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Oedipus, Shmedipus: ancient Greek drama on the modern Yiddish stage.

And beautiful was Hannah like Venus

--I. L. Peretz, "Venus and Shulamis" 1889

At the turn of the twentieth century, some forty years after the establishment of the first professional Yiddish theater troupe, Jewish playwrights and directors began to introduce the plots, characters, and dramatic motifs of ancient Greek tragedy onto the modern Yiddish stage. Even as these writers sought to make fifth-century Greek drama resonate for their Yiddish-speaking audiences, they consistently engaged in what Glenda Abramson has termed "the Judaization of Greek mythology." (1) Yiddish playwrights reconfigured the ancient tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides to reflect a particular set of Jewish literary norms and values. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Yiddish translations and adaptations of those Greek dramas that prominently feature a maternal protagonist.

This article traces the gradual development of a Greek presence in the modern Yiddish theater through a case study of the various permutations of two ancient Greek tragedies that best exemplify this model of maternal centrality--Medea and Oedipus the King. Their Yiddish equivalents in Jacob Gordin's epic Medea (1897) and The Wild Princess (1898), Z. Libin's domestic tragedy Henele, or, The Jewish Medea (1903) and Mendl Elkin's The Sorrows of Oedipus (1935) may be set in different locales, feature an assortment of Greek and Jewish characters, and demonstrate varying degrees of fidelity to their ancient Greek source texts. (2) Yet despite these surface variations, these adaptations are characterized by deep similarities in approach. In an effort to combat the traditional Jewish aversion toward Greek culture, Yiddish playwrights transposed their ancient Greek source texts onto a thoroughly modern Jewish landscape, complete with biblically derived morals, a deep distrust of polytheistic "superstition" and the veneration of the hallowed Jewish mother.

In the following pages, I aim to demonstrate how Yiddish writers employed three primary mitigating strategies in their translations and adaptations of Greek tragedies. Each adaptor struggled to temper the implicit challenge to Jewish tradition posed by inclusion of Greek material by adding a variety of elements designed to resonate with a Jewish audience. First, Yiddish writers replaced the polytheistic pantheon of ancient Greece with a neutral or pseudo-monotheistic theology. Second, writers emphasized biblical and national parallels in order to render these plays more familiar to a Jewish audience. Finally, many twentieth-century Yiddish versions of Greek dramas substantially revised morally ambiguous maternal characters to align with the more familiar archetype of the overly devoted Yidishe mame of the Jewish stage.

Writers and translators in both Hebrew and Yiddish were initially wary of Greek material because of its dual sacred-secular prohibition by Rabbinic tradition and influential Enlightenment thinkers alike; however, both theatrical traditions simultaneously embraced Greek tragedy at the turn of the century. Yet classic social histories such as Hutchins Hapgood's Spirit of the Ghetto, as well as the standard Yiddish theater histories by B. Gorin, Nokhum Oyslender, and Jacob Mestel, scarcely mention translations of Greek drama into Yiddish. A few articles have considered the presence of Greek material in Hebrew, most notably, Glenda Abramson's "Hellenism Revisited: The Uses of Greek Myth in Modern Hebrew Literature" (Prooftexts, 1990) and Dwora Gilula's "The First Greek Drama on the Hebrew Stage: Tyrone Guthrie's Oedipus Rex and the Habima" (Theatre Research International, 1988). However, there has been no study to date investigating the presence of Greek drama in the modern Yiddish theater, which was far more popular and widespread than its Hebrew counterparts in the early twentieth century. In exploring the encounter between ancient Greek drama and modern Yiddish theater in the twentieth century, this paper suggests an approach to Yiddish theater history that accounts for the modern Jewish response to classical Greek drama as encountered on the Yiddish stage.

I. Blotting Out Venus

As Yaacov Shavit has argued in his seminal article on the Jewish reception of Greek mythology, Heine's griechische Fabelwelt (Greek fantasy world) was never a vital part of Jewish culture. (3) Jewish leaders continued to regard Greek culture as fundamentally opposed to Jewish religious practice and moral values long after the final collapse of Greek cultural hegemony in the guise of the fall of the Roman Empire. Indeed, Jewish antipathy toward Greek drama is firmly embedded in the Talmud. During the reign of King Herod, Jews in Palestine began to build theaters in imitation of the Hellenistic entertainment enjoyed by their neighbors. Jewish leaders responded by prohibiting the community from attending theaters, circuses, or performances of any sort:
   Our Rabbis taught: One should not go to theatres or circuses
   because entertainments are arranged there in honour of the
   idols.... Where such entertainments are given there is the
   prohibition of being suspected of idolatrous worship, and where
   such entertainment is not given, the prohibition is because of
   being in "the seat of the scornful" (moshav letsim). (4)

Rabbinic authorities viewed the theater as a threat to normative Jewish values and behavior precisely because of its Greek origins and close association with idolatry and polytheism. By prohibiting not only the Greco-Roman theater but also all forms of theatrical activity, Rabbinic authorities hoped to halt the spread of Hellenistic cultural and religious assimilation throughout the Jewish world. Although ancient rabbis may have been united in their opposition to the theater, they were unable to prohibit theatrical activity altogether. Instead, Jewish lawmakers consented to permit theatrical performance once a year on Purim. On this topsy-turvy holiday when the forbidden is permitted, plays re-enacting the story of Esther became a permanent element of the Purim tradition beginning as early as the ninth century CE. Emerging simultaneously with the Christian liturgical drama in Western Europe, these Purimshpiln--usually written and performed in Yiddish--provided an opportunity for Jews to perform within the confines of traditional religious law.

