The Arty Semite

Yiddish Theater Takes on Capitalism

By Rokhl Kafrissen

  • Print
  • Share Share

Since 2005, the New Worlds Theatre Project has been presenting classic Yiddish drama in English translation. This season they’re presenting a new English translation of H. Leivick’s 1921 play “Shmates,” here called “Welcome to America,” a naturalistic drama about the corrosive effects of American capitalism on a traditional Jewish immigrant family.

Louis Zwiebel

In the notes to the play, director Stephen Fried charts its artistic lineage from Leivick’s original script to the work of Clifford Odets and later to Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” With this production it’s a fair connection to make. Artistic Director Ellen Perecman’s translation and adaptation highlights the painful shuffle of traditional hierarchies that inevitably follow the entry into American style capitalism.

The production is tightly paced and features some excellent performances, especially from Alice Cannon and Donald Warfield as matriarch and patriarch Rokhl-Leye and Mordechai Maze. The Maze’s very modern, very materialistic daughter has just gotten married, without seeking the permission of her father. What’s worse, she has married her father’s boss’s son. Now Mordechai has to face the double humiliation of being a rag sorter working for his own son-in-law.

What is left for a man from whom America has taken as much as it has given? Mordechai’s work as a collector of scraps and rags is more than a plot point — it gives the drama poetic heft and reminds us why Leivick is still considered one of our finest American Yiddish writers. At one point Mordechai rebuffs the arguments of his co-workers to strike against their bosses. In the most moving scene in the play he explains himself:

Relics. Scraps. Remnants. That’s what we are… And a remnant’s place is with other remnants… Yes, remnants were once part of an enormous swath of beautifully draped silk. Look what’s become of that swath of silk today! It’s nothing but scraps… Scraps of fabric are good for nothing but sweeping into a rubbish heap… worthless remnants of what was once a meaningful whole.”

This kind of imagery is repeated throughout the play. But Maze isn’t just a defeated old immigrant; he is also a kind modern mystic, meditating on the shvires ha’keylim, the kabbalistic breaking of the vessels of light. The shards of these vessels, the klippos, are the focus of the mystical practice of tikkun olam, the gathering of light, and of souls, from the shards, to heal the universe. Despite his self-abnegation, Maze’s words subtly imply that in this world, even humble rags, like the people who collect them, can have some meaning and dignity.

In order to keep the pacing tight, Perecman has eliminated and combined characters, excised dialogue and chopped off one whole act of the play. The result makes for compelling theater, but also downplays an important theme of the play, namely, how to maintain a traditional Jewish family, and identity, in a new country whose materialistic values are antithetical to spiritual ones.

This translation stresses the universal over the particular. For example, when Maze’s colleague Reb Elye comes in to find Maze learning Gemore, Elye expresses his remorse for never opening his own set of Talmud. Maze asks, what’s stopping him? In Perecman’s translation, Elye says that his eyes are not what they used to be and he is too tired at the end of a day sorting scraps. Elye’s answer stresses the depredations of shop work on the body. But what of the soul? In the original Yiddish (translated by Yiddish theatre historian and translator Joel Berkowitz), Elye gives a long speech on the effects of drifting away from traditional Judaism: “I deserve a whipping! One mustn’t forget, one mustn’t. To forget is the greatest sin.”

To forget may be a great sin, but this production reminds us that there are an infinite number of ways to remember, and that engaging with the past is itself a great, and challenging, work.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Yiddish Theater, Yiddish, Shmates, Theater, Rokhl Kafrissen, H. Leivick, New Worlds Theatre Project

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!
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?








You may also be interested in our English-language newsletters:













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

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.