Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, written in 1906, opened this week at La MaMa Theater. The play explores one man’s futile attempt to successfully unify the practical demands of his material life with the more ethereal requirements of his religious world. This struggle between the worldly and the other-worldly, between sin and piety, is often deeply enmeshed in other complex sociocultural issues, and Asch examines these openly and bluntly. In fact, when the play first opened at the Apollo Theater in New York in 1923, these topics proved too controversial and provocative for many who came to see the performance. Although the play’s unmistakable moral message was that in the end money can’t buy salvation, the play was perceived by some prominent Jewish leaders, and others, as profane and a “desecration of the sacred scrolls of the Torah.” Consequently, the director and actors were promptly arrested and jailed on obscenity charges. Despite widespread support from New York’s literary and theater community, influential religious leaders, ever protective of their institutions and cash-flow, denounced the play, and the managers and a dozen actors were soon found guilty of giving an indecent, immoral, and impure theatrical performance. Today, almost one hundred years later, Asch’s astute and often harsh critique of religious hypocrisy and corruption resonate more harmoniously with our less sympathetic views about organized religion.
God of Vengeance tells the tragic story of Yankl Tchaftchovitch, the Jewish owner of a lucrative brothel, located ominously in the basement of the home he shares with his wife, an ex-prostitute, and teenage daughter. Perhaps excluded from more legitimate career opportunities due to anti-Semitism, Yankl, erects and climbs a somewhat crooked ladder to reach financial success, which makes for a very precarious social life. Both a brothel owner and a member of an observant Jewish community, Yankl is forced to cautiously straddle these disparate worlds. Notwithstanding generous donations to the synagogue, he receives little respect from the more pious members of his community, and he’s relegated to a synagogue seat far from the rabbi. Nevertheless, he’s able to shoulder these affronts as a cost of doing business. What he wants more than anything in the world, however, is to protect his 17-year-old daughter, Rivkele, from the many spiritual perils of being associated with his debauched source of income. To defend her purity and chasteness and prevent her from bearing the intergenerational punishment for his sins, he employs a combination of corporeal punishment with a more mystical protective shield: he invests in an expensive, custom-made Torah—a talisman—which he places near her bedside to watch over her. Additionally, the holy scroll, along with substantial amounts of cash, is offered to the scholarly and godly husband he lines up for his daughter to marry. Nevertheless, all these machinations prove no match for the allure of the sins of the flesh, and ultimately Rivkele falls prey to the carnal manipulations of Manke, a lesbian prostitute from the brothel, who awakens her sensuality and offers her independence. In the end, all Yankl’s spiritual aspirations are shattered, and he’s overwhelmed not only by his guilt but also by an awareness of the harsh reality of his debased existence.
The performance of Asch’s God of Vengeance at La MaMa theater, while not exceptional, is more than satisfactory. Shayna Schmidt (Rivkele), Caraid O’Brien (Hindl), and Melissa Weisz (Manka) put in particularly outstanding and compelling performances. Shane Baker (Yankl) performs adequately but doesn’t seem to successfully embody the complex emotional transitions his character requires. Aside from just a few minor shortcomings, this straightforward look at the complications of religious involvement is well worth seeing.