(New York Jewish Week) — The true story of a formerly Hasidic Baltimore man who encouraged Jews to convert to Christianity during the Holocaust serves as the unlikely jumping-off point for a new, Yiddish-language play beginning previews this week in Manhattan.
“The Gospel According to Chaim” is based on the life of missionary Chaim Einspruch, who was born into a Szanzer Hasidic family in Poland and “found” Christianity before immigrating to the United States in 1913. Einspruch eventually translated the New Testament into Yiddish and self-published it in 1941 after a Yiddish print shop turned down the job.
A production of the New Yiddish Rep, a New York-based theater company dedicated to Yiddish-language theater, “Gospel” is being billed as the first new, full-length Yiddish drama written in the United States in 70 years. According to David Mandelbaum, the company’s artistic director, the last original Yiddish drama in this country was written in the 1950s by famed Yiddish writer Leivick Halpern, author of the dramatic poem “The Golem.”
“The Gospel According to Chaim” is also the first full-length Yiddish play by Mikhl Yashinsky, a 33-year-old who has made a name for himself in New York as Yiddish writer, actor, teacher and translator.
Yashinsky stumbled upon Einspruch’s story in 2016 when he was a fellow at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. Fellows are required to conduct tours of the center and, as such, Yashinksy become familiar with the Yiddish printing type Einspruch’s widow donated to the institution, which is on display in a recreated but non-functional Yiddish print shop. Some of Einspruch’s printing type will be used as props in the play.
“It got me thinking about the irony inherent in this singular individual,” Yashinksky told the New York Jewish Week. “He was a Christian who believed in the divinity of Jesus but was also a very proud Jew culturally. It made me want to look further into this person.”
Yashinsky wrote the first act of “Gospel” while he was in Amherst, naming one of the characters in the play Sadie after a colleague there. He completed the play in 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina, where he lived for a time during the pandemic before returning to New York more than a year ago.
In the 1940s, Chaim “Henry” Einspruch drew the ire of Baltimore Jews by standing outside Orthodox synagogues and preaching about Christianity in Yiddish to Jews leaving Shabbat services. In addition to his translation of the New Testament, Einspruch also translated 100 Christian hymns into Yiddish in a collection titled “Hymns of Faith (Lider fun gloybn).”
Many Jews view efforts to encourage Jews to embrace Christianity as offensive and even antisemitic, with Jews for Jesus and other contemporary Messianic movements drawing particular scorn. But Yashinsky said he felt none of that as he sought to bring Einspruch to life.
“I wasn’t interested in just portraying him as a villain and having the play be a piece of propaganda against missionaries,” Yashinsky told the New York Jewish Week about his inspiration. “I really tried to understand why he was doing it. I don’t think Einspruch felt he was being malevolent in anything he did.”
Fascinatingly, Einspruch never formally converted to Christianity, “deeming his allegiance to evangelical Lutheranism a true fulfillment of his Judaism rather than apostasy or betrayal,” writes Naomi Seidman, a humanities professor at the University of Toronto whose scholarly article on translations of the New Testament into Yiddish was published in the Berkeley Journal of Religion and Theology. After Einspruch immigrated to the United States he earned a doctor of divinity degree at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. (Seidman will deliver a lecture on Thursday at YIVO, “A Very Jewish Christmas: When Jesus Spoke Yiddish,” discussing Einspruch’s New Testament translation, among others.)
“His native language was Yiddish and he enjoyed Yiddish literature,” Yashinsky said of Einspruch. “His innovation was writing this [New Testament translation] in a truly refined, literary, poetic, idiomatic Yiddish. It reads beautifully.”
Indeed, as Einspruch declares in one scene of the play — which takes place during Hanukkah and Christmas in 1940 and continues into 1941: “The holy Yiddish language is very precious to me.”
Yashinsky plays Einspruch in the production but that was not his original intent. A would-be actor who grew up as a Lubavitcher Hasid was in rehearsals to play Einspruch in a reading done last March but wasn’t up to the task, Yashinsky said. So the playwright decided to take the part himself. “The role felt good to me,” he said.
