Commentary Magazine


On the Horizon: Mr. Lewissohn's Wicked Son Mr. Lewis

Jewish self-understanding in America at times takes some rather odd forms. Here Shimon Wincelberg comments on the familiar catastrophic perspective for American Judaism as pictured once again in a one-act play, Wherefore Is This Night? by Violet Fidel, published in International Folkplays by the University of North Carolina Press. 

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The American Jewish family portrait emerging season after season out of the lukewarm crucible of the Creative Writing class, and from there sometimes into print, has by now become as rigidly typed as the Four Sons of the Haggadah. In some ways it resembles them, too.

The stern but sadly muddled father, unable to reconcile religious tradition with harsh American reality; the dynamo of a mother, striving blindly to heal the unhealable; the rebel son, riding the greased skids of assimilation, commercial success, intermarriage, and mass culture; and the sensitive observer-son (or daughter, depending on who is the writer), looking back upon it all with that exquisite mixture of nostalgia and revulsion.

Even more inflexibly stylized is the dialogue. The inverted syntax, the ponderous question marks, the mawkish transliterations from the Yiddish, the neo-Odetsian metaphors, the misused Hebrew quotations yet.

An almost definitive example of this genre, and one which has been accorded the distinction of being published in a collection titled International Folkplays by the University of North Carolina Press, among entries from Norway, China, Syria, Mexico, South Africa, and United States (Negro), is Wherefore Is This Night? representing “United States (Jewish).”

Violet Fidel, the young author of Wherefore, introduces the play by offering what appear to be her two main categories for American Jews: “What it does to a person to have to lie all his life, like Jack, or to cling tenaciously to something that doesn’t exist any more—like Mr. Lewissohn—there’s tragedy there.” Which seems to leave the American Jew with little more than a choice between two forms of hypocrisy.

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The play opens in the dining room of the Lewissohns—a set described as shabby, old-fashioned, and of undistinguished taste—at six o’clock on Passover eve.

Exposition establishes that the Lewissohns are holding up the Seder in the hope that their son Yankel (Jack) may still show up in time. Jack is currently a brilliant and successful young executive, and his name is now John P. Lewis.

To help pass the time, a younger son, Harvey, teases his father by wishing for a hot dog on a roll, and Lewissohn, Sr., silences him with, “I’ll nice crisp roll you in the head,” and begins, a little sulkily, to read aloud from a “large Bible.”

After a while, Mr. Lewissohn begins to voice some doubts as to whether Yankel will really bother to show up, whereupon his wife complains, “You’re as bad yet as the neighbors,” and, a little later, asks herself, “How can I eat what I cooked? It’s turned to bitter herbs.”

A daughter, Florence, jumps the gun on asking the Four Questions, but is jealously interrupted by brother Harvey with “Yap. Yap. Yap.” And as she continues (“proud of her religion. And herself”), Harvey (“teasing”) breaks in with, “Sharp as matzoh and twice as crummy.”

At last, Mr. Lewissohn gets impatient, and, explaining “My faith is important to me,” launches into a formula which contains such words as “. . . Ellojanuh meloch h’olem. . . .”

But just then, Jack (John P.) walks in, well dressed, if a bit potted at the moment, and carrying a large grocery bag identified as coming from the A & P.

When Florence asks what is in the bag, he testily observes, “Easy now. I’m not Santa Claus,” and the stage directions helpfully explain: “The symbols of the outside world come easily to him.”

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Jack, who has been too busy to write letters for the last couple of years, now quickly rings the folks up to date. The blessings a bright future is about to shower upon him include membership in an “exclusive” club, a partnership with his boss, and possibly even marriage to Julie Cartwright, the boss’s daughter.

Which leads us straight to the grocery bag. Because Jack has invited Cartwright to supper this evening. Or, rather, old Cartwright has invited himself. Prompted by understandable curiosity about his future partner’s family.

So off with the Seder stuff, and on with the bread. Because if Cartwright should suspect that his son-in-law-to-be is a J-w, it would ruin everything. And, to illustrate what he is up against, Jack quotes one of his colleagues: “Jews always prey on blond Christian girls—like Julie. Fat, greasy Jews, with big dark hands.” So you can hardly blame Jack for being a bit skittish over the possibility of imminent exposure.

Growing thoughtful for a moment, Jack recalls how, in spite of his “knowing more than anybody” in school, “they shook their heads and said ‘smart little Hebe,’ and slammed the door to their lives in my face.”

In view of which, his father’s mild argument that “we don’t belong anywhere but at our Seder table” cuts little ice with anybody. Even Mrs. Lewissohn takes Jack’s part. Her boy’s worries about “belonging” are not little things. They are “big heavy stones we wear around our hearts. Stones from which we build our wailing wall.”

And she makes ready to set a supper table for Mr. Cartwright in the dining room, and to transfer what’s left of the Seder to the kitchen, though her husband unhappily observes, “You are making a ghetto from the kitchen yet.”

But, just in the nick of time, there is a phone message from Cartwright, summoning Jack to meet him at a bar instead. And Jack, forced to decide between a Lewissohn Seder, and life at the side of an unsuspecting Julie Cartwright, responds like a—well, in his father’s metaphor, “Just like a monkey on a string—whose coat has some shiny brass buttons.” The stage directions offer no information on whether he takes the A & P bread with him.

And so, as the appropriate pall of cheerless devotion to duty once again descends upon the Lewissohn table, and the head of the house “begins the Boroch Atto in a low voice,” their two remaining sprouts, one “haltingly, softly,” the other “soberly,” raise their quavering voices in “Wherefore is this night. . . .”

Wherefore indeed?

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