ndecent, a new Broadway play that revels in its profanity, has a problem: How do you produce socially defiant art in a society that no longer upholds any standards of propriety? Just a block from the Cort Theater where this play is enjoying its run, The Book of Mormon, now in its fifth year, draws its biggest laughs with the lines “I’ve got maggots in my scrotum” and “F— you, God.” With scatology and sacrilege as the Dick and Jane of the American theater, a playwright would have to insult Islam to achieve any kind of artistic courage in this moment.
The co-creators of Indecent, director Rebecca Taichman and playwright Paula Vogel, have taken as their subject a Yiddish drama called God of Vengeance. It provoked strong reaction when it was first written in 1906 and was shut down for obscenity when first performed in New York in 1923. The play seeks to establish a continuity between the scandalized reception of the original work and the censorship of its American production 17 years later.
Staged with great verve and ingenuity, Indecent is an effort by its creators and producers to celebrate the idea of Jewish culture and offer some hope of its perpetuation. It uses Yiddish in supertitles and in some of the dialogue to convey a sense of authenticity. The writers claim they feel “incredible responsibility to our times and those who came before us.” That is an admirable emotion. The true indecency on display here is how they seek to fulfill that artistic responsibility.
holem Asch (1880–1952), the author of God of Vengeance, was for a period of time in the 1930s and 1940s the most successful Yiddish writer in America. Long before, Asch had made his reputation in Poland as the “first yea-sayer in Yiddish literature.” Before him, Yiddish literature had specialized in satire and parody and heart-wrenching tales of the impoverished “little man.” But Asch was inspired by romantic Polish writers and by the epic sweep of Polish novelists like Henryk Sienkiewicz, whose 1905 Nobel Prize in literature instilled in him the goal of someday winning it himself.
He had debuted with short fiction in Der Yid (The Jew), the Yiddish cultural weekly established by the Zionist movement shortly after its founding in 1897. Asch saw himself as a native son of both the Jewish people and of Poland, which was also on the way to recovering its sovereignty. Partitioned by foreign powers at the end of the 18th century, Poland had maintained its national identity much as the Jews had, through language, religion, and culture. Czarist rule over Poland had suppressed Polish nationalism and Jewish culture alike, and the resistance to it brought together liberal elements within the two societies. Asch felt a strong affinity between Jews and Poles, both imbued with historical consciousness and faith in their imminent national resurrection. Much of his fiction is situated in the Polish countryside, redolent of its fields and forests, and its Jews are as muscular as the peasants, ready for passion and conflict. This doubled sense of belonging brought Asch often to Palestine and sent him in search of stories that dramatized the organic connection of Jews to their biblical past or that highlighted bonds between Christians and Jews.
Asch earned the sobriquet “yea-sayer” with his first long work of fiction, The Shtetl—the most romanticized depiction of village life in all of Yiddish literature. Most Jews of Eastern Europe lived in market towns, and the writers who emerged from them usually showed off their deformities. Asch went in the opposite direction and celebrated Jewish communal life by interweaving the seasons of the year with the holidays of the Jewish calendar. His Polish shtetl is cradled in the surrounding countryside where Jews live in harmony with God’s creation and with most Christian neighbors. As the most ambitious Yiddish writer of his generation, Asch thought his writing could repair the rift between the two religions by showing their common origin and what he believed was at heart their similar faith.
Asch turned to theater in a belief that he might expand his own audience to the global stage. God of Vengeance stirred more controversy than any other in the history of Yiddish theater. It distanced him from the Warsaw Yiddish literary circle around its hub, the intimidatingly intellectual I.L. Peretz. If you were a budding Yiddish or Hebrew writer anywhere in the Czarist empire between the years 1890 and 1915, you made your way to Warsaw and brought your manuscript to Peretz to receive his verdict on your literary fate. Asch had done just that, and the master’s approbation helped him get published and included financial support. Until God of Vengeance, Asch had welcomed Peretz’s oversight—but the play was an act of rebellion. In a 1951 reminiscence of Peretz, Asch describes reading God of Vengeance to the intelligentsia that had gathered in Peretz’s home as they regularly did on Sabbath afternoons.
When I finished reading my play, there was dead silence. No one said a word, but Peretz spoke up:
—Burn it, Asch, burn it.
—Your play. Burn it in a fireplace.
Asch does not say whether Peretz voiced any specific objections save for the guidance that no writer should consider all his work sacred and should by implication be willing to burn a work that is not up to snuff.