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, proponents of the Jewish Enlightenment began writing Yiddish plays of a different sort. In contrast to the raucous plays of the Purim tradition, the maskilim (Enlightenment proponents) hoped to introduce refined, European-style drama into Jewish literature. Although the maskilim sought to emulate European models, they continued to maintain their distance from the Greek theatrical canon. Several leading figures of the Jewish Enlightenment specifically advised aspiring writers to avoid Greek themes. Naphtali Herz Wessely warned prospective translators of the classics: "[D]o not mention the names of the ancient gods that the Greeks and Romans referred to in their poems and ethics, and to which all the European poets of our times are drawn, for Jacob supped not of things like these." (5) Wessely was not alone in his severe disapproval of classical translation; Enlightenment leaders throughout Europe published similar editorials. Accordingly, few Hebrew or Yiddish translations of classical material were published during this period.

A century after Wessely's admonition, the Yiddish and Hebrew writer I. L. Peretz published "Venus and Shulamis" (1889)--a short story in which two Yeshiva students debate the legendary beauty of Venus. One, schooled in Enlightenment thought and European culture, argues that the biblical heroines Hannah and Shulamis were as beautiful as Venus. Initially, the second student does not understand the reference, but as his study partner begins to explain Greek and Roman mythology, he becomes increasingly troubled by the implications of this claim:

"Enough," blurted Haim, jumping out of his chair. "Enough! I'm absolutely sick. This you call a goddess! And she had a thousand men massacred, run through, and slaughtered! And she gives herself to adultery, whoring, and murder! It's sickening!" (6)

At the end of the story, Haim has the last word. "Blot her out!" he commands his friend, "Erase her name from your book." (7) Like the Talmudic sages and Wessely before him, Peretz posits a binary, mutually exclusive relationship of cultural opposition between Jewish and Greek religion, culture, and moral values. The Jewish writer seeking to introduce Greek material would have to contend with readers like Haim for whom Greek culture can only be introduced into Jewish literature in order to be blotted out, and thus negated.

II. The Maternal Barbarian

A few years after Peretz published "Venus and Shulamis," another maskilic writer named Jacob Gordin began composing his own adaptations of Greek and Western European material. Gordin envisioned himself as a didactic playwright-educator who could teach the Yiddish-speaking masses to appreciate Western-style "literary" drama. He hoped to raise the aesthetic level of the Yiddish theater by adopting Western themes and by translating European classics for the Yiddish stage. After completing a highly successful adaptation of King Lear, Gordin adapted plays by Schiller, Octave Mirbeau, and Gerhardt Hauptmann, among others. Even in his supposed "original" dramas, such as Mirele Efros (1898), God, Man, and Devil (1900), Kreytzer Sonata (1902), and Without a Home (1907), traces of Tolstoy, Gorky, and Ibsen are readily apparent. (8) By transgressing the boundary between Jewish and non-Jewish writers, Gordin hoped to bridge the traditional binary opposition between Jewish and Western cultures.

In 1897, Gordin published his first adaptation of Greek material--a version of Medea based on Franz Grillparzer's German trilogy The Golden Fleece (1822), itself loosely modeled on Euripides' archetypal tragedy. Gordin's Medea had a highly successful run on the New York Yiddish stage. The following year, he published The Wild Princesss, or, Medea's Youth, a prelude piece that details Medea's childhood in Colchis. Prior to Gordin's two Medea plays, there had been no tradition of translations or adaptations of Greek drama for the Yiddish stage. The enormous popularity of Gordin's Greek-inspired plays sparked a new trend as influential Yiddish playwrights were inspired by Gordin's example to adapt their own versions of Greek material

In the three decades after Gordin's Medea, Greek-inspired drama became a staple of the Yiddish stage. In 1903, Z. Libin's domestic melodrama Henele, or The Jewish Medea captivated New York audiences with its portrayal of an American immigrant Medea abandoned by her assimilated husband. Nine years later, Lamed Bergman translated Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound into Yiddish. In 1920, Zalmen Zilbertsvayg published Diana and Hercules, two one-act "translations" that he claimed originated from nonexistent European authors. That same year, Alter Kacyzne published his poetic drama Prometheus in Warsaw. In 1935, Mendl Elkin's The Sorrows of Oedipus, a lyrical adaptation of Oedipus the King, was a hit with New York audiences. Greek influence was not limited to the Yiddish theater; among the Greek-inspired publications of this period were undated translations of Plato's Gorgias, Seneca's Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, as well as Homer's Odyssey (1937); scholarly works such as Arseny Nesmelov's Grikhishe mitn (Greek Myths, 1922), Herman Frank's Grikhishe khakhomim (Greek Sages, 1923), Zelig Kalmanovitch's Yiddish translation of R. Viper's Uchebniki drevnei istorii (History of the Ancient World, 1923), P. S. Kogan's Di geshikhte fun der Grikhisher literatur (The History of Greek Literature, 1927), and Reuven Agushevits' Di alt-Grikhishe filozofye (Ancient Greek Philosophy, 1935); and literary retellings such as Kan-Ski's Grikhishe mayselekh (Greek Tales, 1919), Golde Patz's Ilias un Odiseya (Iliad and Odyssey, 1924), and a Yiddish translation of Nathanial Hawthorne's The Golden Touch: A Greek Legend (1936).

