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    AC Benus
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The Great Mirror of Same-Sex Love - Prose - 1. Sholem Asch's "The God of Vengeance"

.

Two excerpts from the Yiddish play “The God of Vengeance”

 

from the end of Act One:

 

(Summary: Yekel is a man anxious to atone for his sins through commissioning a copy of the Torah for his home, and marrying off his blameless seventeen-year-old daughter to a family of high standing. Yekel and his wife Sora run a female prostitution ring from the basement level of their house. When the scene starts, Yekel has gone off to the synagogue to parade the Torah back to his abode, and his wife and daughter straighten the upstairs living quarters.)

 

SORA: (starts to tidy up quickly and set the table. Calls into RIVKELE’s room)

Rivkele, Rivkele, come in here and help me. They’Il be here soon with the Torah Scroll.

 

RIVKELE: (appears in the door with uncertainty) Father isn’t here?

 

SORA: No, Rivkele, he’s gone to the synagogue with Reb Elye and the Scribe to

bring back some people. The Rabbi will be coming.

 

RIVKELE: (shows the vestment for the Scroll) You see how prettily I’ve embroidered It?

 

SORA: (busy) I see, I see. Comb your hair; get dressed. people will be here the Rabbi and. . . .

 

RIVKELE: I’m going to call Manke up here to comb me . . . I love, to have her

combs me . She does it so beautifully. She makes my hair so smooth . . . and her hands are so cool. (She takes something and knocks on the floor, calling) Manke, Manke!

 

SORA: (frightened) What are you doing, Rivkele? Stop! Your father will be furious.

It isn’t seemly for you to be friendly with Manke anymore. You’re old enough to be married now; you’re a respectable girl with excellent prospects. Fine young men are being proposed for you, young scholars.

 

RIVKELE: I love Manke so much.

 

SORA: It’s shameful for you to be close with Manke. You’re a respectable girl and

you’ll be friends with other respectable girls. You have prospects, fine young men. Your father went to look at the young man who’ll be your bridegroom. Reb Elye said. . . . (She goes offstage, into the next room) It’s time to wash and dress. Our guests Will be here soon.

 

RIVKELE: A bridegroom for me? What kind of young man is he, Mamma dear?

 

SORA: (offstage, from the other room) He’s a gem of a boy, a good student,

comes from a fine family.

 

(MANKE appears in the opposite door. She first pokes her head in, then playfully wiggles her finger at RIVKELE. RIVKELE goes over to her, walking cautiously backwards, beckoning to her as she does so. The room starts to get dark.)

 

RIVKELE: (falls into MANKE’s arms. Talks to her mother offstage, in the other

room) Is he good looking, Mamma? (MANKE kisses her passionately)

 

SORA: (offstage, from the other room) Yes, child, a handsome bridegroom, with

black sidelocks and a satin coat and a velvet cap. He dresses like a rabbi, and he is a rabbi’s son. Reb Elye said so.

 

RIVKELE: (in MANKE’s arms, caressing MANKE’s cheeks) Where will he stay, Mamma?

 

SORA: (offstage, from the other room) Right here, in your room, where the Torah

Scroll will be. He’ll live there with you and study the holy Torah.

 

RIVKELE: (in MANKE’s arms) But will he love me, Mamma?

 

SORA: (offstage, as before) Very much, child, very much. And the two of you will

have honest children, decent children.

 

(During the conversation the curtain descends slowly, leaving RIVKELE in MANKE’s embrace.)

 

 

from near the end of Act Two:

 

(Summary: A rainy night has closed up shop downstairs. A few weeks later than the end of Act One, the lead prostitute Hindel and the bouncer/pimp Shloyme have received “Uncle’s” permission to buy themselves out of his business; this is exactly how Yekel and Sora came to operate a house of their own. The problem for the young couple is girls. They are hesitant to strike out on their own without experienced prostitutes to start earning them money immediately. So, while the working girls of the house play out in the rain, Hindel thinks she’s come up with a solution.)

