Bagels and Lust

Two plays -- one old, one new -- explore the place of sexuality in Judaism

Jan 16, 2002 at 4:00 am
The City Players of St. Louis, with production help from the New Jewish Theatre, are putting on a pair of linked plays that concern a house of prostitution and lesbians in love, set in a community of religiously observant Jews.

What makes the material that much more provocative is that it was first staged in 1907.

Sholem Asch's controversial God of Vengeance and a new piece by Rebecca Taichman about the play's obscenity trial, People v. God of Vengeance, will be stage-read this weekend at two appropriate venues, Central Reform Congregation and the Jewish Community Center.

God of Vengeance is a wickedly sharp dissection of human hypocrisy set in a European shtetl at the turn of the century. Yekel is a prosperous pimp with a stable of prostitutes who work in the converted basement of his home. He is also a Jew perpetually in search of elusive respect from his peers.

He decides to curry favor with the local rabbi and truly, he hopes, with God himself, by commissioning a scribe to write a Torah to be kept in his home. The Torah is the Hebrew Old Testament Bible that, when inscribed in a large scroll, becomes the most holy object a Jew may know.

Yekel's hopes come crashing down when his beloved daughter is spirited away by an amorous prostitute from the basement. Is it the Jewish God of vengeance who has visited this shonda (shame) upon Yekel's home for daring to bring a Torah so near a den of iniquity? Or is it the rabbi's willingness to exchange Yekel's considerable cash donations to the temple for religious honor that the Lord has a problem with? What about the men of the town who need what the women in Yekel's basement can give them but refuse to attend the parties on the ground floor of his home? What about lesbian love, depicted with such tenderness by Asch -- might it not be a problem so much as a simple fact of life?

These questions proved way too much for American Jewish audiences in 1923, when Asch translated God of Vengeance from Yiddish to English (by that point, it had played to Jewish audiences in Europe for 16 years) and debuted it at New York's Apollo Theater. He had to know that once the authorities got wind of his scandalous, sacrilegious play (especially the lesbian petting scene) it would be shut down, and it was.

That obscenity trial of the producers is the basis for People v. God of Vengeance, which mixes lines from the original play with actual transcripted lines from the courtroom.

City Players artistic director Ted Gregory says these plays offer a "look at the seeds of controversial issues in theater," and it's nice to see that playwrights were adroitly offending the masses 100 years ago.