The first published edition of Gordin's Medea opens with an introduction by literary critic M. Bukanski. Composed in a self-consciously Germanized Yiddish register, Bukanski's introduction aims to demonstrate the cultural and literary value of Euripides' Medea to an audience predisposed to doubt its worth. (9) Not only do characters of Medea frequently appeal to pagan deities, but its heroine is the antithesis of the infallible Jewish mother as commonly portrayed on the fin-de-siecle Yiddish stage. After all, the climax of Medea involves intentional infanticide--a crime that, while highly problematic in any cultural context, would carry an especially shocking impact for an audience accustomed to the dramatic veneration of the overly devoted Jewish mother. Plays such as Hurwitz's Mother Love and Pinski's The Mother, with their self-sacrificing maternal heroines, dominated the Yiddish box office at the turn of the century. Joseph Lateiner's The Jewish Heart (1908), a domestic drama about a mother who confesses to a murder she did not commit in order to save her son from arrest, was so successful that it set a new record for most consecutive performances. For Gordin, writing a Yiddish Medea would require re-envisioning the emblematic filicidal murderess as a woman motivated primarily by her unrelenting devotion to her children.

Historians of the Yiddish theater have tended to characterize Gordin's Medea as a direct translation of the third play in Grillparzer's Medea trilogy, despite the fact that Grillparzer is never accorded authorial status in Gordin's text. At first glance, the two plays appear remarkably similar. The sequence of events in each act of Gordin's play is virtually identical to Grillparzer's dramatic structure, and Gordin is deeply indebted to Grillparzer for much of the dialogue. However, Gordin's play introduces an assortment of new scenes and characters into the dramatic framework. For example, the first act of both plays opens with a conversation between Medea and her maidservant, followed by Medea's first confrontation with Jason. While Gordin does preserve this basic narrative structure, he adds a choral prologue to the opening of the play. Using a poetic language that echoes the characteristic rhyming couplets of Yiddish Purim plays, the chorus continues to appear throughout the play in moments of crisis. The chorus is led by a new character of Gordin's own invention, the middle-aged Corinthian Ksenofantus, a recurring figure who emerges at critical junctures to interpret events for the audience.

Gordin negotiates Medea's evil nature against the backdrop of her bitter exile from Colchis. At its core, this is the story of a former princess tragically exiled to a faraway land who just happens to be a filicidal mother. It is also a story of diaspora and of yearning for one's lost homeland and identity. By presenting Medea's murderous intent as a reaction to diasporic circumstances, Gordin enables Jewish audiences to identify with Medea's plight and perhaps even forgive her brutal filicide. Consider this exchange between Medea and Creusa at the end of act 1:

Medea: Oh, Colchis! Oh, my fatherland! They call you dark-land, but to me you shine as brightly as the sun.

Creusa: Oh, poor, poor woman!

Medea: Yes, I was once Medea, but now I am "poor woman"! I am alone among strangers, far from my home. (10)

Gordin places his Medea in a role that strongly suggests familiar conditions of exile and displacement for his Jewish audience. She is a perpetual stranger in the foreign land in which she has settled, and she remains mistrusted and dehumanized by her neighbors despite her best intentions. Unable to return to the ruins of her beloved homeland, she resigns herself to her bitter fate. Medea's longing for home is central to her character in both of Gordin's adaptations, superceding all other emotions but her devotion to her children. Indeed, it is precisely this deep maternal bond, combined with her feelings of permanent displacement, that sends Medea spiraling into madness after the children are wrenched from her grasp and taught to pay allegiance to Creusa, who has never faced deprivation or discrimination.

