This past week I had had three days in a row of Yiddish theater: ‘Yosl Rakover Talks to God’, ‘The Essesnce: A Yiddish Theater Dim Sum’, and ‘Vartn af Godot’. I am so grateful to Jonathan Boyarin (Cornell Jewish Studies), the New Yiddish Rep, Annette Levine (Ithaca College Jewish Studies) and everyone else who had a hand in making that happen. I also had three friends come down from Rochester and one from here, so it was a great social occasion for me.
Godot is freshest in my mind, so I’ll write about that. I had read the play (in English) when young, but this is the first full production I’ve seen. Like any work of true genius, it sets its own criteria for evaluation. Absent an external framework for approaching it, the play makes the viewer feel bewildered and frustrated, mirroring the helplessness of the characters, but it also amuses, provokes thought, and somehow maintains sympathy for individuals who are suffering from what could be just abstractions. The production was acted brilliantly.
Because the script is spare and vague, it is open to multiple reactions and interpretations. Most common is a modernist reading, in which the goal of the play is to explode traditional story-telling tropes. The absence of God(ot) means there’s no omniscient narrator, no linear plot, no happy ending. Put another way, if you think of the play’s author/creator as a stand-in for God, he is inscrutable. No coherent moral can be gleaned from the action. As a modernist play, it is also self-referential. It does not only defy established expectations of storytelling, it also disassembles and reassembles the act of telling a story, thwarting and enacting attempts at diversion, not only for the audience, but for the characters themselves.
Here are four other brief capsule readings of the play just from my reaction and those of my friends: First, it is about the loss of self in a world without memory. This could be a metaphor for Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, or, equally, for cultural discontinuity. How can the characters make sense of their present situation, or act coherently when they can’t remember what happened the day before? Second, it can be seen as a play about mental illness. They continue to repeat actions they know to be pointless or destructive. Their lives are unbearable yet they are trapped. Beckett says, “habit is a great deadener”, implying that we forgo our responsibility to choose. But some people actively try to choose, saying, “I am going to go,” and have what (before modern psychology) used to be called a ‘weakness of the will.’ They are trapped by depression, anxiety, or compulsions and cannot enact what they want to do. Third, for a friend who has had a loved one imprisoned, the play formed a rather exact replica of prison existence.
Finally, it is a play about the holocaust. The second act of the play explicitly invokes the dead millions. Vladimir and Estragon can be seen as trapped because they are twisting and twisting in order to not hear the voices of the dead, whose deaths had been devoid of meaning, and who insistently demand a response. This is why all attempts at storytelling, at finding a meaningful way to pass the time, are abortive. My friend E also pointed out how many people were still in Displaced Person Camps when Beckett began writing in 1948. On this reading, the past fails to provide a guide to the future, not because we know better now than we did then, but because the past has been murdered. The limbo being experienced is not just because the characters are waiting for salvation that doesn’t come, but because like the uncountable numbers of refugees, they have nowhere to go. To round out the ratatouille of reactions, my new older friend enjoyed the Yiddish, but didn’t find any satisfying lens though which to think about the play, and didn’t enjoy it as drama, since there really isn’t much drama to be had.
So what matters about doing the play in Yiddish? First, the joy of the sound of the Yiddish itself. In this performance, Vladimir and Estragon spoke in different dialects. This was great for my listening skills, but could be a plus or minus for the play, depending on how you view it. A plus because the difficulty in coming to any shared understanding is highlighted. A minus because the play was written to be abstract, deliberately stripped of local identifying information. So locating someone as a Galitsianer or a Litvak or anchoring them to any specific subculture can detract from that intentional open-endedness.
In Yiddish, some themes come to the fore more naturally, and some less so. The theme of loss of memory feels particularly poignant. Grief and physical suffering feel more… physical. And the dead millions with their unbearable voices feel, quite specifically, like our dead millions. On the other hand, Lucky’s incoherent speech did not, for me, work as well. Maybe I don’t have the vocabulary, or maybe it’s a little harder to render an abstracted pretentious academic nonsense lingo in Yiddish. Or maybe the implied message here– that all our thinking, and academic thinking above all, avails us nothing when we are confronted by the necessity of individual meaning-making and of moral action—maybe this message is not so palatable to the Jewish tongue.
D pointed out that “I used to be someone,” translates as I used to have a ponim. An identity is a social face. There are analogs in many languages. A self is a social achievement, and it comes with moral requirements, so that ‘losing face’ and ‘saving face’ have to do with shame, and with how we are judged.
The Yiddish Word of the Week is aftselokhes אויף צו להכעיס. The first play in the theater festival, Yosl Rakover Talks to God, portrayed a man who insists on his belief in God even as he goes up in flames at the end of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. In a letter to God, he recounts his experiences and the loss of his loved ones, and descrbes how all his values and attitudes have turned upside-down, so that, for example, he has come to value night above day, and animals above human beings. But he insists on his love for God, despite the fact that he loves the Torah even more, and that judged by its standards, God is wanting. In the end, though God has done everything to drive him away, he remains a believer ‘aftselokhes’, or out of defiance and spite. In Vartn Af Godot, Estragon tries to help Lucky up, after Lucky has collapsed under strain and maltreatment. When Lucky doesn’t stir, Estragon complains, “He’s doing it on purpose”. The victim is accused of deliberately remaining in his victim position. Later the same accusation is leveled against Pozzo. Here, the translator uses ׳aftselokhes׳ as an equivalent.
Finally, if there is any redemption anywhere in Godot, it is in friendship. The characters, who otherwise have nothing, have each other. It’s not clear that either finds it sufficient, but it is what they have. I found this friendship particularly warmly rendered in the Yiddish, or perhaps through the actors fully-felt realization of it. In an absurd world, a world where I am unmoored and must make my own meaning, if friendship is all I can get, I’ll take it. Look how many meanings my friends helped me put on this play, and look how much I enjoyed it because of them.
I fell behind on blogging, so this will have to serve as my New Year’s post as well. Leshone Toyve. A sweet year to each of you, full of all life’s blessings. Together in khevruse (the solidarity of friends) we’ll make it a meaningful one.