God of Redemption: A Yiddish-theater Masterpiece Is (Finally) Vindicated on Broadway

Paula Vogel discusses 'Indecent,' her new Broadway play about the 1923 scandal surrounding Sholem Asch's Yiddish lesbian love story 'God of Vengeance'

Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer
New York
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A scene from Paula Vogel's play 'Indecent,' which opened off-Broadway in the spring of 2016.
A scene from Paula Vogel's play 'Indecent,' which opened off-Broadway in the spring of 2016. Credit: Carol Rosegg
Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer
New York

NEW YORK - Around this time last year, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel was having a seder and dancing an impromptu hora through the seats of New York's Vineyard Theater, where her new play “Indecent” would soon open to stellar reviews. With wit and warmth, “Indecent” dramatizes the legacy of “God of Vengeance,” a provocative Yiddish play by Sholem Asch that in 1923 gave Broadway its first same-sex kiss and was slapped with an obscenity trial as a result, ultimately ending the show’s run. Last week, the cast and crew of “Indecent” again spent Passover together, this time preparing for the show’s Broadway premiere Tuesday.

During previews, Vogel was still fiddling with the script playing with syntax, adjusting words for clarity and making sure everyone was well-nourished. She believes it’s important for an ensemble to nosh together. “Gluten-free matza is just about the same as eating potato chips, that’s our basic foodstuff," she told Haaretz. “We do bring in a lot of Passover food. Depends on the grocery story I’m near.”

That the team behind “Indecent” has spent more than one Passover together is an indication of the length of the journey the play has taken to Broadway, which marks the show’s fifth iteration, following the acclaimed Vineyard run and stops at the La Jolla Playhouse, Yale Repertory Theater and the Sundance Theatre Lab. “Indecent” is the Broadway debut for both Vogel and director Rebecca Taichman, who have been collaborating on the play for years. Reaching Broadway is the apex of years of research and artistic exploration, an accomplishment that “feels like a combination of a bat mitzvah and a wedding,” said Vogel with a laugh.

“Indecent” is also something of a redemption for the century-old Yiddish masterpiece at its center that was never given a fair hearing on the Great White Way. Vogel first read “God of Vengeance” at the recommendation of a professor as a 22-year-old student. “I read it standing up,” she recalled. “I couldn’t put it down.” Two decades later, Taichman had a similar experience as a 26-year-old graduate student at Yale. Her thesis play, “The People vs. The God of Vengeance,” wove together scenes from Asch’s text with transcripts from the trial.

The experience fueled her passion for the play; ultimately she approached Vogel about collaborating on a larger project. Vogel quickly jumped on board but wanted to expand the scope beyond the obscenity trial. “I said, ‘I think it’s a larger journey,’” she recalled. That journey now begins in Poland in 1907 when Asch completes the play. Though some are initially skeptical of its progressive politics and scathing religious indictment, “God of Vengeance” proves a success throughout Europe and is eventually translated to English for Broadway, where it was infamously shuttered.

A twist from Syria

“Indecent” doesn’t dwell on the trial. Instead, it follows the life of the play’s creators and actors from birth to Broadway to the Lodz Ghetto in World War II and beyond, embedding it in the broader Jewish experience of the 20th century. It also comments on the world today a world that suddenly seems to be on a different path than it was during the show’s off-Broadway run.

A scene from 'Indecent.'Credit: Carol Rosegg

“In the last six months I’ve been responding to the change or attempted change in immigration [policy],” said Vogel, pointing to President Donald Trump’s recent executive orders banning refugees and visitors from several Muslim-majority countries. “We wanted to really stop the show and have people think about the moment in time we’re in right now, and how we kept Jewish refugees out of this country and the way we’ve kept Syrian refugees out.” That consideration led to a recent rewrite of a rabbi’s speech in the play: “We must say we are all Syrians, we are all Muslims, we are all refugees and immigrants.”

The proud immigrant heritage of “God of Vengeance” was dramatically illustrated earlier this year in a production of the play performed in Yiddish (with English supertitles) by the New Yiddish Rep, a New York-based theater troupe. The performances, staged in a small theater on the Lower East Side, a neighborhood that was home to waves of Jewish immigrants at the turn of the century, continuously sold out, leading to several extensions of the play’s run.

In the foreign but familiar language the mother tongue of many first-generation American Jews audiences watched as Yankl, a brothel owner, buys a Torah to attract a good match for his daughter, Rifkele, essentially trying to buy favor from the Jewish community that shuns him because of his business. Little does he know she has fallen in love with Manke, one of the brothel’s prostitutes.

“I felt very emotional hearing it in Yiddish,” said Vogel of the production. “My grandparents spoke Yiddish. It was amazing how much I did understand, and the resonance of hearing the language alive was thrilling.”

A host of themes

That “God of Vengeance” would experience a renewal of interest a century after it made a splash speaks both to the continuing relevance of its themes “violence against women, about the sex trade, the selling of religious belief for money,” as Vogel puts it and to the lasting impact of a work of art. One of the reasons “Indecent” continues to tell the story of Asch and “God of Vengeance” long past the trial and into the horrors of the Holocaust is to track the way people and art change in relation to a changing world. Art, the play seems to say, gains strength in difficult times; one production cannot define or defeat a powerful message.

For Vogel, a celebrated teacher who has mentored a generation of playwrights, that message is also one that needs to be heard today by aspiring artists. “I want them to know they’re having an impact beyond what they imagine,” she said. “It’s not just about a play born in the moment with a critic giving thumbs up or down. There’s a big circle between writing and a work being in conversation with the right time.”

It’s also a message that Vogel thinks the entire country needs to hear as the new government considers eliminating the National Endowment of the Arts. “Hopefully the time will come in America where we realize that every penny we spend on education and the arts reaps its benefits on our children and the future a thousand fold,” she said. “It is important for us as a democracy to tithe ourselves for an accessible art in every community.”

In the meantime, Vogel was headed to Whole Foods to stock up on food for the cast members, who have stayed intact for the various out-of-town and off-Broadway productions over the past year, a rare luxury for a play these days. In the process, they have forged the kind of familial and communal bonds that both “God of Vengeance” and “Indecent” profoundly depict in all their complexity.

“It’s going to be the worst postpartum leave-taking in my life,” Vogel said of moving on to her next project. But as she tells her students, and as Sholem Asch might be shocked to see today: “Your play cannot die, the characters cannot die.”

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