The other two characters in the play are Gabe, a printer Einspruch approaches to print the Yiddish New Testament, and Sadie, a friend of the printer and an anti-fascist activist alerting Jews to the atrocities happening in the Holocaust in Europe. During the course of the play, Sadie, whose father converted to Christianity, urges Gabe to turn down the New Testament job; Gabe, meanwhile, needs the business but is reflexively repulsed by the idea of Jews converting to Christianity.
The role of Gabe the printer will be shared by actors Sruli Rosenberg and Joshua Horowitz. Rosenberg, 30, grew up as a Satmar Hasid in Williamsburg and now lives in Monsey, a different Hasidic community upstate. He describes himself as “reformed hasidische” and said most of the time he doesn’t he doesn’t wear a kippah but he continues to observe Shabbat — meaning that Horowitz will play the printer then.
In an effort to master the English language, Rosenberg stopped reading and writing Yiddish as a teenager. He had little contact with the Yiddish arts revival until the Spring of 2021 when he attended Generation J, a Yiddish arts program in Germany, thinking he may want to become a writer. While he was there, Rosenberg was baffled when other participants informed him of the Yiddish theater scene in New York. “I’m, like, ‘No there isn’t. I would’ve known of it,’” he recalled.
Inspired, Rosenberg returned to New York and got a job as the assistant to New Yiddish Rep’s Mandelbaum, helping him move sets around the office and driving him around town. When Rosenberg was feeding lines to actors auditioning for “The Gospel According to Chaim,” Yashinsky asked him why he didn’t audition himself. Now, Rosenberg makes his professional acting debut in the play.
Sadie, a fiery antifacist organizer is played by Melissa Weisz, 40. In the play, on Christmas Day, she asks Einspruch: “And what are you going to give him as a gift, your messiah, huh? It’s his birthday, after all. Maybe a barrel of Jewish blood? A fitting gift. Maybe the extermination of another shtetl of Jews in Europe? His followers have been giving him such gifts for thousands of years, and it seems he never gets tired of it.”
Weisz, too, grew up as a Satmar Hasid in Borough Park and made her acting debut in 2010 playing Juliet in the feature film “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish,” which set the Shakespearean tale in Hasidic Brooklyn. She also had one of the leads in a New Yiddish Rep production of “God of Vengeance,” the Sholem Asch play about lesbian love.
“These two characters come from very different places but they’re both trying to figure out how to save people,” she said of the link between protagonists Sadie and Chaim.
Yashinsky said he sees a wide audience for the show, despite its niche topic and language.
“Many will come who are attracted to Yiddish and to the various dramas and emotions and curious personalities that are part of its tumultuous 20th-century history,” he said. “But I hope anyone also comes who may have ever wondered about the entanglements of opposing religions, the holiday wars in America, the confluence of ethnicity and faith and identity and human ambition.”
The recent Yiddish-language version of “Fiddler on the Roof,” which had a revival last year after an initial run interrupted by the pandemic, introduced audiences to “supertitles” — English-language translations that are projected behind the actors. But Yashinsky said even people who do not know Yiddish will benefit from hearing it on stage.
“The language should not hold anyone back,” he said. “On the contrary, I hope it draws them in.”
A bigger question is whether native Yiddish speakers in the city are likely to see the show. Rosenberg acknowledged that his Hasidic mother was not crazy about his career path. “Isn’t that the universal quarrel that parents have with their children going into the arts?” he said. “She definitely did not take well to it. She doesn’t get it. I don’t blame her.”
And new Yiddish Rep’s Mandelbaum chuckled when asked whether there might be chartered buses bringing theatergoers from Borough Park to see the play. But he does think that Yiddish plays can appeal to the Hasidic Orthodox community, as well as a more secular one: During the 2019 Folksbiene production of Leon Kobrin’s classic Yiddish comedy “Di Next-Door’ike (The Lady Next Door),” Mandelbaum said there were shows filled with young Hasidic Jews who had played hooky from their yeshivas.
Well aware of the Yiddish music revival that’s going strong in New York and abroad, Mandelbaum concedes that Yiddish theater has not enjoyed that same kind of renaissance.
“If Yiddish theater is to really have a life, then it is essential that there be people who are going to write Yiddish plays,” he said during a rehearsal break. “Yiddish theater ought to be more than re-staging things from the past. We need to have young Yiddish writers writing plays.”
Then he declared, “May there be many Yashinskys.”
