UWM researcher lends Yiddish expertise to provocative drama ‘Indecent’

Paula Vogel the drama “Indecent” embodies a passionate argument familiar to anyone who studies acting or literature.

“Why does every Jew on stage have to be a paragon? asks a playwright who has just written a provocative work.

“It’s a play written by a Jew who hates Jews,” said one respondent who didn’t appreciate the provocation.

But “Indecent”, fashioned from the bones of a Yiddish theater classic, is also full of love stories: the love that two women share, the love of a simple tailor for a life of theater, and a people’s love for the language it carried from the shtetls of Eastern Europe to cities around the world.

Milwaukee Chamber Theater begins performing “Indecent” on March 11.

“Indecent” dramatizes the saga of “God of Vengeance” (“I had fun nekome”), Sholem Asch’s 1907 Yiddish play. In Asch’s drama, a Polish Jewish father who lives off the brothel in his basement wants to marry his virgin daughter to a devout Jewish groom. The father even orders a Torah scroll, which he places in the daughter’s room for protection. But she fell in love with one of the prostitutes downstairs.

A scene of sweet love between the women and the explosive confrontation of the father with his daughter is reproduced in “Indecent”, as the public sees actors playing her in a living room and then in Europe before she arrives in New York . After “God of Vengeance” opened on Broadway in 1923, cast members and the producer were arrested for “participation in an obscene, indecent, immoral and impure drama or play”, resulting in a trial, convictions and eventual successful reversal on appeal.

Any marginalized group — Jews, Blacks, Asian Americans, LGBT people — has internal discussions like those in “Indecent,” said Joel Berkowitz, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at UWM. A specialist in Yiddish theatre, Berkowitz is a playwright for the Milwaukee Chamber production, advising on cultural and literary issues.

“Look, it’s one thing for us to have these discussions internally,” Berkowitz said, summing up the band’s opposition to the staging of troubling behavior. But opponents of such a literary franchise fear that “it’s going to be misused if it gets out of this room,” giving our enemies ammunition, he says.

Joel Berkowitz is director of the Center for Jewish Studies at UWM

But “Indecent” is more than a debate on artistic norms and transgressions. On the one hand, it’s a fast-paced acting challenge, with Chamber’s actors moving quickly through scenes of characters playing actors playing characters. Musicians Lodewijk Broekhuizen, Jason Gresl and Christie Chiles Twillie form the klezmer band on stage, playing thematic music, including the worldwide Yiddish musical theater hit, “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön”.

And though it’s played in English, “Indecent” is frequently punctuated with Yiddish, the language spoken by millions of Ashkenazi Jews before the Holocaust and still spoken today.

As someone who works on Yiddish theater and culture, Berkowitz likes that “Indecent” pays homage to the language and the world it has been embedded in.

His father was born to Polish Jewish refugees who eventually made it to the United States, so Yiddish was in his midst. But he really embraced it in grad school while working on his doctorate in theater. When he did a month-long intensive program in Yiddish, “it was like falling in love…you’re a bit gaga,” he said. His passion deepened into further study, a doctoral thesis (and a first book) on Shakespeare on the American Yiddish scene, and the co-founding of the Digital Yiddish Theater Project, which is hosted by UWM.

Berkowitz was Yiddish consultant for four previous productions of “Indecent,” including its Yale Repertory Theater premiere.

‘Indecent’ touches on ‘how vitally important Yiddish theater was to millions of Yiddish speakers’ not only in Eastern Europe, but also in other parts of Europe, the United States and in Canada, and elsewhere, he said.

A common misconception is that Yiddish has had its day and is a thing of the past, Berkowitz noted. “There are so many reasons to challenge that thought,” he said. He finds the persistence of “Vengeance of God” to be a “beautiful and powerful” demonstration of the Yiddish metaphor of golden key, the golden chain of Jewish tradition continues from generation to generation.

“‘Indecent’ definitely serves to bring awareness of (‘Vengeance of God’) to a whole new audience,” Berkowitz said. But even outside of “Indecent,” the previous play had modern and striking Israeli and Polish productions. “Like any classic piece, they find different ways to tell the story,” he said.

Contact Jim Higgins at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @jhiggy.

if you are going to

Milwaukee Chamber Theater carried out “Indecent” March 11-27 at the Broadway Theater Center, 158 N. Broadway. For tickets, visit www.milwaukeechambertheatre.org or call (414) 291-7800. Proof of vaccination or recent negative COVID-19 test required. Mandatory masks.