 

MANKE: (glides out from behind the curtain of her compartment. She is half-dressed with a light shawl thrown over her shoulder. Her colored stockings are visible, and her hair is in disorder. Her eyes sparkle with wanton cunning. Her face is long and possesses a whimsical beauty; she’s quite young still. A lock of her hair hangs down over her forehead. As she speaks, she blinks. Then her whole body shudders as though her bones were collapsing. She looks around surprised.) What, nobody here?

 

REYZEL: (cheered at the sight of MANKE) Is that you, Manke? Good, you came in. (Points to HINDEL.) She’s almost made a rabbi’s wife of me. Where did you leave your client?

 

MANKE: Where he was. He fell asleep, so I stole away.

 

REYZEL: Is he a big spender? You think he’ll treat us to beer?

 

MANKE: He’s some kind of a simpleton from up north. This makes the third time he’s come for me. He keeps cross-examining me: who’s my father; who’s my mother. You’d think he’s interviewing me to be his wife. And worse, when he kisses me, he hides his face in my breasts, closes his eyes and smiles like a baby in his mother’s arms. (Looks around; whispers to HINDEL.) Hasn’t Rivkele been here?

 

HINDEL: (with a teasing laugh) Oh, she was here…but so was her father. And my oh, my – didn’t he raise hell.

 

MANKE: You’re kidding! When was that?

 

HINDEL: Quite a while ago. He must be asleep by now. (Softly.) She’ll probably be down again soon.

 

REYZEL: (happily to MANKE) Come on, Manke, let’s go out into the street. It’s raining. The drops are like pearls – the first shower of May. Who’s coming out with me for a rain bath?

 

MANKE: (walks over to the window) It is raining. And how light the drizzle. How wonderful it smells! Oh, let’s go out.

 

BASHA: Back home, when it rains this, the curbs overflow and flood the narrow streets, and we take off our shoes and stockings and dance in the rain barefoot. (She removes her shoes and stockings.) Who wants to be second? (To MANKE.) Take your shoes off, Manke. Let’s dance in the rain!

 

MANKE: (removes her shoes and stockings; loosens her hair) Now the rain will soak us from head to toe. You’ll grow taller if you stand in the rain in May, won’t you? Don’t they say that?

 

BASHA: (runs over) Come on, let’s splash each other; let’s pour water over our heads. (She loosens her hair.) We’ll drench our hair just like we’re the trees. Come on!

 

HINDEL: Wait. Wait. ‘Uncle’ isn’t asleep yet. He’ll hear you. (All listen towards the ceiling.)

REYZEL: Let’s go. Can’t you hear him snoring?

 

MANKE: Wait…. I’ll tap softly for Rivkele.

 

(BASHA and REYZEL leave. MANKE takes a stick and taps lightly in a corner of the ceiling. From the street come sounds of the girls skipping about in the water. They take handfuls of raindrops and throw them through the open door, calling, “Come on! Come on!”)

 

RIVKELE: (pokes her head through the little window. She is wearing her night clothes and is wrapped in a light shawl. She whispers cautiously.) Manke; Manke…. Did you call for me?

 

MANKE: (takes a chair, puts it under the window, steps up and reaches RIVKELE’S hands) Yes, Rivkele, I called you. Come, we’ll stand under the May rain, anoint each other with drops over the head, and grow taller.

 

RIVKELE: (from the window) Shush, speak softly. I crept out of bed so my father wouldn’t hear me. I’m afraid – he’ll beat me if he finds out.

 

MANKE: Don’t be afraid of your father. He won’t get up now. Let’s stand in the rain. I’ll let your hair down. (She undoes RIVKELE’s braids.) There, now I’ll bathe your tresses in the rain for you. I’ll show you.

 

RIVKELE: I’m only wearing a nightgown. I’ve been lying in bed all night waiting for my father to fall asleep so I could sneak down to you. I heard you knocking and I slid out of bed. I stole out so quietly, barefoot, so my father wouldn’t hear me.

 

MANKE: (hugs her passionately) Come, Rivkele, let me wash your eyes in raindrops. The night is so pure, the rain is so warm, and everything is fragrant. Come down.