“The Gospel According to Chaim (Di psure loyt khaim)” is performed in Yiddish with English supertitles. Previews begin on Thursday, Dec. 21; the world premiere is on Sunday Dec. 24 at 7:30 p.m. There will be a total of 21 performances through Sunday Jan. 7 at Theater for the New City (155 First Ave.).
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South Dakota Passes Bill Adopting IHRA Definition of Antisemitism
South Dakota’s state Senate passed on Thursday a bill requiring law enforcement agencies to refer to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism when investigating anti-Jewish hate crimes.
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem (R) already adopted the definition, which has been embraced by lawmakers across the political spectrum, via executive order in 2021. This latest measure, HB 1076, aims to further integrate the IHRA’s guidance into law and includes the organization’s examples of antisemitism. It now awaits a vote by the state House of Representatives.
“As antisemitism continues to rise across America, having a clear and standardized definition enables a more unified stance against this hatred,” the Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM), said in a statement. “We appreciate Governor Kristi Noem for making this legislation a policy goal of hers, strengthening the use of the IHRA Working Definition in South Dakota through legislation, following the December 2021 adoption via executive proclamation.”
CAM called on lawmakers in the lower house to follow the Senate’s lead and implored “other states to join the fight against antisemitism by adopting the IHRA definition, ensuring the safety and well-being of their Jewish residents.”
First adopted in 2005 by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism states that “antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” and includes a list of illustrative examples ranging from Holocaust denial to the rejection of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination. The definition is used by hundreds of governing institutions, including the US State Department, European Union, and the United Nations.
Widely regard as the world’s leading definition of antisemitism, it was adopted by 97 governmental and nonprofit organizations in 2023, according to a report Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM) Antisemitism Research Center issued in January.
Earlier this month, Georgia became the latest US state to pass legislation applying IHRA’s guidance to state law. 33 US States have as well, including Virginia, Texas, New York, and Florida.
Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.
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Columbia University Sued for Allowing Antisemitic Violence and Discrimination
Columbia University allowed for antisemitism to explode on campus endangering the welfare of Jewish students and faculty, StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice and Students Against Antisemitism (SAA) alleges in a lawsuit announced on Wednesday.
Filed in the US District Court of Southern New York, the complaint recounts dozens of reported antisemitic incidents that occurred after Oct. 7 which the university allegedly failed to respond to adequately because of anti-Jewish, as well as anti-Zionist, bias.
“Columbia refuses to enforce its policies or protect Jewish and Israeli members of the campus community,” Yael Lerman, director of SWU Center for Legal Justice said on Wednesday in a press release. “Columbia has created a pervasively hostile campus environment in which antisemitic activists act with impunity, knowing that there will be no real repercussions for their violations of campus policies.”
“We decline to comment on pending litigation,” Columbia University spokesperson and vice president for communications told The Algemeiner on Friday.
The plaintiffs in the case accuse Columbia University of violating their contract, to which it is bound upon receiving payment for their tuition, and contravening Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. They are seeking damages as well as injunctive relief.
“F— the Jews,” “Death to Jews, “Jews will not defeat us,” and “From water to water, Palestine will be Arab,” students chanted on campus grounds after the tragedy, violating the school’s code of conduct and never facing consequences, the complaint says. Faculty engaged in similar behavior. On Oct. 8, professor Joseph Massad published in Electronic Intifada an essay cheering Hamas’ atrocities, which included slaughtering children and raping women, as “awesome” and describing men who paraglided into a music festival to kill young people as “the air force of the Palestinian resistance.”
300 faculty signed a letter proclaiming “unwavering solidarity” with Massad, and in the following days, Students for Justice in Palestine defended Hamas’ actions as “rooted in international law.” In response, Columbia University president Minouche Shafik, opting not to address their rhetoric directly, issued a statement mentioning “violence that is affecting so many people” but not, the complaint noted, explicitly condemning Hamas, terrorism, and antisemitism. Nine days later, Shafik rejected an invitation to participate in a viewing of footage of the Oct. 7 attacks captured by CCTV cameras.
The complaint goes on to allege that after bullying Jewish students and rubbing their noses in the carnage Hamas wrought on their people, pro-Hamas students were still unsatisfied and resulted to violence. They beat up five Jewish students in Columbia’s Butler Library. Another attacked a Jewish students with a stick, lacerating his head and breaking his finger, after being asked to return missing persons posters she had stolen.
