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NY Times, Mar. 13 2017
An Incisive Play About Hasidism, With Actors Who Lived It
By COREY KILGANNON
Melissa Weisz, a working actress in Manhattan, did not exactly grow up a
drama club kid.
As a Hasidic Jew, she spent her childhood with eight siblings in the
Yiddish-speaking and largely insular Satmar sect in Borough Park,
Brooklyn. She had little knowledge of secular theater, film and
television, which are frowned upon as sacrilegious.
At 19, Ms. Weisz entered into an arranged marriage, but she opted for
divorce after four years because of her increasing differences with the
strict Hasidic way of life. She stunned her family and friends by
leaving her Hasidic community to seek more opportunity. She attended
college and eventually became an actress.
Lately, she has found herself among other Hasidic exiles, speaking
Yiddish and struggling with the strict rules of Orthodox Judaism.
They are part of the cast of “God of Vengeance,” Sholem Asch’s 1907
play, which is being revived by the New Yiddish Repertory Company. The
Off Broadway production will open Tuesday at the Theater at St.
Clement’s Church in Manhattan.
In the play, a Jewish brothel owner in early 20th-century Eastern Europe
tries to keep his daughter unstained by brothel life. He soon begins to
see her drifting away from the faith and into a forbidden lesbian
relationship with a prostitute, played by Ms. Weisz.
Ms. Weisz, now 32, is routinely brought to tears in rehearsals watching
this distancing between father and daughter, especially since it evokes
memories of having to explain to her parents that she was leaving the
Hasidic religion and lifestyle.
During certain parts of the play, Ms. Weisz said, the thought crosses
her mind that “this is my family, and this was my scenario.”
The play rekindles the pain even while reinforcing her decision to
follow her own path, she said.
Another prostitute is played by Malky Goldman, 29, an actress who uses
Goldman as a stage name to avoid causing discomfort for her family. Like
Ms. Weisz, she broke from her Hasidic background. Their castmates
include three young male actors who also broke away from parochial,
ultra-Orthodox lifestyles in Brooklyn.
“God of Vengeance” is the professional stage debut for the five Hasidic
exiles. Having grown up speaking primarily Yiddish, they were natural
choices for the play, which offers projected English subtitles for the
On a deeper level, their personal stories of shaking off the strong
bonds of Hasidic life have helped them connect with the essence of their
characters and the poignant themes of the play, said Ms. Weisz, who
called her Hasidic upbringing “my background for my character.”
“There’s a depth that we bring to the show,” she said. “To have the
complete break of losing your family, that loss. Nobody else can play it
But that intensity has a price, with the play dredging up the anguish of
becoming alienated from family and friends and abandoning the only life
they had known.
Even if they have achieved rapprochement with their families, the actors
said, they would not bother inviting them to the show. After all, most
Hasidic Jews would not attend even a tame secular play, much less one
with forbidden themes and scenes involving Hasidic characters, they
said. And relatives would be further offended knowing that the actors
had grown up Hasidic.
Ms. Weisz said her upbringing helped her employ the proper inflections,
gestures and even Torah references onstage. It also helped her
intuitively connect with the play’s themes of religious hypocrisy,
gender roles and forbidden sexuality.
“It’s something so visceral, no one can really, really get it the way we
can,” she said.
Ms. Goldman agreed.
“We have the back story of the community firsthand,” Ms. Goldman said.
“It goes straight to your heart, because you know these people. You’ve
For Shmully Blesofsky, 35, growing up in the Lubavitcher sect in Crown
Heights, Brooklyn, allowed him to draw on characteristics from two
Hasidic uncles: one a modest mensch, the other a swaggering figure who
would cut a wide swath during prayer sessions at the Lubavitcher
headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway.
The religious exiles have proved a welcome infusion for the New Yiddish
Rep. Its founder and artistic director, David Mandelbaum, invited the
five actors to join the company after meeting them at a theater workshop
With members of the New Yiddish Rep almost all over 50, the company has
been challenged by the decline of Yiddish, except in Hasidic strongholds
in Brooklyn and some suburban pockets — populations that Hasidic
guidelines generally forbid to participate in secular theater. But it
has been encouraged by a niche revival of Yiddish study as a cultural
phenomenon by non-Orthodox Jews and even gentiles.
Despite growing up without theater experience, the five actors possess
“the spirit of Yiddish culture, so we don’t have to teach them that,”
Mr. Mandelbaum said during rehearsals with the cast and the director,
The actors perform alongside Jewish and Gentile actors who learned
Yiddish as adults. They include Caraid O’Brien, an Irish-born actress
who, after studying the Irish language, was introduced by Catholic nuns
to Yiddish literature and went on to learn Yiddish.
Shane Baker, who plays the brothel owner, has become an aficionado of
Yiddish vaudeville even though he grew up an Episcopalian in Kansas
He noted that during the heyday of Yiddish theater on Manhattan’s Lower
East Side a century ago, many Jews defected from Orthodox families to be
entertainers, including Al Jolson, as depicted in the film “The Jolson
Mr. Baker said the new crop of actors could help lead to “a reflowering
of Yiddish culture” with the help of a bridge between religious and
When the play premiered on Broadway in 1923, in English, its lesbian
kissing scene, said to be the first on a Broadway stage, caused a
scandal. The police arrested the cast on charges of public indecency,
and the play was shut down, all of which is portrayed in a separate
play, “Indecent.” That production, written by Paula Vogel, will be at
the Cort Theater beginning in April.
During a rehearsal break, the five actors discussed going “off the
derech” — or O.T.D. — an expression that uses the Hebrew word for path
and refers to leaving the Hasidic religion and lifestyle. This includes
moving out of neighborhoods that can have the feel of a 19th-century
neighborhood in Eastern Europe.
For actors who grew up in that environment, the century-old setting of
the play does not feel that old, said Eli Rosen, 37, who plays a Torah
scribe in the play.
“In a way, the time is parallel, given how traditionally we grew up,”
said Mr. Rosen, who was raised in Borough Park and became a cantor and a
lawyer before obtaining a divorce and leaving the Hasidic world.
Luzer Twersky, 31, who plays the brothel manager, said some of the
play’s themes were so familiar to him that, at times, “you don’t have to
act that much.”
Mr. Twersky divorced his wife and left his Hasidic community in 2008,
causing a seven-year breach with his parents. He went on to star in
several independent films and land a role, as Mendel, in the Amazon
With a production that raises sensitive issues, the cast plans on
holding panels after performances to provide perspective on the play and
address questions it raises.
Ms. Weisz said she had no problem discussing her current lifestyle as
what she called a queer woman.
Her upbringing still informs her art and fills her with a deep sense of
responsibility to play Hasidic characters with the proper nuance
because, Ms. Weisz said, “even though I left, this is my family — I love
Regarding how Hasidics are portrayed onstage, she said, “I want to make
sure they’re honored as human beings, and not caricatures.”
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