Indecent stages this moment in a way that leaves us in no doubt of the offense Peretz found in the play. “Remember the rain scene,” the play directs us—long before we know that “the rain scene” is the pivotal moment in the second of the play’s three acts. It features two young women in nightshirts dancing together and one washing the other’s hair. And so, as far as Indecent is concerned, God of Vengeance is a play about lesbians. Not only that, according to Taichman and Vogel (both of whom are gay), lesbianism also defined the backstage drama of its performance history: They depict the lesbian characters being played by lesbian actresses who live openly together as the play tours Europe and comes to America. The American censorship of the play was due to its depiction of lesbianism. And lest any gravestone be left unturned, Indecent takes us into a Polish ghetto in the final stages of Hitler’s Final Solution where starving and soon-to-be-executed Jews perform the women’s love scene.
But this reduces God of Vengeance to a contemporary sexual-politics polemic when it is far more ambiguous and complicated than that. Hypocrisy was a great theme of European theater, and Asch here takes it up in this story of Yankl Khapkhovitch, also known as “Uncle.” He is a former pimp turned brothel keeper married to one of his former whores. Uncle wants to raise their daughter Rivkele untainted by their sins. And he is concerned with more than reputation: He seeks atonement for his life of corruption by raising an incorruptible daughter. As pledge of his penitence, he commissions the writing of a Torah scroll (an emblem of the Jews’ covenantal bond with the Almighty) that will be kept in the child’s room until her marriage. This is intended to insulate her from the business that supports the household. But his intention is betrayed by the way he runs his business.
The traditional stage set for God of Vengeance shows both levels of a two-story house. The proper family is upstairs. The brothel is below. Hasidic Jews were in the habit of wrapping a belt around their middle when they prayed to separate the upper half of the person from unwelcome intrusion of the lower, but in this house there is a connecting staircase. The audience watches Uncle’s efforts being undermined as Rivkele locates her own dream of happiness in the place of sin. She is drawn in by Manke, one of the prostitutes, who caresses her and cares for her free of the commercial considerations that govern the rest of the establishment.
Together Rivkele and Manke play at being bride and groom on a Sabbath eve, when sexual intimacy is sanctified. Washing their hair in the rain (which in the original production takes place offstage) likewise suggests a desire to wash away taint, not to have fancy sex. In Asch’s eyes, the relative innocence of lesbian affection magnifies the corruption of the Jewish society that supports prostitution.
But it turns out that Rivkele is being seduced by Manke in a darker way. Another prostitute is setting up another brothel, and Manke draws Rivkele away one night with this promise: “Young men will come, officers. We’ll be alone all day. We’ll dress like officers and ride around on horses.” The clear implication is that Manke is grooming Rivkele to join her in prostitution.
Rivkele’s mother manages to get their daughter back home after a single night with Manke, and she thinks all will be well once they marry off their daughter. But Uncle believes in sin and punishment. He cannot compromise. When he realizes that his daughter’s virginity has likely been taken, he will not go ahead with the marriage that would have saved her from a lifetime of prostitution and rehabilitated him socially.
“Down to the whorehouse!” he commands her, and then to the go-between who has arranged both the marriage and the scroll, “Take the Torah scroll with you. I don’t need it anymore!” Had Yankl imagined a God of Mercy, he might have accepted a version of the compromising, sin-stained life many of us lead. His absolutism derives from his idea of a punitive “God of Vengeance” who is the real villain of the play. Asch himself believed in a merciful religion—in the strain of Judaism that produced Jesus1—and he cast the punishing Jehovah as the corrupting influence that produces the perverted piety of Yankl Khapkhovitch.
For those who know God of Vengeance—there have been several recent productions in New York—it is surprising to see a supertitle at the start of Indecent telling us that we are about to see “the true story of a little Jewish play.” There was never anything diminutive about Asch’s writing, and in fact, we are soon shown that the “little play” gained international renown. Indecent shows Asch’s climactic scene being reenacted in several cities across Europe. In Taichman’s directorial rendering, Yankl orders his daughter to the brothel, then raises the Torah over his head and is about to smash it to the ground, like Moses throwing down the original Commandments. But whereas Vogel and Taichman imagine a vengeful Yankl taking his anger out on the Jewish religion, Asch intended just the opposite message. Yankl no longer feels it would be permissible for him to keep the sacred scroll in his home. He hands it back to the imperfect community.