 

RIVKELE: Shush; be quiet. I’m afraid of my father. He beat me earlier. He locked the door and hid the key under the Torah Scroll. I was in bed the whole time. I heard you call me. You called so softly. I was drawn to you. I stole the key from the Ark of the Scroll. My heart’s pounding and pounding.

 

MANKE: Wait, Rivkele, wait. I’m coming out to you. (She jumps off the chair and leaves the cellar.) I’m coming. I’m coming to you. (MANKE leaves. RIVKELE withdraws her face from the window.)

HINDEL: (has been listening intently to the conversation between MANKE and RIVKELE from behind the curtain of her compartment. She now begins to pace the cellar excitedly, lost in thought and muttering to herself) God willing, I can snag both of them this very night. I’ll take them straight to Shloyme’s room and say to him ‘Here you go. Here’s our bread and butter. Now rent a place, marry me and become as respectable a gent as anyone else.’ (She stops abruptly, raising her hand towards the ceiling.) Father in heaven, you are a father to all of us orphans . . . are you not? Mother of mine, in your early grave, pray for me. Let my troubles come to an end. Let me at last be settled in my own house! . . . (Pauses.) If God is good to me, I too will have the Torah written out for my home. Every Sabbath I’ll donate three pounds of wax candles to the Synagogue. (A longer pause follows as she considers all that could go wrong.) Yes, after all, the Lord is good . . . a good father to us . . . and my mother, please pray on my behalf . . . remain no longer silent . . . do something for me, for once . . . . (She returns to her compartment and begins packing her belongings.) But first things first; I have to be ready.

 

(A long pause. No one appears on the stage. Then MANKE comes in huddling RIVKELE against her. Both are wrapped in a single wet shawl. Their hair is dripping wet. Large drops of water fall on the floor from their clothes. They are barefoot. HINDEL listens as before from behind her curtain.)

MANKE: (speaks with restrained passion and love – softly, but with deep resonance) Are you cold, Rivkele, darling? Nestle close to me . . . ever so close. Warm yourself next to me. Come, let’s sit here on the couch. (She leads her to a fainting couch and sits down next to her.) Just like this . . . Now rest your face snugly in my bosom. Yes, just like that. And let your body touch mine. It’s so cool . . . as if water were running between us. (Pauses.) I uncovered your breasts and washed them with the rainwater that trickled down my arms. Your breasts are so white and soft. And the blood in them cools under the touch, just like the driven snow – like frozen water . . . and their fragrance is like the grass on the meadows. And I let down your hair like so . . . (Runs her fingers through RIVKELE’s hair.) And I held these tresses like this in the rain and washed them. How sweet they smell . . . Like the rain itself . . . (She buries her face in RIVKELE’s hair.) Yes, I can smell the scent of May on them . . . . So light, so fine . . . . And fresh . . . as the grass in the meadows . . . as the apple on the bough . . . . So, cool me, refresh me with your tresses. (She washes her face in RIVKELE’s hair.) Cool me – yes. But wait . . . I’ll comb you as if you were a bride . . . a nice part and two long, black braids. (She does so.) Do you want me to, Rivkele? Do you?

RIVKELE: (nodding) Yes, I would like that.

MANKE: You’ll be the bride. . . a beautiful bride. . . . It’s Sabbath eve, and you are sitting with your papa and mamma at the table. . . . I — I am your sweetheart . . . your bridegroom, and I’ve come as your guest. Eh, Rivkele? Do you like that idea?

RIVKELE: (nodding) Yes, I do.

 

MANKE: Wait, now; wait. Your father and mother have gone to sleep. Bride and groom are left at the table. We’re bashful, aren’t we?

 

RIVKELE: (nodding agreement) Yes, Manke.

 

MANKE: Then we draw close to each other: you’re my bride and I’m your bridegroom. We embrace. (She puts her arms around her.) We’re pressed together ever so tightly, and we kiss very quietly, like this. (They kiss.) We blush; we’re so nervous. But it’s right, isn’t it Rivkele?

