A shiksah takes on Yiddish theater


By Jerry Tallmer

The situation is this:

Motke the Thief, a sort of Yiddish first cousin to Mack the Knife, has the hots for a beautiful little woman named Mary, the acrobat daughter of circus impresario Alter Terach. Mary has conned a considerable sum of money from a Polish john named Der Pawn by playing an acrobatic game with him called Piggie and Birdie. She has tossed the packet of money through a window to Motke, and now her loving papa, Alter Terach, is accusing Der Pawn of rape even while screaming at Motke:


ALTER TERACH: Listen up, mamzernik, give me the money, if not I will do to you like I did to the goy. As I am a Jew, I will give you up to the police, you don’t have a pass by me and who your father is I don’t know either. It’ll be ugly.

MOTKE: Let it be ugly, do I look worried, give me up to the police, I will tell them that you sell the girl to drunks, for money, and when she says no, you beat her. We will all sit in jail, it will be just like home.


And then Mary tosses Motke a knife to use against his rival for her charms, the circus strongman. Mazeltov!

All the above takes place, first in a novel written in Yiddish in Warsaw by Sholem Asch in 1910, then in a play, in Yiddish, adapted by him from that novel in 1917, and now in English (salted here and there with Yiddish) in a play adapted from the original by a 30-year-old Irish-born Roman Catholic and Massachusetts-bred colleen named Caraid O’Brien.

It opens Nov. 17 for world-premier performances through Dec. 17 at the University Settlement on Eldridge Street, under the direction of Aaron Bell, creator of the New York International Fringe Festival and founder of the Todo Con Nada theaters on the Lower East Side.

What’s a nice Irish girl like Caraid doing in this Yiddish sea? And how’d she get there?

It was Catherine Doyle, teacher of American literature at Notre Dame Academy, Hingham, Mass., who got teenage Caraid reading I.B. Singer, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Cynthia Ozick & Co. — “and then I came across Chaim Grade’s ‘My Mother’s Sabbath Days,’ set in Vilna between the wars. It was so brilliant, I said I wanted to read it in the original Yiddish.”

It was Ruth Wisse, chairperson of the Yiddish department at Harvard University, who got Caraid reading Sholem Asch’s “Act of Vengeance,” a drama about a Jewish brothel owner who tries to go respectable by marrying his daughter off to a yeshiva student and commissioning the production of a torah scroll.

“Then when I got to New York I saw a version of ‘Act of Vengeance’ on Ludlow Street, and didn’t like it. It was a horrible caricature, nothing like the great play I had read.”

By then, Caraid had done some acting for Aaron Bell, notably as a potato in Bell’s staging of Richard Foreman’s “Rhoda in Potatoland.” So when Ms. O’Brien complained about the “Act of Vengeance” she’d seen on Ludlow Street, Bell said: “Okay, translate it yourself.”

And, working with him, she did. In Nov. 1999 it was produced by Bell at Show World, the sometime porn-entertainment premises on Eighth Avenue at 43rd Street — around the corner from where, in 1923, the cast of the same play in an earlier translation had been busted and thrown in jail because of a lesbian scene between the brothel owner’s daughter and her girlfriend.

Sholem Asch (1880-1957) wrote 22 plays, long and short, plus many cherished novels and stories. “Act of Vengeance” is the first of his trilogy of “Underworld” plays. No. 2 is “Motke Thief” (or “Motke the Thief”). No. 3 is “The Dead Man,” which takes place in a half-destroyed synagogue and ends with a soldier guiding the congregation to the one place where Jews will not be persecuted: the Land of the Dead.

“Sholem Asch’s response to the horrors of the First World War, never mind the Second,” says Caraid O’Brien. “I did a 20-minute version of it, in English, at the synagogue on Eldridge Street with 20 actors. Incredible.”

“Motke Thief” was staged in Yiddish down on Second Ave. in 1917 with a cast led by David Kessler and Maurice Schwartz. One critic wrote: “How beautiful, how deep, how terrifying.” Another said: “There were moments I forgot I was in the theater.”

It was done again on Second Ave. with Maurice Schwartz directing Paul Muni and Jack Rechtzeit, after which Hollywood grabbed off Mr. Muni.

Today on Eldridge St., it has what its translator calls “an amazing cast” of 15 actors from as many backgrounds—Bangladeshi, Latino, Portuguese, Mexican, Scottish, Irish, African American, Jewish … Its Motke is Jonathan Butler, a cop from Hoboken. Motke at age 11—already on the run, already a thief—is Gurjant Singh, a kid from the projects a block from the theater.

The show’s publicist, Max Eisen, who once picketed the New Yorker magazine for not listing Yiddish shows, was the man who got the New York Times to review Yiddish theater, and broke this journalist in on the Yiddish-theater scene quite some years ago. Hi, Max.

Caraid O’Brien, born Galway, Ireland, December 20, 1974, is one of the five children of Michael and Patricia Gill O’Brien. The whole shebang moved here—to Hingham—when Caraid was 12. Her father is chairman of pathology at Boston University. Her siblings are Ronan, a lawyer in Boston; Patrick, a teacher at Boston College; Gemma, who works for Miramax; and “baby Kate,” a junior at Harvard.

Caraid moves around a lot. Currently she is cat-sitting on the Lower East Side for Maureen Angelos, one of the Five Lesbian Brothers, a downtown theater company.

“Culturally I feel Catholic,” says Ms. O’Brien, who goes to church “occasionally.” She in fact feels “more Irish than anything,” and adored her grandfather Pat Joe Gill—her mother’s father—who was an Irish-speaking policeman on the ould sod. “And my father’s mother, Annie O’Brien, was the funniest, most magnificent story-teller you ever heard.”

The past three years, Caraid O’Brien has directed the famed James Joyce “Bloomsday” readings at Symphony Space, and last year, when it came to the stretch where Leopold Bloom is carrying on with Mrs. Breen, an old flame, Malachy McCourt and Fidelma Murphy did it in English, followed by Ms. O’Brien and Isaiah Sheffer doing it in Yiddish.

Now that’s cross-cultural. Sholem Asch, rest easy.

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