Naomi Newman as Reb Eli in the upcoming Zoom play "God of Vengeance." (Photo/Courtesy Newman)
Naomi Newman as Reb Eli in the upcoming Zoom play "God of Vengeance." (Photo/Courtesy Newman)

A queer, heretical Yiddish play too edgy for 1906 lives again on Zoom

In spite of months of tsuris over production challenges, the Yiddish Theatre Ensemble soon will stream an adapted, videotaped performance of “God of Vengeance,” a groundbreaking and controversial play written by Sholem Asch in 1906.

“Sometimes the internet or the green screen wouldn’t work,” the play’s director, Bruce Bierman, said of the technical difficulties. “We held conference calls that the actors couldn’t get in on, or the audio was off — and all this was going on during the pandemic, the wildfires, the elections and the insurrections.”

However, he quickly added, “even though we were working against the apocalypse, it’s a beautiful [production].”

“God of Vengeance,” or “Got Fun Nekome” in its original Yiddish, will stream from March 20 to 23 in English (with a bissel Yiddish) on the video hosting site Vimeo. It’s sponsored by East Bay–based KlezCalifornia and supported in part by an arts grant from the city of Berkeley.

Bierman, who also serves as the Yiddish Theatre Company’s co-artistic director with Laura Sheppard, called the videotaped play “an amazing, beautiful love story” that resembles an artful graphic novel.

The play tells the story of an otherwise pious Jewish family that runs a brothel. Though the parents try to prevent their teenage daughter from getting involved in the family business, she falls in love with one of the prostitutes and a power struggle erupts.

“What really connects me to this play is Asch’s view of universalism,” Bierman said. “In his writing, Jews are not glorified, but depicted as human beings. We are like all other people, with light and with shadows — no better and no worse.”

“God of Vengeance” played to rapt audiences throughout Europe and opened in New York in 1907 in Yiddish. Some 16 years later, another production (this one in English) opened in Greenwich Village in New York and moved to the Apollo Theater, making it the first Broadway play to portray a lesbian relationship in a sympathetic light — and to include a lesbian kiss. Members of the religious and cultural establishment were outraged, and shut it down.

Though the play was a huge success all over Europe, here — with the lesbian affair, the Torah being desecrated and the father owning a brothel — it was too much.

Asch, who was born in Poland in 1880 and settled in the United States in the early 1900s, fell from grace in the American Jewish community “because he was said to reinforce stereotypes, to put Jews in a bad light,” Bierman said. “So though the play was a huge success all over Europe, here — with the lesbian affair, the Torah being desecrated and the father owning a brothel — it was too much. The producer and the company members were thrown in the slammer, and the play was banned.”

In 2017, Sheppard traveled to New York to see “Indecent,” a Tony Award–winning play that depicted the controversy that surrounded “God of Vengeance.” “When Laura came back , she said we have to do this play,” Bierman recalled.

Shortly thereafter, Bierman sought out Asch’s original script. “We got an English version, translated around 1918, and two years ago we held a reading in my living room,” he said. “The translation was outdated and very clunky, but everyone in the room felt the power of the play.”

At that point, Bierman turned for advice to Naomi Newman, an actor, director, playwright and co-founder of the former Traveling Jewish Theatre. She told him about a translation by Caraid O’Brien, “an Irish Catholic actor who fell in love with Asch’s play,” Bierman said, and he opted to use her version for this production. (Newman, by the way, has a role in the play as Reb Eli.)

Originally, YTE planned to stage “God of Vengeance” in September 2020 in Berkeley, but theaters were shut down due to Covid-19. “At first, we didn’t know what to do,” Bierman said. “Then Laura suggested we do the play on Zoom. I didn’t see how that could happen.”

But it did.

Due to restrictions imposed by the pandemic, at no time did the cast rehearse or perform in the same room. They were videotaped on Zoom in their respective locations, and Bierman noted that he “played with the ‘squares,’ to get people away from sitting and reading to a camera.”

"God of Vengeance" director Bruce Bierman. (Photo/André Vaschelle)
“God of Vengeance” director Bruce Bierman. (Photo/André Vaschelle)

The YTE adaptation moves Asch’s play from a Polish village at the turn of the 20th century to New York’s Lower East Side around 1930.

The cast of 17 — which is composed of residents of the Bay Area, New York, Las Vegas and beyond — includes Roni Alperin, a graduate of the Tel Aviv University theater department and the founding director of San Francisco Playback Theater, as Yankl, the father.

Chicago- and New York–trained actor Jill Eickmann stars as Soreh, the mother. Elena Faverio, who has a background in regional theater outside of the Bay Area, stars as Rivkeleh, the daughter who falls for one of the prostitutes.

Zissel (Chloë) Piazza, a UC Berkeley doctoral student, portrays that prostitute, Mankeh. Piazza researches and teaches Yiddish literature and queer studies, among other topics, and is working on a translation of Maria Lerner’s “Di Agune,” the first Yiddish play by a woman playwright.

The ensemble includes a singer and composer, Heather Klein, well known to Bay Area fans of Yiddish, klezmer and cantorial music.

Of all the characters, perhaps the most vital to this production is the daughter, for while most productions of “God of Vengeance” focus on the father, Bierman has made a different choice.

“My adaptation is seen through the eyes of Rivkeleh,” he said. “Everything revolves around her, the matchmaking, the trafficking, her parents’ hopes for her future. She breaks from what’s expected of her, changes from a frightened 17-year-old terrified of her abusive father to a young woman standing up for who she is. That’s the story I wanted people to see.”

“God of Vengeance”

Available to stream 8:30 p.m. March 20 to 11:30 p.m. March 23. 100 minutes. In English with some Yiddish. $18-$36; $54 includes live Q&A with cast members at 4 p.m. March 21.

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.