Akeydes Yitskhok - Goldfaden's Masterpiece Revived
07 January 2004
by Richard McBee
Akeydes Yitskhok by Abraham Goldfaden. Poster with detail of painting by Rembrandt.
It could have been a travesty. Indeed, think of a musical of Akeydes Yitskhok, frivolous singing and play-acting the most awesome and sacred drama in the Torah! And yet the genius of Abraham Goldfaden in collaboration with the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater achieved an unmitigated triumph of Biblical insight and creativity worthy of the best yeshiva. On November 25, 2003 a staged reading in Yiddish with English supertitles of this masterpiece under the musical direction of Zalmen Mlotek was performed at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan to a standing room only audience. That night great drama and riveting theater blossomed from the Torah and Midrashim.
Abraham Goldfaden (1840-1908), Yiddish poet, composer and revered founder of the Yiddish Theater, created Akeydes Yitskhok in 1897 as a Biblical operetta. As strange as it might seem to produce a musical about what is one of the most momentous narrative in the Torah, it is a vibrant example of the daring creativity of the Yiddish Theater in its youth.
The musical respectfully approaches the text as any Torah student would, delving into midrashim and commentaries as it attempts to understand the sparse narrative. As a result, it moves simultaneously in opposite directions. First it fleshes out the Biblical narrative of only 19 verses into a rich exploration the life of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Ishmael and Eliezer. And as it is accomplishing that task, it opens a panoramic view of the whole Torah, glancing back to "Zeideh Noah" even as it anticipates the Temple offerings. The familiar tenth trial of Abraham is recast into drama filled with surprises, Divine interjections and heart wrenching questioning that reveals the Yiddish Theater as a complex and revolutionary medium of Jewish artistic expression.
Mark Altman directed this production and oversees the staged reading series, Hidden Treasures. He sees Goldfaden's Akeydes Yitskhok as probing the question of "What does it mean to serve G-d?" And true to Goldfaden's mission in his latter years to bring serious drama to a Yiddish speaking audience, he proceeds to explore the thorny issues that lie at the center of the narrative. How and why did Abraham so easily accept G-d's command and where was Sarah during this momentous event? The entire production brilliantly revolves around these questions.
The prelude sweetly opens with Isaac's guardian angel (gloriously sung by Arianne Slack) praising the old couple; "Happy are they with their baby... Oy, a child is the world!" The stage of human emotions is set upon which the Biblical drama will unfold.
A dialogue ensues between Abraham (played by David Rogow) and his servant Eliezer (Tzahi Moskowitz) questioning how he can possibly repay the Master of the Universe for all the bounty that He has bestowed upon him. All his sacrifices, all his faith and actions seem puny next to the greatness of G-d's generosity and kindness.
G-d commands Abraham to offer his son, who is "dearer than all my possessions, nay, my entire life ... my son!" Eliezer challenges him, first echoing Abraham's midrashic questions and G-d's answers: "Which son ?"... "the one you love," "ah...Yitskhok!" The ultimate responsibility is now shared by Abraham as Goldfaden removes G-d's voice from the narrative and finds it in angelic and human mouths, to make the drama even more achingly human and passionately real. Eliezer protests but Abraham argues, "My G-d ordered me! -- Whom do I listen to, whom? He gave him to me, He can take him back..." and misunderstandings worthy of any good farce.
They argue, Eliezer pleading, "...you are pious, you love your G-d -- but do not further forget, that Yitskhok is your son, and you are his father...." The second sacrifice is ready: it will be his mother!" At this dramatic moment Sarah (brought to life by the incomparable Mina Bern) enters as Isaac's bar mitzva feast begins.
Goldfaden's libretto (he wrote the music as well) reflects his penchant to empower women in the Biblical narratives, fleshing out their voices, concerns and passions much as the Midrash frequently does. Here, where Sarah is tragically silent (especially considering that the episode results in her death). Goldfaden gives her a real voice, touching on the Jewish heart and soul by concentrating on the relationship between mother and son.
Goldfaden's career was spent modernizing Jewish music and entertainment for the Yiddish speaking masses. He was born in the Ukraine and had a thorough Hebrew education in addition to Russian, German and secular subjects. He studied in the rabbinical seminary at Zhitomir (a government supervised yeshiva) and quickly came under the influence of the leaders of the Haskalah movement in the 1860's. As he composed Yiddish poems and songs for badhanim and folksingers, he conceived of the notion of a Yiddish Theater that would combine song, drama and theater for the Jewish masses.
