Tom Stoppard Dares to Discuss the Ever-present American Jewish Elephant in the Room

At a time of rising antisemitism, Tom Stoppard’s play ‘Leopoldstadt’ is a Broadway hit – precisely because it asks the question that many U.S. Jews were afraid to speak aloud

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From left: Brandon Uranowitz, Caissie Levy, Faye Castelow and David Krumholtz in Tom Stoppard's harrowing play, ׂ'Leopoldstadt,'׃ֺat the Longacre Theater in New York.
From left: Brandon Uranowitz, Caissie Levy, Faye Castelow and David Krumholtz in Tom Stoppard's harrowing play, ׂ'Leopoldstadt,'׃ֺat the Longacre Theater in New York.Credit: NYT / SARA KRULWICH
Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker
New York City, U.S.
Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker
New York City, U.S.

New York - One of the hottest Broadway shows right now is “Leopoldstadt” by Sir Tom Stoppard, one of the greatest playwrights of our time. It isn’t easy to get tickets to this play, which concerns a complex and difficult issue for American Jews that is rarely discussed in the public sphere: Could the Jews of United States, the country where the strongest Jewish community in history outside of Israel has flourished, find themselves facing a political catastrophe, or perhaps even annihilation?

Leopoldstadt” is about the fate of the prosperous and happy Jewish community in Austria in the run-up to World War II, moments before the Nazis rose to power in Germany and everything began to crumble. Nothing remained of this magnificent and assimilated community, which had all of the period’s cultural markers of high society.

The opening scene from Tom Stoppard's play, ׂ'Leopoldstadt.'Credit: NYT / SARA KRULWICH

The parallel between Austrian and American Jewry could not have been more aptly timed; the play’s staging comes amid a sharp rise in antisemitism in the United States. In November 2022, for example, there was an increase of more than 100 percent in the number of antisemitic attacks reported (a cumulative total of 45) as compared to the same period in 2021. This month, the Anti-Defamation League published a survey showing that about 20 percent of the American public (about 52 million people) hold antisemitic views and believe in conspiracy theories.

“Leopoldstadt,” which will soon be staged at the Habima Theater in Tel Aviv, is named after the quarter in Vienna where many Jews lived. It is a reminder that even though most Jews in the United States are very economically, culturally and socially secure – it could all collapse, and even quite rapidly. I have met parents here in New York who took their children to a performance so that they could see and understand what might happen.

The question that the play raises is one that preoccupies many people here, particularly members of the older generation, who still remember the sights of the Holocaust and how the world stood idly by. Over the past decade, Israel has been gradually distancing itself from American Reform, Conservative and secular Jews, and now presents less of an option for them. The American lap of luxury is comfortable, but the sirens are sounding.

This heart-rending, epic tale, centered on the Merz family, is the most personal of Stoppard’s works, which include “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” “The Coast of Utopia,” “Aracadia,” “Rock ’n’ Roll,” and the films “Brazil” and “Shakespeare in Love.” “Leopoldstadt” moves between 1899 and 1955 by means of no less than 30 characters. It is not autobiographical, but it is not far from it, either. Stoppard, whose name does not sound particularly Jewish, is a Jew who was unaware of his own Judaism. Or, rather, he had preferred to turn a blind eye to the bits of information about his origins that he encountered over the years.

Tom Stoppard at the opening night of 'Leopoldstadt.'Credit: Philip Romano / Wikipedia

Stoppard was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937 as Tomáš Sträussler, to a prosperous Jewish family in the Moravian city of Zlín. His father was a doctor. When the war broke out in 1939 his parents moved to Singapore, the only place where they could find refuge. After the Japanese invasion, they had no choice but to part ways: His mother, Marta, went to India with Tomáš, and his father, Eugen, stayed in Singapore and was killed there in a Japanese attack on a British ship. Tomáš was left with nothing to remember him by.

At the end of 1945, Marta married a British officer named Kenneth Stoppard, who was serving in India. This brought the young Stoppard to the United Kingdom with no knowledge of his Jewish roots. Tomáš quickly turned into Tom, and with a surname like Stoppard, he became completely British, even being baptized in the Church of England. Rumors about his background would crop up here and there, but he paid them no mind. Perhaps he preferred not to know; he had fallen in love with all things British, and never looked back. Eventually, when he had become a well-known playwright, his mother did not like that the British media was mentioning that he was born in Czechoslovakia.

Arty Froushan, left, and Brandon Uranowitz in Tom Stoppard's play, ׂ'Leopoldstadt.'Credit: NYT / SARA KRULWICH

Stoppard’s relationship to Judaism changed in 1993. That year, one of his mother’s cousins, who had been living in Germany, came to visit the family to discuss their shared history. Stoppard asked her just how Jewish they were. The cousin replied: “You are Jewish,” and drew him a family tree, which also appears in the play. She revealed that his grandparents were murdered at Auschwitz and other camps, as were three of his mother’s sisters.

In 1996, his mother died, after which his stepfather, Kenneth Stoppard, asked him to relinquish his family name. The playwright says that the request, which shocked him, was rooted in antisemitism and xenophobia. He ignored it, but the moment was burned into his memory, and stirred the passion to research his origins.

Why, then, did Stoppard decide to set this play in Austria? Because the Jewish community there had succeeded in fitting in better, and were more upwardly mobile, than in the country of his birth. In Austria, the Jews had made their dream come true – climbing from the bottom to the elite, just as in today’s United States. The fall back down to the lowest depths was extreme.

Here is a family, assimilated, very wealthy and extensively cultured, busy with their day-to-day lives and trying here and there to preserve their Jewish traditions. Its complacence is rampant until the Nazis come along, and with them, the terrible knock on the door. Only one small boy, whose mother managed to smuggle him and herself to Britain, remained and grew up – without knowing he was Jewish.

Throughout my years living in New York, I have met several Jews who grew up as Christians, only to discover in their adulthoods that they were Jewish. This happened for exactly the same reasons that motivated Marta Stoppard. In the New York of 2023, despite the increase in antisemitic incidents, Jews have no problem walking the city streets while wearing a skullcap or a prayer shawl, and the Israelis openly speak Hebrew. Nevertheless, deep inside, many of them know in their hearts that everything could change in a single moment.

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