The Arty Semite

Yiddish Theater Takes on Capitalism

By Rokhl Kafrissen

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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.


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