After the first performances in 1876, the idea flourished throughout Russia until the Czarist government, fearing the revolutionary new medium, banned performances in Yiddish in 1883. This of course simply caused the new art form to spread throughout the world, establishing outposts in Paris, London and New York. Light comedies such as Shmendrik (1877) were typical of his early work, until the worsening conditions of Russian Jewry caused him to concentrate on more serious dramas. The famous operetta Shulamis (1880) was a transition to more overtly political works that praised heroism and sacrifice like Bar Kochba in 1887. Goldfaden was a follower of the Hovevei Zion movement and wrote his last play Ben Ami (1907) in reaction to Herzl's death. In light of this history, one can see how Goldfaden uses Akeydes Yitskhok to enter into the dialogue that surely consumed his audience in 1897. What does G-d want of His people, as we continue to face calamity after calamity? Will He stop the sacrifice of Jews this time also?
After Yishmoel (played as a fool by Mark Altman) is introduced as a farcical but evil brother, Yitskhok (sensitively performed by Meena Lifshe Viswanath) sings at his bar mitzva the haunting and expansive song, "Zeideh Noah, have compassion..." The ballad invites pair after pair of animals into the safely of the Ark, each revealing their G-d-given purpose in creation. The lion's children will spare Daniel, the ravens will feed Elijah the Prophet, the ox will atone for our sins on the altar, and the red heifer will purify; each has a role to play just as Yitskhok does now.
As father and son make ready to leave, Sarah questions, worries and finally forbids. Why does Abraham need to take Yitskhok to study far away? She will miss him even for a short while as she holds him a few moments more. Abraham insists and Sarah rebels; "Ha! Now I am not called Sarah -- now I am not your wife, now I am Yitskhok's mother -- my soul, my blood, my body... Forgive me G-d, that I oppose Your will, You alone make me tremble..." The full force of a mother's anguish overflows the stage as she sings a tender lullaby to her beloved son; "The good G-d is your guardian, sleep, sleep well." And then suddenly father and son are gone. She panics and lapses into a dream, a terrible dream in which her son is offered as a sacrifice... "my child is now being killed..." We gasp in horror with the terrified 90-year-old mother as the chorus prays to G-d that angels should protect him on the journey.
Goldfaden has drawn us into the very heart of the narrative, finding the meaning of Abraham's sacrifice in Sarah's anguish. Just as the piyutim on Rosh Hashanah summon Sarah's cries over Isaac's ashes, the audience, today or a hundred years earlier, religious or secular, is deeply moved by the confrontation with the tragedies of Jewish history.
The second act allows us to eavesdrop on Abraham and Yitskhok on the way to Mount Moriah. Yitskhok yearns to serve G-d even as he worries about his mother. In a compassionate aside, Yishmoel sings an earnest song to the donkey, his only friend, as Goldfaden finds resonant meaning in the "other" son who was sent away.
The fateful ending reveals a dialogue between father and son, each bravely determined to do G-d's will even as Yitskhok demands "Woe is me..., woe is me, it is bitter, what will my dear mother do now... What will become of her..." Abraham, faced with the terrible moment, hesitates and questions, "Father. I am his father -- no? Why am I getting scared... and this is my child...no, why am I frozen... this knife has two edges... one for the child, one for the father... I am now ready!" And, of course, the angel intercedes and all rejoice as the curtain descends.
The Folksbiene Yiddish Theater, following in Abraham Goldfaden's footsteps, continues to explore the vast spectrum of Yiddish drama, especially in productions of the Reading Series like this one. Here in a more modest format productions can experiment with creative works that may not be able to fill the house as popular Yiddish entertainment.
In the spring, they plan to present two works in commemoration of the Kishinev Pogrom: Di Familye Tzvi by David Pinski and Moshkele Khazer by I.D. Berkowitz. Each work unblinkingly examines the Russian Jewish world of 1903 challenged with troubling communal divisions, deadly external threats and determined national hopes. Somehow it is not surprising that this vibrant Jewish art form still has much to teach us today.
I gratefully acknowledge the Encyclopedia Judaica for biographical material on Goldfaden.