He tells Rivkele, “I had a Torah scroll copied for your sake. I put it in your room and I prayed to God the long nights through: Protect my child from evil. Punish me, punish her mother, but protect my child.” In her father’s eyes, Rivkele has desecrated the Torah and so there is no more hope for any of them. Asch’s protagonist values the sanctity of the Law over the happiness of his child. Small wonder that this juicy role was sought not only by male stars of the Yiddish stage like Jacob Adler and Maurice Schwartz but by Rudolph Schildkraut, one of the great German actors, who played Yankl in its Berlin production and then when it came to New York in 1922. Like Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, Yankl is possessed of an uncompromising passion and ideal that destroy him.
he metamorphosis of Asch’s play into the present production is itself a terrific theater story. In 2000, Nanette Stahl, the Judaica curator of Yale University Library, organized a three-day conference devoted to the reconsideration of Sholem Asch. Asch had made it the repository for his archive, and half a century later it caught the interest of Rebecca Taichman when she was a student at the Yale Drama School. Taichman researched not only the play but also the obscenity trial of 1923 that followed the shutting down of its Broadway performance. She interwove the two in a production shown at the conference, The People vs. the ‘God of Vengeance.’ It pitted experimental theater against a repressive American judicial system and singled out Asch’s sensitive treatment of lesbianism to show how relatively permissive Yiddish theater was at the start of the 20th century compared with the ridiculously small-minded America of the Prohibition era. Jews had come to America in pursuit of greater freedom, Taichman’s play told us, but eventually America shut its doors and developed a punitive moral code. This moral code was for Taichman the precise analogue to Asch’s punitive God restraining the society it professes to improve.
Taichman developed Indecent over several years with the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Vogel (in a highly unusual set of credits, Vogel is billed as the writer, Taichman the director, and the two of them as co-creators). It is in every theatrical respect a better show. Indecent uses fluid movement, including music and dance, rather than the more static contrast of a two-story stage set, and uses projected words in Yiddish and English to allow for rapid shifts through space and time. And when we are finally shown the “rain scene” at the play’s climatic moment, rain pours down on the two actresses in a genuinely imaginative theatrical coup.
But unlike Taichman’s 2000 production, Indecent has no real interest in either Asch’s play or the obscenity trial except to use them to provide fuel to make lesbianism once again seem daring and revolutionary. Peretz’s 1906 advice that Asch burn the play is portrayed as Act of Repression Number One rather than an austere piece of literary guidance. America is shown as a cruel society, far crueler than the European countries that we see hosting the play’s troupe. And there are plenty of hints at the parallels between America of the 1920s and President Trump’s travel ban, attempts to “close the borders” and attempts to censor “transgressive” art.
But why stop there when we know that some Jews were also repressed by Hitler? The Holocaust is, after all, the ultimate Jewish dramatic setting. At one memorable moment in the 1954 Senate investigations into Communist infiltration of the armed services, chief counsel for the Army Joseph Welch asked Senator Joseph McCarthy who was conducting the hearings, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” He meant that McCarthy’s tactics were damaging the country and the cause he was pretending to serve. These words sprung to mind as I watched the concluding scenes of Indecent. In a final effort to represent lesbianism as the object of repression, Taichman and Vogel shamefully exploit the Shoah—the yellow stars, the cramped bunker of starving Jews, and the German SS conducting its final roundups—to make the themes of the “rain scene” an element of Jewish resistance to mass extermination. The Shoah is reduced to just another prop, shabbier than the costumes of those playing ghetto Jews, for a theater in the freest society on earth that has run out of ways to pretend that it is transgressive.
Holocaust denial deliberately perverts historical truth; Holocaust exploitation corrupts in its own way when it exhumes the murdered Jews as puppets for a current cause. How else can an audience respond to a play that ends with a line of people awaiting their deaths in the Holocaust and a violin plucking at the heartstrings but with applause for the plucky Jews and Jews manqués who have survived to take the curtain call?
Being “responsible to our times” would mean acknowledging what Jews, the theater, and lovers of every persuasion owe to the freedoms of this country. Indecent purports to be part of the brave tradition of those who have stood up for their rights against social and political repression, but it actually demonstrates that those battles have been decisively won—else why would it have had to go to such lengths to dig up and distort the suppression of lesbianism in the past? This is theater by and for those who don’t yet know how to accept responsibilities for freedoms attained and who pretend instead that they are still part of the struggle to attain them.
1 Asch was attracted early on by the figure of Jesus and wrote many works on Christological themes. A trilogy of novels he wrote between 1938 and 1949 about the lives of Jesus, Paul, and Mary, ostensibly to reunite the two religions at their source, brought him great fame (and fortune) in their English translations but censure from the decimated world of Yiddish readers.