Around the corner from where it debuted in 1907, Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance is being revived by the New Yiddish Rep. When the play transferred to Broadway in 1923, the cast and crew were arrested and convicted on charges of obscenity. But the drama, about the Russian brothel proprietor Yankl (Shane Baker) who wants to buy his way into respectability and marry his daughter, Rifkele (Shanya Schmidt), to the son of a rabbi, is relatively tame by today’s standards. Rifkele shows more interest in one of her father’s employees, Manke (Melissa Weisz), and their second-act, same-sex kiss (the first for two women on Broadway) is what triggered all the hoopla almost a century ago.
Now, the play serves more as a gateway into a nearly-lost New York subculture. Before the twentieth century, Yiddish was considered a bastard language even by its speakers, certainly not worthy of anything above “servant-maid literature.” Asch was among the practitioners who made the language respectable, and God of Vengeance bears a strong resemblance, as the critic Abraham Cahan points out in his 1918 preface to the text, to Shaw’s “Plays Unpleasant” and other fin de siècle works that brought social issues to the fore.
If, like Mrs. Warren’s Profession, God of Vengeance feels a little stilted and didactic, it more than justifies its presence through a cast of game actors. Mr. Baker, the gentile Missourian who has become the most prominent New York Yiddish actor of his generation, fully embodies the rage of a man stuck between the aloof religious authorities who visit him upstairs and the concrete material realities that fund his life (and his charity) from downstairs. And Ms. Schmidt’s Rifkele, whose easy smile almost never reveals her teeth, has a giddy but shy energy; her sexuality is budding rather than bloomed, leaving her relationship with Manke one of the play’s more interesting and unresolved mysteries.
The “Jewish Rialto” on Second Avenue that birthed the careers of Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni is gone. The Player’s Theatre is now the Orpheum, home to Stomp, while City Cinemas Village East, where Walter Matthau allegedly worked, betrays its past only by some Yiddish writing the lobby and a Star of David in the dome of the main auditorium. The loss is a cultural tragedy, and any company that works to revive this rich history—even when the appeal of the some of the texts is more academic than emotional—deserves nothing but applause.