While in New York recently, I was invited to see a performance of “Waiting for Godot” – a multi-layered play on the human condition that I was introduced to in high school. What was fascinating and unique about this particular production was that this renowned play was being performed in Yiddish – with English and Russian subtitles beamed onto a screen for non-Yiddish speakers. (Staged by the New Yiddish Rep, at the Castillo Theatre, and directed by Moshe Yassur, it stars Shane Baker, David Mandelbaum, Rafael Goldwaser, Avi Hoffman and Nicholas Jenkins.)
Just seconds into the play, I felt an endorphin like exhilaration wash over me – unusual since the play itself is dark and depressing as it revolves around two hapless, confused “lost souls” stuck in a bleak, desolate environment waiting for an elusive being they call Godot.
As a child of Holocaust survivors, I realized the source of my joy was an existential one: The fact that Yiddish still exists as a spoken and written language – despite the frenzied attempts of numerous nations throughout the centuries to annihilate and erase the Jewish people – is “gevaldig” (beyond amazing). Every Yiddish book, newspaper or utterance proclaims that Am Yisroel chai – the Jewish people are still here.
Unlike the Romans; to my knowledge, there are no Waiting for Godot productions being presented in Latin, a language that once upon a time was universal, spoken everywhere due to the long reach of the Roman Empire.
The reality of this play being performed in Yiddish speaks volumes of the defiance and determination of the Jewish people to exist, to strive and thrive – despite the seemingly insurmountable odds against us doing so. It is a life-enhancing message that the beaten down characters of the play fail to realize – but we the audience should take to heart.
The characters in this Yiddish version of Waiting for Godot are subtly portrayed as Holocaust survivors. Its Nobel Laureate playwright, Samuel Beckett, was in the French Resistance and wrote the play in post-World War II Europe, a continent saturated with displaced, shattered and hopeless refugees.
Who Godot is, is never explained. For some he is God, or a savior, or a rescuer. As in the case with most works of art, what you see is a personal interpretation. The two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, are waiting for Godot – day after day, year after year, decade after decade. They are trapped by their own inertia, by their inability to take the initiative, to be the masters of their own fate. Instead they do nothing but nurse their daily disappointment when told by a boy that Godot is not showing up – yet again.
And so they wait… They have no idea who Godot is or what he is going to do that will change their reality, they just accept that they must wait for him. For them, it’s like the proverbial “check in the mail.” Every day there is anticipation that a check will come, that it’s on its way – but it never does.
There are two other characters that are introduced later in the play who for me are the equivalent of those warning graphics found on some cigarette boxes, “this is what happens if you smoke,” except the warning on the human “package,” is a man called Lucky saying, “ This is what happens when you give up.”
Lucky is seemingly a slave who is hitched to a rope and wagon that he pulls like a mule. His “master” Pozzo is an abusive bully. Lucky silently does as he is told, not questioning the demeaning orders barked to him by Pozzo. He is so complacent and unable to think for himself that he will not put down heavy items when there is no need for him to hold them. While the other two are “sad sacks,” Lucky is a geshlugana hint – a beaten down, broken, dog with its tail between its legs.
It soon becomes obvious that Pozzo is needy and weak – it would be easy for Lucky to walk away. Initially we assume that Lucky is a simpleton; that he cannot do better than being a beast of burden. That is until he starts to talk, and it turns out he is quite the intellectual. But after a while, his words make no sense. He is a man of useless words – all talk and no action. He could easily overcome the cowardly Pozzo. Instead he allows himself to be stifled by the toxic, crippling negativity and evil that Pozzo embodies and allows it to smother any shred of hope or motivation to challenge and change his reality.
Many of us are dealing with serious life issues or have close family or friends who are facing a formidable challenge – be it a life-threatening illness, chronic joblessness or a critical lack of parnassah; infertility; a problematic marriage or an inability to get married. And like Lucky, we allow the negativity to beat us down and mire us in crippling despair. We worry that we will succumb to the illness and die; or that we will never get married, have children, or that we will always be overwhelmed by debt. But it is the icy fear; the demoralizing pessimism, the “cup is half empty” attitude that destabilizes and enslaves us. Our lack of self-confidence undermines our resolve and minimizes our fighting spirit and, tragically, our belief that “we can’t overcome this” can result in the actualizing of our worst case scenarios. Lucky might have the intellect, the knowledge, the resources to get out of his hell, but his passiveness, his non–resistance, his defeatist attitude has caused him to lose his battle.
Vladamir and Estragon are not as far gone as he – but they too are unable to be defiant, to stand up and challenge the status quo. Instead they wait for Godot, bored, confused, and mired in a repetitive, dead-end existence.
Ironically, the actor who plays Vladimir, Shane Baker, did not let reality get in the way of reaching what arguably was a seemingly unreachable goal. A gentile raised in the Midwest, Baker took on the daunting task of learning and immersing himself in Yiddish language and culture and translated Waiting for Godot into Yiddish. This non-Jew did not succumb to the negative voices -no doubt including his own – that insisted he had a “goyische kop” and would not have the incredible sitzfleisch (patience and fortitude) and knowledge to translate an entire play into a language not his mamaloshen.
While we wait for Moshiach, we are expected to take a proactive approach to improving ourselves and our lot in life. As the sage Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?… If not now, when?” (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14)
The battle, whatever shape or form it comes in, is never easy to overcome. But we must not let fear, depression or negativity hamstring our resolve. At the end of the day, no matter what the outcome, you know that you tried. Hashem will decide your ultimate destiny – but at the very least, you gave it your best shot. That in itself makes you a winner.
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