 

RIVKELE: Yes, Manke, it is . . . yes.

 

MANKE: (lowers her voice, whispering in her ear) And then we’ll go sleep together, in the same bed. No one sees; no one hears. It is just you and I, like this. (She clasps RIVKELE tightly to her.) Do you want to sleep with me tonight, the whole night through, Rivkele, in the same bed?

 

RIVKELE: (embracing her, but glancing about nervously) I do. Oh, I do.

 

MANKE: Then, come. Come.

 

RIVKELE: (whispering) I’m afraid of my father. He may wake up and . . . .

 

MANKE: Wait, Rivkele, wait a moment. (Reflects awhile.) Do you want to run away with me? We could be together both day and night. Your father won’t be there; your mother won’t be there. No one will scold you or beat you. We’ll be as one, all day long. We’ll be so happy. What do you say, Rivkele?

 

RIVKELE: (closes her eyes) My father wouldn’t know?

 

MANKE: No. We’ll run off tonight, now, with Hindel, to her house. She has a house with Shloyme. She told me so. You’ll see how good it will be. Young people will be there; young officers. We’ll be on our own the whole day. We’ll dress like soldiers too and ride around on their horses. Come, Rivkele. Would you like to? Would you?

 

RIVKELE: (trembling with excitement) Won’t Papa hear us leave?

 

MANKE: No, no, he won’t hear us. He sleeps so soundly. There, can’t you hear him snoring? (She runs to HINDEL’s compartment; seizes her by the hand.) You do have a house, don’t you? Come quickly. Come take us.

 

HINDEL: (agreeing eagerly) Yes, yes, quickly, to Shloyme’s. (She grabs a dress, throws it to RIVKELE.) He’ll take us to safety.

 

MANKE: (quickly dressing RIVKELE) You’ll see how good it will be; how perfect it will be. (They both dress, putting on whatever comes to hand: a shawl; a coat. They slowly ascend the steps. At the door they encounter REYZEL and BASHA, drenched to the skin, who are just returning to the cellar.)

 

REYZEL and BASHA: What’s this? Where are you going?

 

HINDEL: Don’t make any noise. Don’t make a sound. We’re going out for some beer; just for some lemonade.

 

(HINDEL, MANKE and RIVKELE leave. REYZL and BASHA look at each other in surprise.)

Sholem Asch,[i]

Got fun nekome, 1906

 

[translators: Isaac Goldberg and Joseph Landis]

 

 

 

 

 

 


[i] “Two excerpts from the Yiddish play The God of Vengeance”

 

Isaac Goldberg, translator, The God of Vengeance: drama in three acts by Sholom Ash [sic] (Boston 1918).

https://archive.org/details/godofvengeancedrx00asch

 

Joseph Landis, editor and translator, Three Great Jewish Plays (New York 1986): excerpts from “The God of Vengeance,” ps. 87-88 (Act One); ps. 94-99 (Act Two).

https://archive.org/details/threegreatjewish00land/page/86/mode/2up

 

_

Copyright © 2021 AC Benus; All Rights Reserved.
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3 hours ago, Parker Owens said:

You make me want to see the rest of the play. These are wonderful excerpts. Thank you!  

Thank you, my dear friend. I have to say this is the most thought-provoking plays I've read in a long while. The staging of the Second Act must be so, so effective at moving a live audience. 

I have read that Asch was one of the best-seeling authors in America in the first half of the 20th century, and his novels were greatly admired. It's funny how someone so important seems to have vanished from the American consciousness

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I was really surprised to see the date of this play. Must have been seen as very forward for its time. 

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5 hours ago, Mawgrim said:

I was really surprised to see the date of this play. Must have been seen as very forward for its time. 

Thanks Mawgrim. The play was a super hit of its day, being translated and staged all over Europe. The Yiddish original was produced in New York in 1907, and stayed on the stage many years. It'd be fascinating to research all the period reviews and commentary concerning this play. Thanks for your comment :)  

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