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Indecent exposure

Graphic by Haewon Ma

Last Saturday night I walked out of the Yale Repertory Theatre thoroughly stunned. I was standing on York Street but my mind was stuck in Lodz, within the world of Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman’s new play Indecent. My reaction was not because of the lesbianism or the desecration of the Torah or the musical number where all of the cast members donned black hats with side locks in the style of Orthodox Jews, though each of these elements of the play was shocking in its own way. Rather, I was shocked by my own very real sense of loss.

I am one of those people who harbor a deep but unexamined interest in my own ancestry. As a granddaughter of Yiddish speakers, I have always romanticized the culture from afar. Indecent could easily have been the sort of play to appeal to those fascinations. Instead, its depiction of Yiddish theater and culture is nuanced and honest. Opening this week at the Yale Rep, Indecent is a play about a play. Running an hour and 45 minutes without an intermission, it tells the story of Sholem Asch’s infamous drama, God of Vengeance, from its first reading to its Broadway debut. Though Asch’s play is controversial from the outset, it is in America that it meets its most steadfast opposition.

The lights come up to reveal a row of faces, seemingly floating on an otherwise-dark stage. As the actors stand, the first notes of twangy Klezmer violin fill the theater. Musicians and actors alike move around the stage, perfectly choreographed in their aimlessness. It is Poland, 1907. Sholem Asch has just finished his play about two women—a prostitute and the brothel owner’s daughter—who fall in love. It is to be read for the first time at the home of I. L. Peretz, a major figurehead in the realm of Yiddish literature. According to Joel Berkowitz, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and the show’s Yiddish consultant, prostitution was hardly uncommon subject matter for Yiddish theater at the time. Indeed, as the character of Peretz notes in Indecent, “Why are so many men writing plays in brothels?” Still, when God of Vengeance is first read aloud, it causes quite a stir. All of the men in Peretz’s salon are deeply upset by Asch’s play for its negative—or, as Asch might argue, human— portrayal of their people.

However, there is one man, Lemml, who quickly becomes one of the play’s most unwavering supporters. He accompanies the playwright to Berlin, where God of Vengeance is first staged. From there, frenzy ensues as the play is performed all across Europe. One of the brilliances of Indecent lies in its staging. Asch’s play becomes a sensation, and this is reflected in the movement on stage. The actors and musicians spin every which way, moving between characters, countries, the play, and the play within.

I laughed a lot in this first half of the performance—the dialogue is witty, and the actors have impeccable timing. Strangely, though, it is when the cast and crew of Asch’s play arrive in America that things begin to turn sour. Following a haunting trip to Europe, where pogroms are on the rise, Asch returns to the States and retreats into himself. Eventually, the play is translated into English and staged on Broadway. Edits are made that irreparably alter the romance and humanity God of Vengeance once depicted.

We like to think of America as a place of opportunity, but Indecent offers a different take on things. It is here that the play is distorted and its actors are arrested on obscenity charges. It almost seems as though God of Vengeance and the people behind it are inhibited both in and by America. As he heads back to Poland, Lemml cries out: “I am done being in a country that laughs at how I speak.” Although New York was one of the centers of Yiddish theater, it seems as though the fundamental spirit of the play and its players has been broken by the alleged promised land.

Anyone with immigrant grandparents can tell you that the pitfalls of assimilation are pretty old news. Still, in Indecent the notion that something is lost by coming to America looms large. As Berkowitz explains, Asch and his contemporaries were “responding to a rapidly changing Jewish world…they just roll up their sleeves and don’t hold back.” This is a time of literal and ideological mass migration. Zionism is emerging, Jews are becoming involved in radical politics. Some are reinventing traditional Judaism and some are moving away from religious practice altogether. Asch did not shy away from these realities. Likewise, Indecent addresses the tectonic shifts in the Jewish world of this time.

Having returned to Poland, Lemml is in charge of the final staging of God of Vengeance, this time in an attic in the Lodz Ghetto. In his home country, the Holocaust is underway. He and his crew are frail and hungry; the attic is dim. This performance stands in stark contrast to the Broadway showing that came before it. The play has been restored to its original, unedited Yiddish. It is being staged not in spite of its controversies, but because of them. This is a people who recognize that they are messy and, as Berkowitz puts it, “full of interesting contradictions.” As the actors move to stand in a line and the stage grows dark, the sense of foreboding is unmistakable. For the first time, there is complete stillness, complete silence. I realize I am crying.

Indecent ends at Sholem Asch’s desk. It is the early 1950s, in Connecticut. An excessively chipper Yale student has come to consult with Asch about revitalizing God of Vengeance. His unfounded enthusiasm reminds me of my own. But the playwright is stubborn in his refusal to see his work revitalized, in spite of the young man’s zeal. The stage is bare but for the two actors and a single spot-lit desk. These are the first moments when the entire cast has not been situated somewhere within my line of sight. Asch states, matter-of-factly, that “six million [audience members] have left the theater.” The Holocaust drew the curtains on the world he wrote for and about.

It goes without saying that there is no appetite for Yiddish theater today like Sholem Asch enjoyed in his heyday. To many, myself included, Yiddish culture is a relic. It is an object of fascination, a fun conversation piece. So perhaps what is most impressive about Indecent is that it paints a portrait of a lost world without memorializing it. With wit, precision, and tenderness, Taichman and Vogel have told a story that allows me to understand what has been lost. In Indecent, I have gotten a glimpse of a culture and people that are complicated and silly, controversial and captivating. It is this that I celebrate, and this that I mourn.

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