Tuesday, March 10, 2009

I can't be expected to work for the sake of ideals alone - in America, thank God, people know the value of a pious Jew.

More samples from Nahma Sandrow's God, Man, and Devil: Yiddish Plays in Translation. I had not planned to write about this for more than a couple of days, but My Life in Book's perspicacious question has inspired me, although to what, who can say.

Two major themes dominate early Yiddish literature: one is ignorance and superstition, and the other is greed. Both are threats to culture. Outside oppression - anti-Semitism and pogroms - is a distant third, although it comes to the forefront as conditions in Russia worsen. For the Yiddish writers who emigrated to America, to New York - and all of the plays in this book are American - superstition has receded, and the pogroms have been left behind. That leaves greed, mostly. I can be this reductive in part because there isn't that much Yiddish literature and these themes really are very common, and in part through pure ignorance (but not superstition).

An example of greed and ignorance, hand in hand, the beginning of Messiah in America (1919) by Isaac Moishe Nadir:

Shabby theatrical office, Broadway area, 1920s. MENAKHEM-YOSEF is a producer; JACK is his assistant.

JACK. I've got it!


JACK. A spitter.

MENAKHEM-YOSEF. A spitter. What do you mean, a spitter?

JACK. A novelty. I know this kid who can spit further than anyone in the world. His record is nineteen feet.

MENAKHEM-YOSEF. Nineteen feet is no novelty. It seems to me that somebody has already spit further. He's already been outspat.

JACK. What are you talking about, Mr. Menakhem-Yosef? Nobody has spit nineteen feet yet, except for the Philadelphia spitter, and he's dead.

MENAKHEM-YOSEF. See that? It's the nation's best men that die the youngest. How much will he take?

JACK. The spitter? Four hundred fifty a show. But I think he's good value.

MENAKHEM-YOSEF. Certainly he's good value, who's talking value? But that's too high for me. I can't be expected to work for the sake of ideals alone. I can't bring on the Messiah single-handed.

JACK. What did you just say? Messiah. Messiah? Quiet. Why not bring on the Messiah? How is the Messiah any worse than a spitter?

I don't want to, but I'll stop there. They're going to put on a Broadway show in which the Jewish Messiah comes to earth. They plan to sell shares in the First Messiah Redemption Corporation. "Redeemed from what?" "How the hell should I know? What difference does it make? Jews want to be redeemed." They get Jack's uncomprehending uncle to play the Messiah, and pay h im thirty-five dollars a week, because "In America, thank God, people know the value of a pious Jew."

This is all completely outrageous, an affront to decency and good taste. Sandrow compares the playwright's humor to a sock to the jaw. That's about right.

What happens next? Don't know, exactly. Sandrow only includes this one scene! More than what I wrote, but only about four pages, all just as good. "It culminates in a boxing match between two competing Messiahs: the one who appears in this scene and a young motorcycle tough." Oy, you're killing me, I want the rest!

Tomorrow, more greed.


  1. I wonder if you can see any of these produced anywhere? They sound like fun to me.

  2. It appears that you can find Yiddish-speaking pirates on stage
    but that we must still wait for the Messiah to appear. Go figure.

  3. This is great! I am enjoying reading about your adventures in Yiddish literature.

  4. As I had hoped, Yiddish literature has been full of surprises. I was not expecting the Philadelphia spitter or boxing Messiahs, that is fer sher.