewish law before a worship service can begin.
As the stage lights brighten, this ghostly minyan announces they will perform multiple roles—Yiddish writers, actors, producers, a stage manager, a husband and wife, a rabbi, and lesbian lovers—to share a “true story of a little Jewish play.”
Awarding-winning playwright Paula Vogel structures Indecent as a play-within-a-play. She restages scenes from that “little Jewish play”—The God of Vengeance, penned in 1906 by Polish Yiddish playwright Sholem Asch (1880–1957)—and she crafts back-story scenes to show how Asch’s play was created, how it experienced triumphs and failures, and why it is worthy of being included among works by the twentieth century’s most pioneering writers. Asch’s play, Vogel argues, is a product of its time and ahead of its time in its recognition that human passion transcends gender barriers, and that it is also a necessary component to sustain the human spirit.
Vogel’s initial scenes introduce us to Asch as a member of the famed poet I. L. Peretz’s Warsaw literary salon. But when he presents his work to Peretz’s august gathering, everything goes wrong. His work is greeted with accusations of blasphemy. He is attacked for writing “Jewish anti-Semitism.” No wonder: Asch’s play attacks false piety through the character Yekel, a duplicitous Jewish patriarch. Yekel operates a brothel downstairs from his family’s residence and tries to atone for his sins by arranging to marry his daughter, Rifkele, to a pious suitor, only to learn she has fallen in love with Manke, one of the prostitutes in his brothel.
As Indecent progresses, Asch’s play is shown enjoying success throughout Europe and Russia in seeming defiance of the negative assessments of his peers. His star is on the rise. But when his play reaches America in 1923, it is banned. Like those earlier critics in Warsaw, fellow Jews demand that the play close. A rabbi takes to his pulpit and condemns the work. After its premiere on Broadway, the play is shuttered, and the cast is arrested on charges of obscenity.
There are tender scenes of women embracing and kissing, a first for Broadway in the 1920s, and one of the reasons The God of Vengeance was banned.
While Indecent’s overall tone is solemn, there are moments, peppered throughout the play, when the cast bursts into singing and dancing to the rhythms of klezmer music (composed by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva), changing the mood to one of community connection and celebration. Indecent also tells the love story of two women. There are tender scenes of women embracing and kissing, a first for Broadway in the 1920s, and one of the reasons The God of Vengeance was banned. A final scene involves the two women locked in an embrace in the rain, surrendering to a downpour of passion amid the chaos.
Vogel’s exhaustive research into Asch and his era is conveyed to the audience via superscripts (in both Yiddish and English) projected onto the rear wall of the stage. This visual device allows her to alert the audience to transitions and to show that Asch was among other artists in challenging the era’s repressive, parochial thinking. A cast member appears as American playwright (and later Nobel laureate in literature) Eugene O’Neill.2 Hunkered down in a lower Manhattan bar, an embattled O’Neill claims he is sympathetic to Asch’s dilemma but insists he is unable to help his fellow writer.
Before final curtain, the players, who have affixed yellow Stars of David to their lapels, perform a scene set in the Lódź ghetto where they await their fate under murderous Nazi overlords. Hidden from casual scrutiny, they choose to rehearse The God of Vengeance. They share bits of stale bread. By candlelight, they read Asch’s lines aloud.
The play comes full circle. The apparitional minyan of players at the play’s onset faces us again as if from their graves. Concealed in the linings of their baggy clothes are ashes that cascade to the stage floor, collecting in dry heaps at their feet. Vogel’s final message: we live in a dangerous world, and our survival depends on passionately clinging to faith and art as lifelines to our humanity.
Vogel’s Indecent earned two tony Awards during its 2017 New York run.3 It is yet another ambitious work by a dramatist who has won multiple awards, including the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for How I Learned to Drive and an Obie Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2017.
While winning over audiences and critics, Vogel has dedicated her career to championing diversity and inclusivity in the American theater. She is also committed to preserving the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, and with celebrating her love of Yiddish.
“I heard Yiddish spoken while sitting at my grandmother’s knee when she told me the meanings of words I wasn’t supposed to repeat in polite company,” Vogel said in an interview.4 “This is the same Yiddish that Sholem Asch wrote. It was not the High Yiddish of poet I. L. Peretz or novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer, but the Yiddish spoken in the homes, in the factories. One of Acsh’s first jobs was to translate letters for immigrant Jews. His parents wanted him to become a rabbi. Instead, he became a playwright and novelist.”
