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Scrolls and Scandals: The Ritual Object as Stage Prop in God of Vengeance

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 April 2013

Extract

Precisely because of its radical instability as a theatrical signifier, playwrights have seized on the prop as a tool for destabilizing the conventional symbolism previously embodied by the now ambiguous object. Although they cannot legislate the prop's impact, playwrights can seek to orchestrate the prop's movement through concrete stage space and linear stage time. They can also shape the audience's reception of the prop through dialogue and stage directions. . . . This is especially the case during periods of semiotic crisis, when the meaning of the object the prop represents is (quite literally) up for grabs.

—Andrew Sofer, The Stage Life of Props

Type
Articles
Copyright
Copyright © American Society for Theatre Research 2013

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References

Endnotes

1. Sofer, Andrew, The Stage Life of Props (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003), 61–2CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2. See Biale, David, “A Journey between Worlds: East European Jewish Culture from the Partitions of Poland to the Holocaust,” in Cultures of the Jews: A New History, ed. Biale, David (New York: Schocken Books, 2002), 709862, at 801–5 (quote on 801)Google Scholar.

3. Ibid., 803–4.

4. Gitelman, Zvi, A Century of Ambivalence: The Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1881 to the Present (New York: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, 1988), 49Google Scholar.

5. A Torah scroll (Sefer torah) consists of the Five Books of Moses handwritten with special calligraphy on a parchment by a professional scribe (Sofer setam). It is then covered with a cloth mantle or put inside a wooden casket and adorned with much ornamentation. The scroll is to be deposited inside the Holy Ark in the synagogue (which in Orthodox synagogues is located in the men's section), and it is primarily used in liturgy. An addition or omission of a single letter in the text or even inaccuracies in the calligraphy or the spacing could disqualify the whole scroll, as can tears in the parchment or smudges that render the text unreadable or make one letter look like another. It is customary that when a Torah scroll falls on the ground, the whole community has to fast or give charity. Furthermore, putting the scroll in places that are considered debasing (such as the bathroom) or to have sexual relations in a room with a scroll in it are forbidden. (These circumstances, however, do not disqualify the scroll from future ritual uses.) Finally, although there is a commandment in Jewish law that one should write (or commission) for oneself a private Torah scroll (as Yankl does in the play), this is not always observed, due to the very high cost of a scroll. Instead, observant Jews sometimes join to commission a scroll collectively and then donate it to a synagogue. Though the Torah scroll can be kept in a private home, this is quite rare. Yankl's decision to keep the scroll in his daughter's room without intending any liturgical use of it is quite unusual.

6. Hamerow, Theodore S., Remembering a Vanished World: A Jewish Childhood in Interwar Poland (New York: Berghahn Books, 2001), 78Google Scholar.

7. This is most compellingly argued in Seidman, Naomi, “Staging Tradition: Piety and Scandal in God of Vengeance,” in Sholem Asch Reconsidered, ed. Stahl, Nanette (New Haven: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, 2004), 5162, at 56–61Google Scholar.

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11. Section 1140-a of the New York State Penal Code stated that any person who presented plays “which would tend to the corruption of the morals of youth or others” was guilty of a misdemeanor (quoted in Erdman [below], 51). However, from the Jewish community's point of view, much of the complaint was grounded in the belief that the play portrayed Jews in a negative light and could promote anti-Semitism. For an extensive survey of this case, see Weiner; and Erdman, Harley, “Jewish Anxiety in ‘Days of Judgment’: Community Conflict, Antisemitism, and the God of Vengeance Obscenity Case,” Theatre Survey 40.1 (1999): 5174CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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15. Some of the play's opponents were scandalized by its sexual promiscuity, but others denied that there was anything erotic about the relations between Rivkele and Manke. See Warnke, 71–2, 75; Prager, 182–3.

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17. See Curtin, 29–32; Erdman, 59–60; and Friedman, Andrea, Prurient Interests: Gender, Democracy, and Obscenity in New York City, 1909–1945 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 107Google Scholar. In contrast, Naomi Seidman contends that the reactions to the 1923 production support the idea that audiences were offended by both prostitution and the lesbian relationship. See Seidman, 52. See also Johnson, Katie N., Sisters in Sin: Brothel Drama in America, 1900–1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 199200Google Scholar.

18. See Johnson, Katie N., “When Lesbian Love Came to Broadway,” The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide 14.3 (2007): 1719, at 18–19Google Scholar. Available online at http://glreview.com/article.php?articleid=54, accessed 12 January 2013.

