One hundred years after David Pinski’s (1872-1959) “Di Familye Tzvi” was written, the scathing examination of the Jewish world that the play depicts is neither dated nor out of touch with contemporary Jewish life. Also known as “The Last Jew,” this play was completed in New York just 14 months after the infamous pogrom of April, 1903 in Kishinev, Russia. It depicts one family, headed by grandfather Rabbi Mayshe, his sons and grandsons, friends and various community members at the very moment that the terrible pogrom is starting.
The gripping content of this Yiddish classic begins with heated arguments as to what to do erupting between the assimilationist, the Zionist and the socialist, all in stark contrast to Reb Mayshe’s piety and faith. A staged reading of the play will be performed on the 100th anniversary of its creation, on Thursday, May 20 at 7 p.m. at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan by the Folksbiene Theater.
Once banned in Russia, this reading will be in Yiddish with English supertitles provided. Mark Altman, who curates the Folksbiene’s Hidden Treasures reading series, will be directing.
Pinski’s many theatrical works spanned Biblical to contemporary Jewish subjects, including The Eternal Jew (1926), The Treasure, The Final Balance (1926), Ayzik Sheftl, Yankl der Shmid and Gabri un di Froyen. Di Familye Tzvi was immensely popular, with the Yiddish version going through at least 13 editions. For Pinski, it was especially meaningful as he notes in his introduction, “This is not a pogrom-tragedy, but the tragedy of a sole survivor, the tragedy of a moribund religion, of a crumbling world philosophy… by the open grave of the Kishinev martyrs before their blood had time to dry… I called: a day of reckoning… outraged by the surrounding storm, I turned to the inner goings on of the Jewish people ? to that which goes on now and that which must take place.”
Pinski thought of his play as a “call to arms” for the Jewish people to throw off the yoke of the old religion and become a modern, secular nation. He fled Russian persecution for his radical politics (first Bundist, then Labor Zionist) to New York and finally settled in Israel in 1949. In later years, his home in Haifa became a center for Yiddish writers. In sharp contrast to the author’s original intent, today we can see the play as part of the never ending and raucous dialogue between different kinds of Jews and their G-d. The past century has shown us the tragic dangers of utopian socialism, racist nationalism and assimilationism.
In the shadow of the impending attack, the argument among the Jews opens with the Zionist grandson, Lipman, longing for Jewish independence and homeland, declaring that, “even the most just equality is not independence, and independence alone can be the reward for our people for its centuries of suffering.” His grandfather replies, “Your vanity proposes, and G-d disposes…” Reuven, the socialist grandson, cannot fathom his grandfather’s faith in G-d and His Chosen People, lamenting, “There’s no help for it, and I’m sorry for you, grandpa. You stand all alone ? the last Jew, the solitary survivor of a departed day. The world belongs to us, to me…” While the schisms in the Tzvi family are deep and likely fatal, this is not the real subject of the play, this is not the tragedy.
Reb Mayshe becomes convinced that he must guard the synagogue from the rioters. Most important of all, he must save the Torah scrolls. He calls upon his family to join him and they answer with radically different agendas. One plans to flee to a hiding place in the woods, another wants to rush out to defend his store, while yet another insists on organizing a belated defense. A great granddaughter reveals that she has converted to Christianity, proudly proclaiming that, “We were never very pious Jews anyway. Then why should we suffer from massacres? Really. Since we were already practically Gentile, why shouldn’t we become real Gentiles and stop suffering Jewish sorrows?” The cool rationale of such desperate actions is particularly chilling.
In the second act, the tragedy fully emerges as the tone and focus of the play shifts dramatically to an extended monologue between Reb Mayshe and G-d. He arrives at the near empty synagogue and struggles with the dawning realization that he may, in fact, be alone. He addresses G-d, “With all my soul I spoke to them untiringly, and now I stand before You, and must ask, “Where are Your Jews, Lord? Where is Your army?” Reveal them to me, or take me to You. I can do no more, dear G-d!”
The terrible divisions of the Jewish people and the impending slaughter pale next to the mounting tragedy of what seems like G-d’s silence. His faithful servant Reb Mayshe argues, pleads, despairs and then repents of his disrespectful words, all in a Job-like encounter with the Master of the Universe.
The tragedy of Reb Mayshe is played out against the spectacle of the community minyan foolishly musing over the nature of the pogrom, how Jews will unfortunately perish, but “our Jews are among those to blame.” Empty arguments and facile complaints multiply finding fault with the Jewish community as the men of the city argue and quibble over procedure, meetings and the “decline of Judaism,” while the bloodthirsty mob is literally at the door. And of course, they consider Reb Mayshe’s call to defend the house of G-d as total foolishness, the madness of a farce.
Repeatedly, his pleas fall on deaf ears, whether to a group of men praying (hypocritically ignoring him) or to his own grandson. Repeatedly Reb Mayshe asks, “Jews, where are you?” to continued silence. This is the tragedy; this is the horror of Pinski’s play. His masterpiece has drawn us into the heart of the contentious Jewish world where consensus is rare.
Pinski’s “The Last Jew” is a wrenching experience with no easy answers and only a plethora of questions that confront the tragedy of anti-Semitic violence, a Jewish community deeply divided and the eternal question of understanding God’s ways left, as always, unanswered. It is a moving and gripping tragedy that depicts a Jewish world before the reality of self-defense and the State of Israel existed, and yet has a haunting relevance. Its question “Jews, where are you?” still echoes today.
“Di Familye Tzvi” or “The Last Jew” by David Pinski, Folksbiene Theater at the Edmond J. Safra Hall in the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place, New York. 212 213 2120 or www.folksbiene.org/readspecial.htm One Reading Only, Thursday, May 20 at 7 p.m. Tickets $18.
Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com.
“To those of Kishinev who perished in the sanctification of His name,” by Ephraim Moshe Lilien, from Die Judenmassacres in Kishinev, Berlin 1903.
This poster was inspired by the Kishinev Pogrom legend of Reb Moshe Tsvi Kigel, a shames who was reportedly murdered in front of the Ark protecting the Sifrei Torah. Pinski’s “The Last Jew” is based on the same legend.
About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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