That is to say, Gordin adapts Medea's murderous motives to suit the temperament of his audience. Medea's vengeful acts are motivated by her longing for home and by her deep love for her children, rather then by a fear of mockery. In the third act, Gordin adds a lengthy scene in which Medea weeps as she listens to Creusa teach the children Greek songs. As Creusa exits to play hide-and-seek with the children, Ksenofantus and the chorus enter with an explanatory interlude that retells the story of the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece. Medea grows increasingly agitated as she listens to the tale. It is at this point that Gordin radically diverges from Grillparzer's narrative structure. Instead of presenting Creusa with a poisoned chalice, Gordin's Medea instructs her servant to bring Creusa and the children before her. Medea then convinces a reluctant Creusa to leave her alone with the children, and, driven mad by their adoration of their new stepmother, poisons them. In sharp contrast, both Euripides' and Grillparzer's Medeas violently stab their children to death primarily because of their fear of public ridicule. Euripides' Medea explicitly refers to her fear of mockery on six separate occasions. She justifies her actions as a logical response to the threat of ridicule and shows virtually no remorse for the murder of her children. Similarly, Grillparzer's Medea exits the play a triumphant heroine, gloating to Jason: "Atone! I go, and you shall see my face no more." (11) Gordin's Medea, however, repents after the death of her children. "Do you know that I killed them?" she asks her contrite husband. "You didn't allow the children to go with me?... I go with them." Falling upon their dead bodies, she repeats her haunting mantra: "Children, I go with you! I go with you!!" as the curtain slowly falls. (12) A Jewish mother, it seems, can commit filicide or even suicide if driven to the point of insanity--but, unable to forgive herself for her crimes, she cannot ultimately triumph.

Gordin's play thus transposes the ancient Greek drama onto an explicitly Jewish framework. Not only does Gordin identify his Medea with diasporic statelessness and political dispossession, but he also Judaizes Medea by placing her actions in a new moral context. He focuses on her exilic predicament, emphasizes the callous behavior of the powerful Greeks who surround her, and reinterprets her filicide as the inevitable result of her interminable yearning for her lost children, her ancient homeland, and her bygone glory.

Six years later, a newspaper vendor writing under the pen name of Z. Libin composed his own version of the Medea story set in a world far removed from ancient Greece. (13) Instead of the gods, kings, and warriors of ancient Athens, Libin placed his Medea among the teeming masses of immigrant Jews newly arrived in New York. (14) Entitled Henele, or, The Jewish Medea, Libin's play is an extended response to Gordin's Medea, an adaptation of an adaptation. One can only speculate, but Libin, the son of an impoverished schoolteacher in a rural Polish hamlet, would most likely not have acquired the language skills necessary to read Euripides or Grillparzer in the original Greek or German. Given the enormous popularity of Gordin's Medea, Libin's first exposure to the Medea legend may well have been at a performance of Gordin's enormously popular adaptation. Though never published, Henele was tremendously successful and quickly became a major component of the repertoires of the most famous Yiddish actresses of the era, including Bertha Kalish and Keni Liptzin. (15)

The play opens in a New York tenement on the eve of Simchat Torah. Henele, the mistress of the house, prepares for the family to arrive. Recently wedded to the upwardly mobile businessman Dovid Dubnov, Henele is beautiful, intelligent, and utterly miserable. Her husband is a cold, brutish man with a short temper and a propensity for infidelity. The relatives arrive just in time for the holiday feast, among them Harry, Dovid's Americanized younger brother, who brings a book for Henele as a present. "It's called Medea," he tells the family, "Ah, Jesus Christ, what a story.... There's a woman named Medea who had a husband who was a real scoundrel, and he wanted to leave her and take another woman.... So she poisoned her own two kids." (16) The family is aghast, but Henele quietly takes the book.

Act 2 begins with Henele reading the last scene of Medea aloud to her sister. The two women, both themselves young mothers, are appalled by Medea's actions.

Hene: This is truly horrible! How awful! That a mother would kill her own innocent children [...] but when you read the book, it seems that Medea had to do it. (Pauses for a moment, deep in thought. Looks at her child and shudders.)

Freydl: Hene, are you cold?

Hene: No. I'm not cold.

Freydl: Then why do you tremble so?

Hene: A strange idea just occurred to me, a terrible, hideous idea. (17)

When Freydl leaves, we see for the first time the loneliness and misery of Heneles's solitary life. While Dovid revels in his adulterous affairs, Henele is stifled by the monotony of domestic life. Miserable and desperate, she strikes up a friendship with Zaltsberg, an eligible young bachelor who hopes to convince her to have an affair of her own--ideally, with him. Henele soon realizes his devious intentions and asks him to leave. However, later, in a fit of loneliness, Henele writes Zaltsberg a letter inviting him to visit her when her husband is away. Ashamed of her desperation, she hides the unsent letter, but Dovid finds it and banishes her from the house. Henele takes her daughter Dora, but Dovid immediately sends a team of policemen to retrieve the child.

In the third act, Henele falls into a deep depression. She visits Dora at Dovid's house, but Dora fails to recognize her mother, preferring the maternal affections of Dovid's latest lover. In her despair, Henele returns to Medea. She confides in her horrified sister, "How does one find Medea's courage, how does one find her iron strength?" (18) Determined to follow in Medea's footsteps, Henele steals into Dora's bedroom late at night and convinces her to drink a cup of coffee laced with poison. "It's just medicine," she reassures her frightened daughter. After obediently drinking the toxic coffee, Dora turns to Henele affectionately and cries out "Mama!" As Henele rejoices in the return of her maternal status, Dora falls into her mother's arms and dies. Henele is suddenly wrenched from her dreams of motherly bliss. She cries out in disbelief."
   Oh, what have I done!... My lamb, why did I take away your innocent
   young life? Perhaps you can still be saved.... (Listens for
   breathing) Vanished, dead! (Looks at the girl).... My child, we go
   together! (Drinks, tosses the bottle aside, a terrifying howl that
   speaks of the sorrows in her heart, she falls upon the child.
   Embraces her corpse and dies.) (19)

