One thought on “Unpacking Lintel’s background”

  1. Mr. Groberman:

    I don’t often respond to reviewers, but I just can’t let your review go unanswered.

    I won’t weigh down this note with the long list of unequivocally positive reviews this little play has amassed (“mixed reviews” is accurate only in that a few dozen pans are in a mix with several hundred raves.). Suffice to say, for a play that has had close to 300 productions in the last 14 years while garnering a number of awards, it’s disheartening to see your comments about “sloppy writing,” an “ignorant reading of the Wandering Jew folktale,” all from a “very naïve” playwright. I believe your comments spring from a somewhat parochial perspective on anti-Semitism.

    When I began writing the play, I was interested in covering a large swath of human history, and my thoughts kept turning back to the myth of the Wandering Jew. Now I did have a few Jewish friends who raised a dubious eyebrow or two at the idea of appropriating what was essentially “a Christian myth.” (As you mention, I’m Jewish myself). But artists have often appropriated myths and used them for their own ends. Indeed, I believed taking the myth of the Wandering Jew out of it’s particular Judeo-Christian context to speak of something more universal might help strip the myth of any lingering “anti-semitism.” (According to my research, the “anti-semitism” was a quality of the story that began to wane as far back as the 18th century, as Romantic writers began attributing wisdom and nobility to the character of the Wandering Jew.)

    More notably, a few months after writing the play, I was pleased to learn of a 1933 film entitled “The Wandering Jew.” This film, written and performed by Jews (in Yiddish!), was the first film to call attention to the growing Nazi menace. In the film, a Jewish man is thrown out of the Berlin Art Academy because of his religion. This man’s painting was a depiction of the Wandering Jew, with his late father as the model for the Jew. When the painter decides to burn the painting, the father (as the Wandering Jew), steps out of the painting to tell him not to burn the painting, explaining to him that throughout history it has been the Jewish people’s role to teach and instruct. The film then reviews the last 2000 years of persecution.

    This film (made by people with unimpeachable “Jewish bona fides”) used the character of the Wandering Jew as a spokesperson for the Jewish people. It was a clearly unironic (and most certainly not anti-Semitic) appropriation of the myth. Indeed, to appropriate such a story in this fashion was an empowering action. Surely their conviction (and mine) was that demanding compassion for the protagonist robs the myth of its perniciousness. For truly what makes a tale racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic, or homophobic, isn’t a hatred of African-Americans, Jews, Moslems, or gays respectively. It is simply (simply!) a lack of compassion—an inability to put oneself in another person’s shoes. One’s particular ethnicity has—in the end—nothing to do with hatred. And yes, I believe that a myopic understanding of anti-Semitism can blind Jews in particular to the plight of other peoples, including their Palestinian neighbors in Israel.

    You write: “Berger, therefore, reduces the fable to ‘people make mistakes.’ What mistake? Was it a mistake to reject Jesus and Christianity?” I wonder if you’re being disingenuous, for just one sentence before you pose your question, you quote me with my answer. What is the single mistake? Simply this: “He put fear and self-interest ahead of compassion.” When a tortured man begs for rest at your doorstep, you don’t worry about whether this is an embrace or rejection of a religion that hasn’t even been created yet. You do what you can to help the tortured man. Period.

    As for the ending with the “Cartoon Jew,” I can’t comment on the current production, as I haven’t seen it. But I’ll point out that the script merely states that The Librarian exits the stage with the travel guide in his hand while Klezmer music plays. The script mentions nothing about how he is dressed, or even whether he should be dancing or not. I would gently counsel you to distinguish in the future between a play’s script and its production.

    And I’ll point out that the play ran for over a year in New York City. I’m sure that—especially in New York—it could never have had a run of 450 performances if the play was—intentionally or not—anti-Semitic. In fact, the Jewish Forward reviewer wrote that on the first viewing, she thought it was anti-Semitic, but she changed her mind completely the second time she saw the show.

    One of the more gratifying responses during the NYC run came from a fellow who was born in Zabludow (a village mentioned in the play), and escaped the Holocaust, and thanked me vigorously in person for writing a play that captured the Jewish spirit so well. I don’t deny that the presence of the myth in my play can lead to a complicated response in an audience (particularly a Jewish one), but that’s fine with me, especially if it leads us to debate (as is our Midrashic tradition) our relationship to History, Hatred & Compassion, and the Future of Humanity. And for that, I thank you for your bracingly opinionated piece.

    All the best to you,
    Glen Berger

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