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Voluntary And Compulsory Martyrdom: Spinoza And M. Rabinowitz

Fabrik: The Legend of M. Rabinowitz

Through Feb. 17, 2008

Written and directed by Wakka Wakka Productions

And Nordland Visual Theater

Urban Stages Theater, 259 W 30th St, NY



New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza

At Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656

Through Feb. 10, 2008

By David Ives

Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St, NY




At first glance, Moritz Rabinowitz and Baruch Spinoza have very little in common. Spinoza, one of the 17th century’s greatest minds – whose father and grandfather fled the Portuguese Inquisition for Holland – was ex-communicated (cherem) by the Dutch Jewish community in 1656 for his Deistic views.


Much less of a household name, Rabinowitz became a successful Norwegian businessman, who wrote articles denouncing Hitler more than five years before the war began, though his warnings went unheeded and he was murdered in the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen.



Moritz Rabinowitz facing boots and David Arkema.

Photo Credit: Norland Visual Theater.



But when considered in the two plays profiling them, “Fabrik” and “New Jerusalem,” Rabinowitz and Spinoza emerge as iconoclastic comrades, who severed the marionette strings that their communities imposed upon them. In choosing to be a man rather than a puppet, Rabinowitz became a martyr for his faith (literally), while Spinoza was forced to sacrifice his people for his lack of faith.


“Fabrik” literally casts Rabinowitz as a puppet, and indeed the entire play employs brilliant miniatures (Stein Haanshuss), puppets (Kirjan Waage) and masks (Gwendolyn Warnock). Like the nightmare of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” in which the personified black plague slowly overtakes its victims at a costume ball, “Fabrik” becomes a puppet show gone wrong, where Hitler and the Nazis slowly overtake Norway. Though the brutality is only puppet-on-puppet violence, the actors occasionally don masks and become the puppets, so the play’s horrors feel distinctly real rather than make-believe.


Rabinowitz (born 1887) is shown in the play submitting opinion pieces to the local paper denouncing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and combating the emerging anti-Semitism in Norway. Indeed, Rabinowitz wrote in “The World Crisis and Us” in 1933, “With this little treatise, I hope to stir up the common man in society. I hope to prepare him for the bitter reality that accompanies a world crisis. I hope to prove that political isolationism, hatred, and the closing of borders are to blame for much of the tragedy in today’s world.”



Margarette Gerhard (wife of the German Consul General in Norway).

Photo Credit: Nordland Visual Theater.



But the Rabinowitz (voiced by David Arkema) of “Fabrik” is not only a hero; he is also a workaholic and a kvetch. Rabinowitz opens the play singing his own introduction, “Moritz Rabinowitz/ I make you a suit that fits,” and he alerts the audience about the three suit models they can choose: “popular, special and king!” When his wife Johanna (voiced by Gwendolyn Warnock) tells him, “You work too much Moritz.” He replies, “Well you eat too much.”


To get by, Moritz employs his version of the Ten Commandments: his “Rules for Businessmen.” The rules include treating customers with respect (while maintaining your dignity), staying on top of the news (he talks to Churchill about the Nazis through his TV) and not letting your wife into your business (“Sarah is best kept in the tent,” which he claims is from the Torah, though he cites an unrelated verse).



Radio Interviewer and Moritz Rabinowitz, with Kirjan Waage and David Arkema.

Photo Credit: Norland Visual Theater.




From the start, Rabinowitz bears an uncanny resemblance to Hitler (they share the same moustache), which lends more of an absurdist feel to a dream sequence where Hitler (Kirjan Waage) chases Rabinowitz through the sea (both have become fish). The only difference between the characters is their costumes, so Rabinowitz is really fleeing his evil twin. He first thwarts the Hitler-fish twice by blowing a shofar that miraculously appears beside him, but not after Hitler has taken a piranha-sized bite out of his arm.


Later, when Rabinowitz is in the concentration camp, where the Nazi puppets simply become terrifying black boots, he is forced to perform his “Rules for Businessmen,” as a Nazi official taunts him. “People think it’s funny he makes so much money,” the Nazi tells the public. The propaganda machine has simply become too powerful. A Norwegian with an accordion sings, “We have a Jew in our town,” while Hitler appears on a children’s television show talking about the duties of the fatherland. “Kill it!” he orders the children, as Rabinowitz, dressed as a rat, appears on stage.


Rabinowitz’s ultimate triumph is getting to rewrite his own story, even as he is put to death. For the entire play, he has introduced himself as a businessman, but in writing his own eulogy, he introduces himself as “a man, not a businessman.”



Moritz Rabinowitz, the village of Haugesund, and David Arkema.

Photo Credit: Nordland Visual Theater.



In “New Jerusalem,” Spinoza (Jeremy Strong) has difficulty being taken seriously as a man. He is ex-communicated at age 23, and when he first walks into the study hall for his “trial,” Christian official Abraham van Valkenburgh (David Garrison) is shocked that the heretic, about whom he has heard so many rumors, is so young. Initially, Saul Levi Mortera (Richard Easton), chief rabbi of Amsterdam, and Gaspar Rodrigues Ben Israel (Fyvush Finkel), a prominent Jewish “parnas,” defend Spinoza as the prize of the Jewish community, but as the trial unfolds, they can no longer defend the man who implicates himself.


The ex-communication is a very dramatic affair. Ben Israel removes the Torah from the ark – which van Valkenburgh has already mistaken for a cupboard – candles are lit, and Mortera reads from Deuteronomy 28: “Cursed be you in the city, and cursed be you in the field … Cursed be you when you come, and cursed be you when you leave.”


Indeed, the ceremony seems inappropriately grand for such a young man, still struggling to fit his theories on geometry and logic into a framework that can incorporate feelings and love. Ben Israel at one point insists that Spinoza reveal whether his theories are nonsense, or some kind of Kabbalistic offshoot, which is an area the script does not elaborate.


As Jay Michaelson points out in his May/June 2007 column in American Jewish Life Magazine, where he hailed Spinoza the “Heretic of the Month,” the idea Spinoza espoused “is not entirely foreign to Judaism; it’s a core principle of the Kabbalah, though it’s certainly at odds with the traditional depiction of G-d as a personal being who rewards the good and punishes the wicked, and who loves Israel above all nations.”


Michaelson adds that the rabbis would not have known about the Kabbalistic texts that paralleled Spinoza’s views, as the texts were yet to be published. And looming in the background, Michaelson notes, is the fact that the very same rabbis who ex-communicated Spinoza later embraced the false messiah Sabbatai Tzvi, “again betting on the wrong horse, intellectually speaking.” Both “Fabrik” and “New Jerusalem” show the perils that are endemic to censorship – for the both the censoring body and the silenced.


Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.   

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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