At the climax of this domestic tragedy, Henele powerfully rejects the moral foundations of the Euripidean Medea. Ultimately, she chooses to kill herself rather than to live with the knowledge of the murder she has just committed. Like Gordin's mad Medea, Henele's conscience forces her to choose between insanity and death. Libin thus reconciles the Greek Medea with Jewish values by portraying his Medea figure as the ultimate example of a self-sacrificing Jewish mother. Though committing suicide would automatically disqualify her from the regular burial procedures accorded to Jewish law, Henele's fatal choice reflects her inability to relinquish her identity as a devoted Jewish mother. Indeed, Henele's temporary acceptance of Medea's path can be understood as a symbolic conversion from Jewish to Greek and back again. A Jew can temporarily take on the attributes of a Greek character, Libin tells us, but Jewish morality must ultimately prevail.

At the beginning of the play, Henele decides to read Medea against the advice of her family, who find the play morally repellant. Why do they object so forcefully? Indeed, the plot of Euripides' Medea echoes biblical themes familiar to any Jew with an elementary cheder education. In Genesis 22, Abraham is commanded by God to murder Isaac. Though Abraham does not commit the murder, he must demonstrate his complete commitment to obey the command should God require him to do so. The biblical Book of Ruth features a young woman who, like Medea, rejects her native land, religion, and people in order to join a new community in a faraway country. However, Abraham and Ruth each follow a different moral path from Medea. While the Euripidean Medea's will to murder stems from her desire for revenge and her fear of being mocked, Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac at the altar is motivated by his devotion to God. Abraham's failed filicide is presented as a demonstration of God's mercy and wisdom. Killing one's children, the story tells us, is so morally irredeemable that it requires an intervention by God himself. In the Book of Ruth, the heroine's decision to join the Jewish community results in complete acceptance. Medea does not have Ruth's good fortune. Despite her regal origins as the Princess of Colchis, Medea is isolated in her new home and wishes desperately to return to the land she abandoned. Unable to change her present circumstances, she sees no other choice but to exact revenge on the society that has so cruelly rejected her. The contrast between the experiences of these two protagonists reflects the deep divide between traditional Jewish and Greek approaches to morality. As Sol Liptzin has argued, Israelite behavior in the Hebrew Bible is primarily motivated by a set of carefully delineated ethical laws that are compulsory and binding. In contrast, the protagonists of ancient Greek drama are motivated by individual impulses and emotions, and their fates are subject to the whims of the gods. (20)

Henele, then, can be understood as an attempt to reconcile the discrepancy between Greek and Jewish approaches to morality by transposing a Greek story onto a Jewish landscape; yet like its protagonist, the effort is doomed from its very inception: Henele's grim fate is sealed from the moment she begins to read Medea, as we learn from her fearful shudder at the beginning of act 2. The fate of both Gordin's and Libin's Jewish Medeas suggests that no matter how dreadful the circumstances, a Jewish mother on the Yiddish stage simply cannot kill her children without condemning herself to madness or suicide.

III. Mothers, Sons, and Lovers

Oedipus the King posed similar problems for Yiddish playwrights. For actors, directors, and audiences accustomed to the sacred, self-sacrificing mother of Jewish literature, Jocasta's relationship with her son violated every familiar norm. Outside observers have at times struggled to understand the Jewish hesitancy to stage Oedipus. When the Habima Theater in Palestine rehearsed its controversial adaptation of the play in 1947, their British director Tyrone Guthrie was appalled at his star actress' insistence on wailing as she delivered her lines: "You are to play a fighting tigress and not a lamenting Jewish mother," he quipped. (21)

The Judaization of Oedipus has by no means been limited to the stage. Misinterpretation of the Oedipus story is a common trope in Jewish comedy. In one infamous joke, Mrs. Goldstein takes her son to see a psychologist for the first time. At the end of the appointment, the doctor calls her into his office and says, "Mrs. Goldstein, I'm sorry to tell you this, but I'm afraid your son has an Oedipus complex." Unperturbed, Mrs. Goldstein replies, "Oedipus, shmedipus--just as long as he loves his mother!" (22) Whether or not Mrs. Goldstein understands the psychologist's diagnosis, the point is clear--the love between a Jewish mother and her child is understood to know no bounds.

In 1935, the established Yiddish writer and critic Mendl Elkin adapted Oedipus into Yiddish. Though many Jewish writers had written about the Oedipus legend in poetry and prose, no playwright or director had ever before dared to place Oedipus on the Yiddish stage. (23) The founder of the first Yiddish children's theater studio in New York and the author of several cheerful one-acts for young audiences, Elkin was an unlikely candidate to adapt Sophocles' dark Oedipal tragedy. (24) Despite his inexperience in writing for adult audiences, Elkin completed his version of Oedipus and published it to critical acclaim.

