“You lived in the swamp, they bury you behind the fence…” Judith Zaltsman, the protagonist of Paula Prilutski’s 1912 proto-feminist melodrama Eyne fun yene (One of Those), recently given a freshly imagined staged reading at YIVO, is lamenting her fate as a twice-fallen women. First, thrown out of her father’s house and then, years later, as a (former) prostitute trying to find a path back to respectability. To be buried “behind the fence,” i.e., hintern ployt, was the fate of suicides, “Sinners in Israel,” and others denied keyver yisroel (a proper burial among Jews). Exile in death was a thing of dread, perhaps even more so than exile in life itself.
What Judith finds, of course, is that to rebel against patriarchy, whether embodied in her literal father, or in the mores of polite society, is no easy thing to recover from. It may not sound like light-hearted entertainment, but this recent production at YIVO, directed by and working from the English translation by Allen Lewis Rickman, was moving, thought provoking and uproariously funny. What could have been just another turn-of-the-century melodrama turns out to be much more, no doubt due to the fact that Paula Prilutski was one of the very few women playwrights we know of in the history of the Yiddish theater. Prilutski wrote her women with a flawed dignity, the difference between writing symbols and creating characters.
Rickman’s partner in life and art, Yelena Shmulenson, first lady of the New York Yiddish stage, is perfection as the doomed Judith. Peter Van Wagner and Jackie Sydney are the other cast highlights, as Judith’s parents, Saul and Sheyndl. Van Wagner and Sydney, with their broad New York sensibility, appear to have stepped from a Woody Allen set onto the streets of 1912 Warsaw, in the best way possible. When Saul Zaltsman pleads with his daughter to marry somebody, anybody, it could be 1912 or 2018; some things haven’t changed very much. Van Wagner plays Saul for laughs, but never loses sight of the terrifying violence lurking right below the surface of the character, a father who understands his power as absolute monarch of the domestic unit.
One of Those is very much of its time; brothel plays were a huge fad at the turn of the century. Sholem Asch’s Got fun Nekome (God of Vengeance) (1906) is probably the best known brothel play, and inspiration for Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman’s recent musical play Indecent, based on the infamous New York production of Got fun Nekome, which got the entire cast arrested and put on trial for indecency. The obsession with prostitution was not just as a literal concern about Jewish women falling into sex work (a theme that shows up everywhere in Yiddish literature, including the work of Sholem Aleichem and Y.L. Peretz) but prostitution also serves as a metaphor for the threat of women’s liberation.
What if women were to charge for what men have always considered their due? What if women found economic and sexual liberation outside marriage? Is it even possible? It’s an urgent question for Prilutski, for whom the perfidy of men is a life-and-death matter as well as high drama. Indeed, my favorite moment in One of Those was the closest I think I’ve ever come to that old Second Avenue Yiddish theater experience of full audience participation. Judith has returned to the family home in an effort to make peace and comfort her now ailing father. Her best friend, Bronke’s husband, Goldman, has decided he is in love with her. He shows up and declares that he will do anything to have her. Judith goads him as to how he’ll dispose of his present wife. He will divorce her? He will slander her? Of course he will, and more. When Judith finally turns on Goldman with the beautiful fury of a woman who has too long suffered the whims of entitled men, I wanted to stand up and cheer, a feeling I know was shared by more than a few women in the audience. If old-fashioned Yiddish theater is back then I am definitely ready for it.
One thing I want nothing more of is celebrity culture and, more so, celebrities who want to sell us stuff. Makeup, clothes, adaptogenic herbs and millennial-pink lifestyle aspirations: Genug shoyn. Don’t I already feel bad enough about my unglamorous life? The only one who should benefit from my self-loathing is me. I don’t care enough about any celebrity to hear what they have to say about life, let alone pay for it. But of course, to every rule there are exceptions. Turns out mine is H. Jon Benjamin, the actor responsible for voices on three of my favorite animated shows of all time, Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, Bob’s Burgers, and Archer. The other day he came on the radio, promoting his new book, Failure Is an Option: An Attempted Memoir. Celebrity memoir? Yuck. Celebrity memoir about failing? Color me intrigued.
I figured Benjamin was Jewish enough in the way that American comedians are all kind of Jewish, but I wasn’t prepared for failed-out-of-grad-school-for-Holocaust-studies Jewish. Was H. Jon Benjamin really one of us? Yet another weirdo obsessed with Jewish Eastern Europe? Reader, I bought Failure Is an Option just to find out. In fact, despite never having actually been in a graduate academic program myself, I don’t think I’ve ever related to a celebrity more than when Benjamin explains how he essentially dropped out of school rather than learn the Polish he would need for essential archival research. Oof.
It’s a memoir about failing but despite all the scatological jokes (and an ode to Holocaust-hoax memoirs) Benjamin finds something redeeming in failure. After quoting from the al-chet prayer (!) he writes that pressure to succeed creates resentment and hatred. “The key to failure being an option is a way forward. Failing at something is a signal, but it’s not a signifier.” Amid the social-media clamor of inescapable selfies and hypercurated successes, a healthy embrace of failure, and self-love, is perhaps one of the most timely messages of 2018.
See: The problem of the headstrong daughter at odds with the father-King is also the subject of Jacob Gordin’s The Jewish King Lear (1892). Metropolitan Playhouse’s fine Lear is playing through May 27. Right now there are no firm plans to stage One of Those again but it couldn’t hurt to get in touch with YIVO and tell them you want to see it. At the beginning of One of Those Judith talks about reading Ibsen and I realized that what the New York Yiddish stage needs now is A Doll’s House in Yiddish to round off our exploration of dangerously liberated women. For now, though, if you want more of gritty Yiddish Warsaw, you must get Eddy Portnoy’s Bad Rabbi: And Other Strange But True Stories from the Yiddish Press. Eddy spent years looking at Yiddish newspaper on microfilm to uncover the kind of unsavory Jewish history that sold millions of newspapers, despite never making it into any of our textbooks.
ALSO: Rob Schwimmer has been on the Jewish music scene for years, mostly as an undersung collaborator with people like Frank London and Lorin Sklamberg. If you were at the Jews in Space opening at YIVO you caught him playing the theme from Star Trek on the Theremin. In addition to being one of the premier Theremin practitioners today, he’s a brilliant composer. The party for his new CD Heart of Hearing (compositions for piano and Theremin) is May 31, at 7 p.m. at Joe’s Pub. … My brilliant fiddler friend Jake Shulman-Ment has a new CD out titled Midwood—From the Narrows and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard. I’m going to have a proper review here soon but in the meantime, take my word and see him show off his new material at Eldridge Street Synagogue, May 31, 7 p.m. (If you can’t make it at least go over to the band’s website.) … Mark your calendar for Klezfest in the Bronx. This year features the hot Brooklyn radical klez of Tsibele as well as the trad sounds of Jordan Hirsch and the New York Klezmer Ensemble and a very special appearance by Yiddish diva Joanne Borts. Dancing led by master teacher Steve Weintraub. Take the D all the way to 205th Street to 3301 Bainbridge Avenue, June 6, 1:30 p.m. …. And finally, registration is now open for Yidish Vokh, August 15-21. If you’re ready to put your Yiddish conversational skills to the test, learn a whole lot, and have an absolute blast in the mountains, click now and reserve early.
Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.