The Arty Semite

Mourning and Madness in the Warsaw Ghetto

By Shoshana Olidort

  • Print
  • Share Share
New Yiddish Rep

The year is 1943. The place is Warsaw. The ghetto uprising has been crushed, but one man, a Hasid by the name of Yosl Rakover, is still alive, and he is busy recording his sordid tale for posterity. After recounting the events of the last few years — the deaths of his children and grandchildren, the hunger that pervades his every bone, the sense of despair all around him — he insists: “If I were unable to believe that God had marked us for His chosen people, I would still believe that we were chosen to be so by our sufferings.”

A crowd of more than 60 people packed a makeshift theater at the Sixth Street Community Synagogue on Sunday, where David Mandelbaum, founder and director of the New Yiddish Rep theater company, staged his one-man performance of “Yosl Rakover Speaks to God.” Mandelbaum has been performing this show for more than two years now, but this staging came at a particularly auspicious time, just ahead of Tisha B’Av, which began last night at sunset.

Initially instituted to commemorate the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem, the fast of the 9th of Av has evolved into a collective day of Jewish mourning. And no single catastrophe bears such commemoration as does the Shoah. Indeed, watching Holocaust-themed films is a common pastime on this fast day. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for destruction, churban, in Yiddish means “Holocaust.”

A fictional memoir written in 1946 by Zvi Kolitz, a European immigrant to Palestine, “Yosl Rakover Speaks to God” is fascinating for its depiction of one man’s stubborn faith in a God who is nowhere to be found. Rakover has lived through hell and is ready to die — but before he goes, he has a few things to say to God. There is madness in this monologue, which gets a stellar performance by Mandelbaum. “You have done everything to make me lose my faith in You, to make me cease to believe in You. But I die exactly as I have lived, an unshakeable believer in You.”

It is tempting to chalk up Rakover’s madness to the suffering he’s endured. But that’s too easy. Instead, the madness that Rakover displays in his loving rebuke of a God who does not abide by his own Torah, seems emblematic of that ubiquitous Jewish struggle between faith and reason, persecution and perseverance. And that may be what Tisha B’Av is really all about.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Warsaw Ghetto, Warsaw, Tisha B'Av, Theater, Sixth Street Synagogue, Shoshana Olidort, New Yiddish Rep, Holocaust, David Mandelbaum, Churban, Yiddish, Yiddish Theater, Yosl Rakover Speaks to God, Zvi Kolitz

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Kosovo's centuries-old Jewish community is down to a few dozen. In a nation where the population is 90% Muslim, they are proud their past — and wonder why Israel won't recognize their state. http://jd.fo/h4wK0
  • Israelis are taking up the #IceBucketChallenge — with hummus.
  • In WWI, Jews fought for Britain. So why were they treated as outsiders?
  • According to a new poll, 75% of Israeli Jews oppose intermarriage.
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.