The Sorrows of Oedipus is neither a translation nor an adaptation; rather, Elkin merges both approaches in an effort to create his thoroughly Jewish Oedipal tragedy. (25) Throughout much of the play, Elkin consciously evokes his source text by quoting Sophocles line by line. However, Elkin makes significant--and even startling--changes to Sophocles's narrative structure, transforming Oedipus from a monolithic tragedy into a one-act musical. Following the model established by Gordin and Libin, Elkin carefully negotiates between Greek and Jewish cultures by using three basic strategies to transform Oedipus into a Yiddish play that would resonate with Jewish audiences. First, Elkin eliminates the implicit threat posed by Greek polytheism by constructing an alternate theology closely aligned with monotheistic values. He replaces the capricious deities of the Greek pantheon with an omniscient Apollo remarkably similar to the God envisioned in Jewish sacred text and liturgy. Consider the opening prayer of the chorus:
   Great Apollo, accept our prayer
   Stretch out your hand with lovingkindness [mit khesed]

   O, great Apollo, we beseech you, God,
   Protect us from sorrow and pain. (26)

This entreaty to Apollo on behalf of the Theban community evokes the biblical imagery of God stretching out a strong hand to protect the Jewish people. (27) This biblical trope is present throughout Jewish liturgy. Most versions of the Passover Haggadah contain the account of the Exodus given in Deuteronomy 26:8: "the Lord led us out of Egypt with a strong hand and outstretched arm." (28) Psalm 136, recited during the prayers welcoming the Jewish Sabbath, is even closer to Elkin's Apollo prayer, containing the line: "With strong hand and outstretched arm--his love endures forever [ki liolam khasdo]." (29) The Theban appeal to Apollo's kind (mit khesed) nature is a direct translation of the traditional characterization of the Jewish God into a Greek context.

In addition, The Sorrows of Oedipus eliminates the oracle character that figures so strongly in Sophocles' play. Perhaps uncomfortable with suggestions of superstition, Elkin replaces the oracle with seers, prophets, and occasionally, a monotheistic God. (30) The first dialogue between Creon and Oedipus is a precise translation from Sophocles, until Creon happens to mention the oracle. Sophocles' Creon tells Oedipus: "He [Laius] went to consult an oracle, Apollo said, / and he set out and never came home again." (31) Elkin's version, however, recasts this as: "He got lost along the way, / to God, / and never came back." (32) Elkin's adaptation transforms the king's fateful journey to the oracle into a mysterious pilgrimage in search of God. Moreover, Elkin's placement of "God" in the singular suggests that Laius may have been searching for a divine truth that he could not find in Greek polytheism.

More radical, however, is the reinvention of Jocasta's relationship with her husband-son. Jocasta's first stage entrance is prefigured by an elaborate scene added by Elkin that warns of her inescapable doom. Immediately preceding Jocasta's entrance, a bereaved madwoman stands before Oedipus and sings of her grief for her lost children. "Where are you, children, where?" she wails, "Where is my beautiful son, / my one and only one?" (33) She begins to dance a wild danse macabre as Oedipus watches, bewildered. The stage directions read:
   The deep chords of a dance of death [toytn-tants] are heard, and
   the madwoman loses herself in a wild dance. (Music No. 4). The
   dance lasts several minutes and the madwoman disappears with the
   dance. Oedipus stands the entire time, amazed and shocked. Kreon
   looks on astonished and with sorrow. Jocasta collides with the
   madwoman at the entrance. Watches her leave. Enters. (34)

In Yiddish literature, the symbolic totyn-tants often appears in the midst of tragic situations that can only end in death. (35) Elkin thus forewarns his audience of Jocasta's inevitable fate before her first appearance. She is a mother tainted by her own inappropriate relationship with her son, a relationship that violates both the biblical prohibitions against incest and the idea, propagated by the popular melodramas of the Yiddish theater, that a mother can never love her son "too much." If an excess of motherly devotion can occur alongside incest, suicide, and the downfall of an entire community, how could Jewish audiences continue to view maternal overindulgence in a positive light? Consequently, Elkin frames Jocasta's story by providing her with a literary double--the dancing madwoman. The madwoman symbolizes not only Jocasta's inescapable fate, but she also signifies a familiar trope--that of the Jewish mother utterly dedicated to her children, whether living or dead. Jocasta's subsequent decision to ignore the warnings of the madwoman enables Elkin to write Jocasta's story without fully challenging the pervading archetype of the indulgent Jewish mother.