19. Prager, 182.

20. On the representation of lesbian desire on the stage in the early twentieth century, see Freshwater, Helen, “Suppressed Desire: Inscriptions of Lesbianism in the British Theatre of the 1930s,” New Theatre Quarterly 17.4 (November 2001): 310–18CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed. For an excellent demonstration of how the play itself deals with problem of putting a name to Rivkele's desire and how we should read the reactions to that desire in the epistemological changes regarding sexuality in the early twentieth century (changes that also incorporate differences between Yiddish-speaking and English-speaking cultures), see Hoffman, Warren, The Passing Game: Queering Jewish American Culture (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2009), 1944Google Scholar.

21. Peretz, 99 (my translation).

22. Weiner, 15.

23. Prager, 180.

24. Ibid., 182.

25. For Orian's review, see Asch, Sholem, El nekamot, Hebrew trans. Sachar, Moshe and Izvitzky, Esther (Tel Aviv: Y. Golan, 1994), 69 (my translation)Google Scholar.

26. Prager, 177.

27. Erdman; Prager.

28. Peretz, 99–100 (my translation).

29. Seidman, 56.

30. Ibid., 57.

31. On interperformativity, see Jestrovic, Silvija, “The Theatrical Memory of Space: From Piscator and Brecht to Belgrade,” New Theatre Quarterly 21.4 (2005): 358–66, at 358CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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33. Wolfson, Elliot R., Circle in the Square: Studies in the Use of Gender in Kabbalistic Symbolism (Albany: SUNY Press, 1995), 37 and 11–12Google Scholar.

34. Kadari, 401–2.

35. Ibid., 393; Wolfson, Circle in the Square, 6.

36. Midrash Tanhuma, vol. 1, Pekudei 4 (Jerusalem: Eshkol, 1975), 546–7 (in Hebrew)Google Scholar; Midrash Tanhuma-Yelammedenu: An English Translation of Genesis and Exodus, trans. Berman, Samuel A. (Hoboken, NJ: KTAV, 1996), 660Google Scholar.

37. Shir Hashirim Rabbah 3:16, ed. Dunsky, Shimshon (Jerusalem: Devir, 1980), 93–4 (in Hebrew)Google Scholar; Song of Songs Rabbah: An Analytical Translation, trans. Neusner, Jacob (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1989), 1:242 (modified slightly)Google Scholar.

38. Kadari, 393.

39. The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, vol. 5, trans. Matt, Daniel (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), 33–5Google Scholar. On this parable and its erotic implications, see, among others, Wolfson, Elliot R., “Beautiful Maiden without Eyes: Peshat and Sod in Zoharic Hermeneutics,” in The Midrashic Imagination: Jewish Exegesis, Thought, and History, ed. Fishbane, Michael (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993), 155203, at 185–6Google Scholar; Abrams, Daniel, “Knowing the Maiden without Eyes: Reading the Sexual Reconstruction of the Jewish Mystic in a Zoharic Parable,” Daat 502 (2003): lixlxxxiiiGoogle Scholar; Hellner-Eshed, Melila, A River Flows from Eden: The Language of Mystical Experience in the Zohar, trans. Wolski, Nathan (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), 160–1CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40. Midrash Mishlei, chap. 5, ed. Visotzky, Burton L. (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1990), 38 (in Hebrew; my translation)Google Scholar.

41. Sabar, Shalom, “Torah and Magic: The Torah Scroll and Its Appurtenances as Magical Objects in Traditional Jewish Culture,” European Journal of Jewish Studies 3.1 (2009): 135–70, at 144–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

42. Ibid., 149–52, quote on 152.

43. For a similar analysis of the role of the Torah scroll in the synagogue service, see Solomon, Alisa, Re-Dressing the Canon: Essays on Theater and Gender (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), 113Google Scholar.

44. Asch, Sholem, Got fun nekome (Warsaw: Kultur-lige, 1928), 10 (in Yiddish)Google Scholar; God of Vengeance,” trans. Joachim Neugroschel, Pakn-treger 23 (Winter 1996): 1639, at 18 (in English)Google Scholar.

45. Bristow, Edward J., Prostitution and Prejudice: The Jewish Fight against White Slavery, 1870–1939 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), 227Google Scholar.

46. Zohar, Zvi, He'iru penei hamizrach: halakha vehagut etzel chakhmei israel bamizrach hatikhon (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hame'uchad, 2001), 135 (in Hebrew)Google Scholar. Zohar notes that earlier decisors agreed to accept donations from prostitutes without requiring that they be anonymous (136).

