New Yiddish Rep’s ‘Gospel According to Chaim’ gracefully grapples with a taboo subject
By PJ Grisar
December 22, 2023
Nittel Nacht, or, as gentiles call it, Christmas Eve, has always had a paradox at its core. It is a time when, historically, Jews feared the violence of their Christian neighbors — or even the Christian deity — but at its heart is a story of a Jewish mother and her child.
In Mikhl Yashinsky’s The Gospel According to Chaim, believed to be the first new, full-length American Yiddish play in decades, the titular character seizes on the nativity story to argue for the essential Jewishness of the Christian faith. When Chaim “Henry” Einspruch — a real historical figure played wonderfully by Yashinksy in a natty pinstripe suit — enters a Baltimore printing shop, he tells the owner, Gabe, that his namesake is the angel who whispered in the ear of Miriam, a “pious Jewish girl who is living with her mother and father in Nazareth.”
It’s Christmas Eve — and also Hanukkah — in 1940 and Einspruch is trying doggedly to convince Gabe (Joshua Horowitz, charming, in a role he alternates with Sruli Rosenberg) to print his Yiddish translation of the New Testament. It almost works — the story reminds Gabe of his mother, Miri, who is in Europe and whose fate is unknown. Then, someone throws an egg at the window of his Yiddish-lettered storefront. How could Gabe print the Gospel of the people who, even now, are terrorizing Jews in the name of dogma? What would his Yiddishe mama think?
Gabe’s mixed feelings about helping Einspruch, who is sincere and offering a good chunk of change, appall his regular client, the antifascist activist Sadie (Melissa Weisz, fiery in a red beret), who thinks this “goysische Jew” is a dangerous apostate. “He makes a blessing over the curse of our people,” she says, blaming Christianity for centuries of dead Jews. At the same time, Einspruch claims that his good news will free Jews from the “curse of the Torah, with its hundreds of laws.”
Einspruch’s Yiddish translation of the New Testament is still circulating in messianic missionary circles (and as a kind of gag gift, floating between certain audience members last Thursday evening). In Yashinsky’s play, which chronicles his efforts to get his gospels printed professionally, his apostasy is not simply vilified. Einspruch is not some Harold Hill huckster heretic, but a zealous believer who is equally enthusiastic about preserving Yiddish, which he calls a “holy language.”
The fictional Sadie is his foil, running off posters raising awareness of Nazi persecution in Europe. Her ambition is to save Jewish bodies, while Einspruch believes that he must do all he can to save Jewish souls, and makes his argument in a decidedly Jewish way, citing Jeremiah, paraphrasing Hillel and singing his Yiddish translation of “Silent Night” when he hears carolers outside. Later, he’ll make Ma’oz Tzur about Jesus.
Directed by Dmitri Barcomi, with supertitles and lively projections by QiXin Zhang featuring illustrated pages of Einspruch’s Der Bris Hadoshe (the New Covenant), Yashinsky’s well-made play is packed with Yiddish idioms and wordplay. But even for a monoglot like myself, the language enriches the play (which Yashinsky also wrote in English, in a version that hasn’t yet been produced), which is as much about intra and inter-religious strife as it is about the essential qualities of the Jewish lingua franca and its most taboo application.
The New Yiddish Rep, following their Yiddish Godot and a revival of Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, has jolted the repertoire with a work that is both traditional and delightfully subversive. Setting it at the juncture of Christmas and Hanukkah, with an opening night scheduled for Christmas Eve, it’s the perfect way to spend a Jewish Christmas.
The Gospel According to Chaim (“Di psure loyt khaim) will play 21 performances in its world premiere engagement at the Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue. For more details and to get tickets, click here.
This article was originally published on the Forward.