Following the scene in which Oedipus and Jocasta discuss Creon's supposed treachery, Elkin inserts a second additional scene that signifies Jocasta's doom. As a troubled Oedipus exits pondering his unintentional criminality, Jocasta is left alone on the stage. She is deeply concerned about her husband's mental welfare and decides to make an offering on his behalf. Elkin, however, writes an elongated scene that deviates sharply from its Sophoclean counterpart, in which Jocasta simply places a supplicant's branch on the altar and prays briefly for Apollo's help. Elkin's Jocasta instead calls upon her maidservants to join her in a dance of supplication.
   Oh, mighty Zeus!
   I kneel before you and plead:
   Have pity on him, calm
   Oedipus's spirit,
   Leave him his pride and valor (36)

Though Jocasta's speech introduces an element of Greek polytheism into Elkin's heretofore monotheistic Oedipus, her prayer expresses motherly concern for Oedipus's welfare. Unsure of his ability to solve his mysterious problems on his own, Jocasta decides that she must pray on his behalf, a role that the Hebrew Bible ordinarily accords to mothers like Yocheved and Hannah. Jocasta's monologue is thus a subtle foreshadowing of the truth the audience so eagerly awaits: that Oedipus has blatantly violated the biblical commandment against dishonoring one's mother by marrying her. Following her speech, Jocasta and the handmaidens continue their wild dance until Jocasta collapses to the floor in religious ecstasy. Unaware of her presence, Creon enters with the messenger and Jocasta learns the truth at last. Overcome with guilt and remorse, she flees into the palace and commits suicide. Heedless of the madwoman's prophetic warning, Jocasta recklessly echoes her mad dance in a frenzy of religious exultation that quickly becomes a toytn-tants leading to her inevitable death.

IV. Bridging the Binary

The Hebrew Bible and Greek tragedy operate in two distinct "ethical universes," as Bible scholar Philip R. Davies has famously argued. (37) The Hebrew Bible establishes a legal system that mediates virtually every aspect of Jewish life. Greek tragedy, in contrast, presents a world ruled by capricious deities whose decrees are often fraught with moral ambiguity. Heroes in Greek tragedy are regularly required to choose between individual moral commitments and the will of the gods. Jewish heroes, however, are required only to submit to the implicit morality of God's will. Agamemnon agonizes over his decision to sacrifice Iphigenia, and remains haunted by his choice. Placed in a similar situation, Abraham obeys God's decree and prepares to kill Isaac without once questioning God--and he is handsomely rewarded for his loyalty. In the Hebrew Bible, God's law defines the nature of morally upright behavior for the Jewish people; in Greek tragedy, the will of the gods is frequently in conflict with the moral obligations of the protagonist.

This fundamental tension between Hellenistic and Jewish cultures explains the dearth of direct translations of Greek tragedy into Yiddish until the end of the nineteenth century. Then, modern Yiddish playwrights, inspired by the ideals of the Jewish Enlightenment, began to revise Greek material for the Jewish stage in order to bridge this cultural divide. Yiddish writers employed three basic strategies in their reappraisal of Greek drama by: (1) replacing Greek polytheism with a neutralizing theology that echoed elements of Jewish religious practice; (2) invoking biblical and national parallels in an effort to establish the primacy of Jewish law; and (3) rewriting the morally ambiguous mothers of Greek tragedy to reflect the established dramatic archetype of the Jewish mother. Yiddish playwrights Judaized Greek drama in a sweeping attempt to elide the traditional Jewish-Greek binary dominant in nineteenth-century Jewish culture. Greek culture could no longer represented a serious cultural threat in a dramatic world in which the Greeks are nearly monotheistic, Medea punishes herself for her crimes, and Jocasta is reminiscent of a biblical Jewish mother. Jewish values are restored and the Greek threat is nullified. "Oedipus, shmedipus!"--just as long as he loves his mother.

Harvard University


(1) Glenda Abramson, "Hellenism Revisited: the Uses of Greek Myth in Modern Hebrew Literature," Prooftexts 10 (1990): 237-55: "The Judaization of the mythic sources rests, in most cases, in retaining only the shadow of the myth while supplying it with a substance belonging to the Israeli poets' own cultural tradition" (253). Abramson contextualizes this observation in a discussion on the presence of Greek motifs in modern Hebrew poetry; however, as the present study demonstrates, a similar phenomenon occurred in Yiddish adaptations of Greek dramas.

(2) The unpublished Henele manuscript, the only surviving written record of the play, is undated. For the purposes of this study, I date Henele to 1903, the year in which the first production of the play opened in New York. It is probable that Libin wrote Henele the same year it opened. Rapid turnaround was common among American Yiddish playwrights of this generation, who were competing with the popular melodramas produced weekly by Hurwitz, Lateiner, and others. See Nahma Sandrow, Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 104-5.

(3) Yaacov Shavit, "The Reception of Greek Mythology in Modern Hebrew Culture" in Hellenic and Jewish Arts: Interaction, Tradition, and Renewal, ed. Asher Ovadiah (Tel Aviv: Ramot, 1998), 431-48 (432).

(4) Avodah Zarah [Idolatry] 18b, in Soncino Babylonian Talmud, ed. I. Epstein (London: Soncino, 1990).

(5) Quoted in Shavit, 440.

(6) I. L. Peretz, "Venus and Shulamith," trans. Seth. L. Wolitz, in The I. L. Peretz Reader, ed. Ruth R. Wisse (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002), 88-92 (91).

(7) Ibid., 92.

(8) "For most of his pieces, the idea came from a famous writer, or the entire plot was simply translated from a famous play. Often, nothing but the title was Judaized" (Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur, 8 vols. [New York: Alveltlekhn yidishn kultur-kongres, 1956-81], 2:147). All translations are my own unless otherwise indicated.

