Examining the Jewish Soul in the Aftermath of Paris

The timing of the revival of a play on Otto Weininger, the Jewish philosopher who rejected Judaism as a religion, is most apposite in light of the recent attacks.

Yair Ashkenazi
Yair Ashkenazi
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A scene from 'The Soul of a Jew: the Last Night of Otto Weininger,' which opens in Ramat Gan this week.
A scene from 'The Soul of a Jew: the Last Night of Otto Weininger,' which opens in Ramat Gan this week.Credit: Eliran Rubin
Yair Ashkenazi
Yair Ashkenazi

“There was a terror attack near a synagogue in the 16th Arrondissement in Paris. Filmmaker and producer Micha Shagrir’s wife was killed. Since I had spent several years in Paris and knew the area well, I was really shaken up. All of a sudden the city was witness to an eruption of a strange and lethal anti-Semitism, so I proposed to do something on that topic.”

Following last week’s events in the French capital, one can only be amazed by the words of playwright Joshua Sobol, describing the circumstances which led him to write his play “The Soul of a Jew: the Last Night of Otto Weininger” at the end of 1981.

This week, only days after the murder of four people at the kosher supermarket in Paris, as well as 12 others at the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo, Sobol’s play is returning to the stage. It will be performed at the Sifriya Theater in Ramat Gan, under the direction of Alon Tiran. It will be the first restaging of the play since Gdalya Besser’s original production in 1982.

The play centers around Otto Weininger, the Jewish philosopher, born in Vienna in 1880, who rejected Judaism as a religion, a nation and a race, defining it as an “intellectual tendency or psychic constitution” in his book “Geschlecht und Charakter” (“Sex and Character.”) He equated the idea of Judaism to feminism, contrasting it with the masculine Aryan character.

Otto WeiningerCredit: No Credit

Weininger’s religious, national and sexual identity were forged at the same time that Herzl was trying to further the Zionist cause and Freud was developing the theory of psychoanalysis. It was a time of rising anti-Semitism and nationalism in Vienna, under the leadership of mayor Karl Lueger. Weininger both obtained his doctorate and wrote his book at the age of 22. After converting to Christianity, he committed suicide in October 1903 at the age of 23. He died in the same room in which Beethoven had died.

Sobol’s play takes place on Weininger’s last night, presenting his recollections of his relations with his parents, university colleagues and other thinkers of the period. The play returned the philosopher to public awareness in Israel and Europe, eliciting stormy debates when it was first performed in Israel, with Doron Tavori as Weininger.

The Council for Review of Films and Plays threatened to prohibit its staging due to one scene containing frontal nudity and another showing a kiss and an act of a sexual nature between two males. The Chief Rabbis and ultra-Orthodox Knesset members demanded its banning for what was for them a desecration of the Jewish funeral prayer “El Male Rachamim” (A God full of mercy), renamed “A God of plentiful intercourse” in the play.

Despite the protests and the media coverage, the play was well received by critics and the public, with 400 performances over the course of two years. It became the first Israeli play to be included in the official program of the Edinburgh Festival in August 1983 and was translated into five languages. It has since been performed in Germany, Austria, France, Russia and the United States, but not in Israel.

Joshua Sobol.Credit: Moti Milrod

“The performance in Haifa had the aura of an exceptional event and the image of Otto as portrayed by Tavori was something quite extraordinary” says Sobol, recalling the original production. “There was rare fusion between an actor and a character and it was quite hypnotizing. He was electrifying and sent shivers down your back, charging the entire atmosphere so that people became wary of dealing with the issues.”

Alon Tiran, 30, is the younger brother of actor/director Itay Tiran. He did a graduate degree in directing at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, where he now lives and works. Now in Israel to direct the new production, he believes that Sobol’s play is somehow under a curse in Israel, akin to the “curse of Judaism” that Weininger notes and from which he struggles to escape. Both Tiran and Sobol believe that the core issue of the play – an individual’s search for identity, with its various components, - will be particularly significant for today’s viewers.

“To me, identity is a form of sickness, since a person has multiple identities” explains Sobol. “It’s not a question of being whimsical or fickle, but one of diversity, of openness, of being able to change and not be committed to an unchangeable definition because one was brought up in a certain way.

“I believe Weininger saw himself as an accomplice to genocide. What he tries to do in “Sex and Character,” among other things, is to kill off the Jewish people from which he emerged and to which he cannot connect. He believes that this identity was imposed on him and that he can’t shake it off. I see him as someone with one leg planted in the end of the 19th century, with its rise of virulent anti-Semitism in France and Germany, and the other looking for a foothold in the 21st century, as a man who can’t find any identity with which he can feel comfortable.

“Today there are many young people who are in no rush to finalize their sexual identity. In his time these things were much more rigid.”

Tiran sees the perpetual seeking of identities and definitions as an obsession that has overtaken Israeli society, and one which could lead to internal wars.

“All this obsession with who we are – Arabs, Jews, leftists, rightists – is tearing us up from within” he says. “We deal too much with ISIS and Iran’s nuclear program and keep forgetting that right here, under our feet, a chasm has opened up, with the formation of a rift that Otto’s character represents.”

Sobol believes that Weininger’s prophecy of doom about the power of Judaism to absorb Zionism has proven to be correct. “Judaism contains a very powerful self-destructive streak, which led us to foolishly lose our independence twice, in a confrontation with the entire world” he explains.

“Over the last 30 years, this tendency has risen to absurd levels, with statements such as ‘if the world boycotts us we’ll boycott the world, and woe to the world when that happens.’”

Tiran states that he preferred to direct the play in its original form, without censorship or attempts at “modernization,” in order to adapt it to 2015. He finds it hard not to see the parallels between the play’s text and current realities.

“Freedom of expression is in the balance today,” he says. “The play is very powerful and the audience will hear statements such as ‘who is a Jew – I’ll decide!’ These statements make your ears ring. Theater should not offer remedies but should present these issues and create a dialogue, bringing onto the stage something that will reverberate. If it does so the audience will come.

“Sadly we live in a reality in which dialogue and challenges are dirty words, but it is the duty of theater to raise difficult issues that no one is willing to talk about.”

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