47. The myth of Procne and Philomela in Ovid's Metamorphoses is probably the most powerful example. For a wider discussion of the motif of women and weaving in classical mythology, see Kenaan, Vered Lev, Pandora's Senses: The Feminine Character of the Ancient Text (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008), 161–70Google Scholar.

48. Berkowitz, Joel, “The Brothel as Symbolic Space in Yiddish Drama,” in Sholem Asch Reconsidered, ed. Stahl, Nanette (New Haven, CT: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, 2004), 3550, at 45Google Scholar.

49. Asch, Got fun nekome, 32; “God of Vengeance,” 24. [Hereinafter, the Yiddish (Y) and English (E) versions will be cited parenthetically in the text.]

50. This breach is reminiscent of the midrash that describes a man who bursts into the closed space of a synagogue as profaning the daughter of God.

51. See also Solomon, 113.

52. Interestingly, it is Reyzl who refers in another scene to the Torah being defiled. Perhaps Reyzl, in contrast to Yankl, is simply able to differentiate between the metaphorical and literal use of this image.

53. See Siegel, Ben, The Controversial Sholem Asch: An Introduction to His Fiction (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1976), 1011, 14–15Google Scholar.

54. Ansky, S., The Dybbuk, in The Dybbuk and Other Writings by S. Ansky, trans. Werman, Golda, ed. Roskies, David G. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 150, at 10–11Google Scholar.

55. Sabar, 142.

56. Ansky, 16.

57. Bistrizky, Nathan, Shabbetai Zevi (Jerusalem: Hotza'at Merkaz Ha-Agudah “Lema'an Ha-Ohel,” 1936), 53–4 (in Hebrew)Google Scholar.

58. Frischmann, David, “God of Mercy,” trans. Binyomin Weiner, Pakn-treger 23 (Winter 1996): 44–5Google Scholar.

59. Veltruský, Jiři, “Man and Object in the Theater,” in A Prague School Reader on Esthetics, Literary Structure, and Style, ed. Garvin, Paul L. (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1964), 89Google Scholar.

60. Ibid., 90.

61. Ibid., 88.

62. Sabar, 139.

63. Idel, Moshe, “Torah: Between Presence and Representation of the Divine in Jewish Mysticism,” in Representation in Religion: Studies in Honor of Moshe Barasch, ed. Assmann, Jan and Baumgarten, Albert I. (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 197235, at 235Google Scholar.

64. Ibid., 208–9.

65. Ibid., 209 (my italics). The use of the word “Bible” is slightly misleading here, as the Torah scroll does not include the entire Hebrew Bible, just the Five Books of Moses.

66. See also ibid., 201.

67. Beckwith, Sarah, Signifying God: Social Relation and Symbolic Act in the York Corpus Christi Plays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 59 (Beckwith's italics)Google Scholar.

68. Ibid., 64.

69. Rubin, Miri, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 1435Google Scholar.

70. See, for example, Beckwith, 65–71; Lawton, David, “Sacrilege and Theatricality: The Croxton Play of the Sacrament,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 33.2 (2003): 281309; Sofer, 31–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

71. Levy, Shimon, “Introduction,” in Theatre and Holy Script, ed. Levy, Shimon (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 1999), 18, at 3Google Scholar.

72. Idel, 211.

73. Langer, Ruth, “Sinai, Zion, and God in the Synagogue: Celebrating Torah in Ashkenaz,” in Liturgy in the Life of the Synagogue: Studies in the History of Jewish Prayer, ed. Langer, Ruth and Fine, Steven (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2005), 121–60, at 145–59Google Scholar.

74. Rubin, 55–8.

75. But see also Langer, 121 n. 2.

76. Beckwith, 61–2.

77. Rubin, 288.

78. For a critical review of the history of these two concepts, see Reinelt, Janelle G., “The Politics of Discourse: Performativity Meets Theatricality,” SubStance 31.2–3 (2002): 201–15CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

79. Seidman, 56.

80. Honzl, Jindřich, “Dynamics of the Sign in the Theater,” in Semiotics of Art: Prague School Contributions, trans. Titunik, Irwin, ed. Matejka, Ladislav and Titunik, Irwin R. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1976), 7493Google Scholar.

81. See Steinlauf, Michael C., “Fear of Purim: Y. L. Peretz and the Canonization of Yiddish Theater,” Jewish Social Studies 1.3 (1995): 4465Google Scholar.