(9) Bukanski writes in Daytshmerish, a Yiddish register characterized by the excessive prevalence of German words and phrases, intended to elevate the tone of the writer.

(10) Jacob Gordin, Medea: A historishe tragedye in 4 aktn, baarbaytet far der yidisher bine (New York: Jewish Daily Herald, 1897), 15-16. Grillparzer's scene is significantly shorter: "Medea: O Kolchis! O du meiner Vater Land! Sie nennen dunkel dich, mir scheinst du hell! Kreusa: ihre Hand fassend. Du Arme!" (Franz Grillparzer, Medea [Berlin: Ullstein Bucher, 1966], 19).

(11) "Medea: Busse! Ich geh' und niemals sieht dein Aug' mich wieder!" (Grillparzer, 73). English translation by Arthur Burkhard in Franz Grillparzer, Medea: Tragedy in Five Acts (Yarmouthport, Mass.: The Register, 1956), 120.

(12) Gordin, Medea, 47.

(13) Libin's given name was Yisroel-Zalmen Hurvitsh, though he published exclusively under his pen name, Z. Libin. For Libin's biography, see Sholem Perlmutter, Yidishe dramaturgn un teaterkompozitors (New York: IKUF, 1952), 202-10.

(14) Libin was by no means the first to place Medea in a modern setting. Many European authors adopted a similar approach including, most notably, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing with his bourgeois drama Miss Sara Sampson in 1755.

(15) Henele first opened on 13 February 1903 at the Thalia Theater in New York, with Bertha Kalish starring in the title role. In 1913, the role was adapted for Keni Liptzin (the actress who made Medea famous in Gordin's 1897 version), and performed at the Liptzin Theater under the new title A mames nekome [A Mother's Revenge]. A complete production history can be found in the Leksikonfun yidishn teater, ed. Zalmen Zylbercweig and Jacob Mestel, 6 vols (Warsaw: Farlag Elshiva, 1931-69), s.v. "Libin, Z," 2:1026.

(16) Z. Libin, Henele, oder, di Yudishe Medea, 7-8. Archival manuscript, New York Public Library Dorot Jewish Division.

(17) Ibid., 21-22.

(18) Ibid., 71.

(19) Ibid., 80.

(20) Sol Liptzin, "Ruth and Medea," Dor le Dor 5, no. 4 (Summer 1977): 151-58. Liptzin's article also compares Joseph and Hippolytus, and Samson and Hercules.

(21) Habima's production of Oedipus, in Shaul Chernikhovsky's Hebrew translation, opened in British Mandate Palestine on 9 February 1947. Guthrie's remarks are quoted in Dwora Gilula's article "The First Greek Drama on the Hebrew Stage: Tyrone Guthrie's Oedipus Rex at the Habima," Theatre Research International 13, no. 2: 131-45.

(22) A retelling and brief analysis of this joke can be found in Rabbi Joseph Telushkin's collection Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 30-31.

(23) In 1929, poet Shaul Tshernikhovski published a widely read poetic translation of Oedipus the King in Hebrew. This translation may have inspired Elkin's Yiddish adaptation a few years later.

(24) Elkin did, however, have a history of adapting European literature into one-act dramas, usually intended for young audiences. For critical reviews of Elkin's work, see Leksikon fun yidishn teater, s.v. "Elkin, Mendl," 2:1572-75, as well as thefestshrift collection Mendl Elkin: Tsu zayn zekhtsik-yoriker geboyrentog (New York: Yubiley komitet, 1937).

(25) Though much of the play consists of line-by-line literal translations from Sophocles (with a few crucial exceptions), Elkin never described his play as a translation, preferring instead to characterize it as "af der teme fun Sofoldes" (on the Sophoclean theme). Mendl Elkin, Di laydnfun Edipus: Troyer-shpil in eyn akt; Dos gute shvebele: a kinder-shpil in eyn akt (New York: Bildungskomitet fun arbeter ring, 1949), 3.

(26) Elkin, 9.

(27) The phrase "a strong hand and an outstretched arm" reappears throughout the Bible. Selected occurrences include: Exodus 6:6, Deuteronomy 4:34, 5:15, 7:19, and 26:8. The Oxford Study Bible: Revised English Bible with the Apocrypha (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

(28) Ibid., 207.

(29) Psalm 136:12. Ibid., 644.

(30) The word oracle does not actually appear in Elkin's version until the very last scene. Elkin, 39.

(31) Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays, trans. Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin, 1984), 165.

(32) Elkin, 13.

(33) Ibid., 18.

(34) Ibid., 19.

(35) See Dovid Katz, "Der motiv fun "toytn-tants" in der traditsye fun literatur bay yidn" (PhD diss., Bar-Ilan University, 1993).

(36) Elkin, 27.

(37) Philip R. Davies, "Tragedy and Ethics: Revisiting Athens and Jerusalem" in Reading from Right to Left: Essays on the Hebrew Bible in Honour of David J. A. Clines, ed. J. Cheryl Exum and H. M. Williamson (New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2003), 107-20.
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Author:Caplan, Debra
Publication:Comparative Drama
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Date:Dec 22, 2010
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