This is the same earthy dialect of Yiddish, or mama loshn (mother tongue), I heard as a boy growing up among immigrant Jews who labored as “sweaters” in the schmatte (garment) and shops in an industrial neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island.5 One of the challenges Vogel said that she and director Rebecca Taichman (who learned Yiddish from her relatives in Canada) faced was to find a way to share this love of Yiddish with contemporary audiences. Many consider Yiddish coarse, and it was considerably diminished when the Nazis murdered Jews that spoke it. As the article “A Revival of Yiddish?” puts it:
“Yiddish did not exactly die a natural death,” Lansky reminds us. One of every two Yiddish speakers was, after all, murdered in the Holocaust. “As though that weren’t enough,” he notes, “many Jews escaped the Nazis by fleeing to the Soviet Union, where mounting repression finally culminated on August 12, 1952, when Stalin ordered the execution of his country’s major Yiddish writers and intellectuals on a single night.”6
The children of Jews who grew up after World War II were often discouraged from speaking Yiddish at home, and it ceased to be taught in cheder (religious schools). Once flourishing Yiddish daily and weekly newspapers—noteworthy for literary supplements that featured writers like I. L. Peretz, Shalom Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sholem Asch, and others—have all but vanished.
“Yiddish is a language of yearning, a language of anxiety.”
“As a youngster, I grew up among people who experienced the Shoah (Holocaust), and who knew that the world would never be the same,” Vogel said. “Yiddish is a language of yearning, a language of anxiety. I believe we’ve worked hard to communicate that love to the audiences. We’ve had productions in Omaha, Nebraska, and in Boise, Idaho, where Yiddish is rarely heard. Audiences have said they feel the emotion we are trying to convey.”
Integrating Yiddish songs in the play is an effective theatrical device, particularly when two women burst into a cheerful rendition of “Bei Mir Bistu Shein,” (“To Me You’re Beautiful”) from the 1932 Yiddish musical I Would If I Could. Audiences connect to the song’s buoyant romanticism and to its Jewish songwriters, who contributed to the Great American Songbook, along with so many others.7 Even today, Asch’s depiction of two women finding each other beautiful gives an added dimension to this popular song.
Jewish music is but one of many threads woven into a play that stresses the importance of ancestry, not just our biological ancestry but also our literary and linguistic ancestries. In her preface to the published script of Indecent, Vogel writes: “This play is dedicated to Rebecca Taichman’s immigrant ancestors. And to mine. And all of ours.”8
In our era of increasing anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant sentiments, this message is in line with Sholem Asch’s efforts, detailed in Indecent, to communicate the cultural and economic conflicts experienced by Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the United States, to aid in relief efforts for Jewish war victims of World War I, and to persuade others to wake up to the dangers of Nazi power. Asch was aware of the pogroms that continued to flare in Europe and Russia after World War I, and how this festering sore of Jew-hatred was contributing to the rise of Nazism. As is shown in the play, he tried to get other writers, politicians, and members of the U.S. public to recognize the increasing repression of Jews and to do more to help, becoming increasingly frustrated by their inaction.
Given this context, Vogel’s “true story of a little Jewish play” has the power not only to unite generations but to awaken us to the dangers in our own moment. For these reasons and more, this work stands among the best in American theater.
- I attended a performance of Paula Vogel’s Indecent at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston during its run April 26–May 25, 2019. The play was directed by Rebecca Taichman and was a co-production of the Center Theatre Group, Los Angeles, and the Huntington Theatre Company. I reviewed the play for The Arts Fuse on May 4, 2019.
- O’Neill’s play Desire under the Elms—inspired by Greek tragedy—was banned in Boston and in the UK in 1924 for its graphic treatment of incest.
- “2017 Tony Awards: The Complete List of Winners and Nominees,” Los Angeles Times, June 11, 2017. Rebecca Taichman is cited for best director of a play and Christopher Akerlind for best lighting design of a play.
- Interview with Paula Vogel, April 22, 2019.
- I described growing up in this community in my Summer/Autumn 2016 Harvard Divinity Bulletin piece, “Growing into Faith.”
- “A Revival of Yiddish?” Harvard Magazine, July 1, 1997. Aaron Lansky, quoted in the article, is director of the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts.
- Numerous vocalists and musicians have recorded versions of “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” over many decades—among them, the Andrews Sisters, Kate Smith, Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, and Guy Lombardo—assuring its place among the most popular American songs. The song was also a smash hit in Nazi Germany in 1938 but was later banned when its provenance was discovered.
- Preface to Indecent: A New Play by Paula Vogel (Theatre Communications Group, 2017).
Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer and editor. His last piece for the Bulletin (Autumn/Winter 2019) was a Q&A with physicist/author Alan Lightman about his book Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine. He can be reached at email@example.com.