"God of Vengeance": A Seminal Script in the Fight to Reclaim Jewish Identity | New Voices – New Voices

Posted By on May 4, 2022

This essay was originally published in the first edition of Yente, a queer and Jewish zine created by a student collective at Oxford. You can read the full first issue digitally or submit to their latest edition here.

Sholem Aschs The God of Vengeance (1906) follows Yekel Tchaftchovitch, a Jew in a provincial Polish town who seeks purity in Gods eyes despite his sinful life. Yekel runs a brothel in his basement, alongside raising his chaste daughter, 17-year-old Rifkele, who symbolizes innocence and spirituality. The dramatic downfall of Rifkele is her overtly sensual love story with Manke, a sex worker. The clash between Yekels revolting career and his paternal idealism described in the preface for a 1918 translation of the script is perceived as the primary drama of the play, but I would argue that the lesbian love story amidst these overbearing religious aims and demands should be viewed as an equally integral aspect of the play. In seeking to reclaim our Jewish identity on our own terms, illustrating the fullness of our humanity through representing our Judaism and its intersections, Asch presents us with a story that challenges us and is worthy of being challenged. Is this not, after all, what our Judaism in all its forms queer, womanly, Other is all about? What is our Torah but a remaking, a drama, a love story between us and ourselves, us and our God?

Written at the end of a national awakening of Jews in Eastern Europe as part of the great Jewish exodus to the West and the reckoning with of Yiddish as a language through which Jewish literature could be redefined and a culture through language re-embraced. Crucially, this birth of Yiddish literature was deeply connected to the revival of an antisemitic crusade across Russia and Eastern Europe. The God of Vengeance examines religion, morality, and their diversification during this time. Asch was at the time the most popular producer of Yiddish fiction, a key figure in the literary renaissance that had begun to take place just a generation before, whose handling of Yiddish was described as music in his hands. His writings, just like those of his predecessor, S. J. Abrahamovitch, the father of the new Yiddish literary movement, are fundamental to the reckoning Jewish and Yiddish culture was undertaking with itself and The God of Vengeance was hailed as his best work. As a Yiddish script, it is a hallmark of Jewish-driven emancipation from the expectations of homogeneity both from Gentiles and other Jews; in laying bare complex Jewish lives without judgement, embedded with bold depictions of lesbian love, The God of Vengeance demands a re-examination of how Jewish lives must not be held to different moral standards than others.

The God of Vengeance is an artistic exploration of a moral battle, of grappling with being deprived of love, and of the contradiction between the innocent, longing for sin, and the sinful, dream of purity. Rifkeles relationship with Manke must be regarded as central to the moral drama. Interpretations of Rifkeles character and plot are, and should be, varied, with the sensitivity that one of the boldest earliest scenes of lesbian love in mainstream modern public theatre requires. Asch himself firmly stated in the program for the Broadway production of The God of Vengeance, Apollo Theater in 1923 that the Rain Scene, in which Manke and Rifkele confess their love and sleep together, was a poetic one, wherein the love between the two girls is not only an erotic one, but rather the unconscious mother love of which they are deprived rather than the sensuous, inverted love of one woman for another. At the same time the plays depiction of what is ultimately a lesbian love scene, with or without the imposition or inclusion of maternal love and want, still comes through as delicately erotic, and full of candor, according to Kaier Curtin. Initial interpretations painted Rifkele as a victim, her fathers attempts to keep her pure thwarted by the vengeful god of Judea who lets her fall into the clutches of Lesbians.

In actuality, much more emphasis should be placed on Rifkeles agency in seeking out and actively consenting to sleeping with Manke (Something drew me so irresistibly to you My heart pounded so wildly), rather than the homophobic interpretation of her as prey to Mankes desires. Embedded in Rifkeles attraction to Manke are ongoing themes of subverting her fathers rule and rebelling against the purity and religious moral code she is ordered to follow to the letter. Both her father and Gods constant presence in her mind as the arbitrators of sin and purity are evidence of her own struggle with the expectations placed upon her to be perfectly virtuous. and this struggle should be taken as part of her persistent agency rather than a victimisation or delegating this internal battle to Yekel as protagonist.

The religious symbolism undeniably dominates interpretations of Rifkeles love for Manke from how Rifkele stole the key from the Scroll, to how Yekel then feels he has failed the Scroll, and therefore God (Take the Holy Scroll with you! I dont need it anymore!). But it should not supersede the importance to the drama and subsequent analysis that this is a passionate love scene between two women, where marriage (we are bride and bridegroom) and sex are discussed overtly and even performed. Asch felt he should depict, if not lust between two women, at the very least an unconscious mother love. The concept of a mothers love is almost always conventionally based on the idea of not just unconditional love, as might be presupposed, but rather a love based on trust. However although she does not have trust in the home (as she fears that her father will hurt her, and her mother is unable to protect her) Rifkele ultimately finds sanctity and sanctuary through the exploration of her desires regardless of lesbian nature or not with a figure she feels she has a trusting connection.

Despite a fairly successful run across European theatres for several years after its premiere in 1907, Asch was met with immense backlash when the 1922 English-language production transferred to Broadway. After an outpouring of rage from conservative Jews and goyim alike, the play was removed from Broadway and the cast was arrested for obscenity. The reception made a clear statement: Jews cannot be complicated. For Jews today, this fight to exist beyond the binary and to challenge its very existence is far from over. For queer Jews, our freedom to engage in that fight and in our communities without shame or hatred remains remarkably narrow. Perhaps, then, we can and should gain a certain strength from Aschs drama: we can draw a righteous anger from Yekels despair at his entrapment within societys many religious binaries and stereotypes. We can seek vengeance for the mistreatment of women like Manke, their freedom curbed by sexual violence, fundamentalist misogyny, and ingrained lesbophobia. Perhaps the deepest and truest of mitzvot for us to fulfill would be to open up a better world for girls like Rifkele: those desperately in need of trust and care, to feel excitement and love, to be free and liberated, and to retain full agency both in our eyes and in the eyes of God.

Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash.

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"God of Vengeance": A Seminal Script in the Fight to Reclaim Jewish Identity | New Voices - New Voices

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