More request to the university went unanswered and administrators told Jewish students they could not guarantee their safety while Students for Justice in Palestine held demonstrations. The school’s powerlessness to prevent anti-Jewish violence was cited as the reason why Students Supporting Israel (SSI), a recognized school club, was denied permission to hold an event on self-defense. Events with “buzzwords” such as “Israel” and “Palestine” were forbidden, administrators allegedly said, but SJP continued to host events whole no one explained the inconsistency.
Virulent antisemitism at Columbia University on the heels of Oct. 7 was not a one-off occurance, the complaint alleges, retracing in over 100 pages 20 years of alleged anti-Jewish hatred at the school.
“Students at Columbia are enduring unprecedented levels of antisemitic and anti-Israel hate while coping with the trauma of Hamas’ October 7th massacre,” SWU CEO Roz Rothstein said in Wednesday’s press release. “We will ensure that Columbia University is held accountable for their gross failure to protect their Jewish and Israeli students.”
Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.
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University of California-Los Angeles Student Government Passes BDS Resolution
The University of California-Los Angeles student government on Tuesday passed a resolution endorsing the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, as well as false accusation that Israel is committing a genocide of Palestinians in Gaza.
“The Israeli government has carried out a genocidal bombing campaign and ground invasion against Palestinians in Gaza — intentionally targeting hospitals universities, schools, shelters, churches, mosques, homes, neighborhoods, refugee camps, ambulances, medical personnel, [United Nations] workers, journalists and more,” the resolution, passed 10-3 by the UCLA Undergraduate Student Association Council (USAC), says, not mentioning that UN personnel in Gaza assisted Hamas’ massacre across southern Israel on Oct. 7.
It continued, “Let it be resolved that the Undergraduate Student Association of UCLA formally call upon the UC Regents to withdraw investments in securities, endowments mutual funds, and other monetary instruments….providing material assistance to the commission or maintenance of flagrant violations of international law.
The days leading up to the vote were fraught, The Daily Bruin, the university’s official student newspaper reported on Wednesday.
“Non-UCLA students” sent USAC council members emails imploring them to vote for or against the resolution and USAC Cultural Affairs Commissioner and sponsor of the resolution, Alicia Verdugo, was accused of antisemitism and deserving of impeachment. The UCLA Graduate Student Association and University of California-Davis’ student government had just endorsed BDS the previous week, prompting fervent anticipation for the outcome of Tuesday’s USAC session.
Before voting took place, members of the council ordered a secret ballot, withholding from their constituents a record of where they stood on an issue of monumental importance to the campus culture. According to The Daily Bruin, they expressed “concerns” about “privacy” and “security.” Some members intimated how they would vote, however. During a question and answer period, one student who co-sponsored the resolution, accused a Jewish student of being “classist” and using “coded” language because she argued that the council had advanced the resolution without fully appreciating the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the history of antisemitism.
“As a Guatemalan, …my country went through genocide,” he snapped at the young woman, The Daily Bruin’s reporting documented. “My family died in the Guatemalan Mayan genocide. I understand. I very well know what genocide looks like.”
Other council members voiced their support by co-sponsoring the resolution, which was co-authored by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a group that has held unauthorized demonstrations and terrorized Jewish students across the country.
Responding to USAC’s decision, Jewish students told the paper that they find the campaign for BDS and the attempts of pro-Palestinian students to defend Hamas’ atrocities myopic and offensive.
“How can anyone dare to contextualize since Oct. 7 without acknowledging that the Jewish people are victims of such a cataclysmic attack?” Mikayla Weinhouse said. “BDS intentionally aims to divide a community. Its supporters paint a complex and century-old conflict in the Middle East as a simplistic narrative that inspires hate rather than advocates for a solution.”
University of California-Los Angeles denounced the resolution for transgressing school policy and the spirit of academic freedom.
“The University of California and UCLA, which, like all nine other UC campuses, has consistently opposed calls for a boycott against and divestment from Israel,” the school said in a statement. “We stand firm in our conviction that a boycott of this sort poses a direct and serious threat to the academic freedom of our students and faculty and to the unfettered exchange of ideas and perspectives on this campus.”
Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.
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