“King of the Jews” – a Play Review:
Bringing a moral dilemma from yesterday into our current times

On the morning of Monday, March 5, 2018 I jumped on a MegaBus in Boston to head to New York for a reading of Leslie Epstein’s play King of the Jews at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene in Lower Manhattan. The novel was published in 1979 and produced as a play in Boston in 2007 and Washington DC in 2009. The Boston reviews were glowing, but the DC reviews were more reserved or critical — questioning the use of humor and implying a lack of depth of character. From the reading 10 years later, I had a different view.

Let it be said that a novel always has more depth than a play and, not having read the novel or any reviews previously, I was a tabula rasa at this performance. I knew only that it was a story about Jews and had an inkling there was some Holocaust in there somewhere. How appropriate it was that I took a bus from Boston to New York, just as a bus played a key role in the play. I don’t have to give anything away for most people to understand the meaning.

My bus ride reached its destination. I decided to walk the few miles to my hotel to see the city. When I walk through the streets of Manhattan with the tall buildings all around, I am always in awe. For casual visitors like me, it is impactful. The Holocaust memorial in Berlin is designed to do something similar, reminding us of how many people were killed. My metaphorical walk led me to my hotel on Wall Street, where money is made and we celebrate success.

This walk was a great juxtaposition of the ideas in King of the Jews, which is not just a story about 12 Jews in the Lódż ghetto but also a commentary on death, living, human nature and fake news — all the ideas present in our world today. These themes make the story more relevant today than 10 years ago.

The story of King of the Jews is about a group of Jews in a Polish ghetto creating a ruling council to keep order, to determine rules for the ghetto society and, ultimately, to choose who lives and who dies. Or not. There is the option of not creating the JudenRat council; however, the character of the clever German officer is a master manipulator who uses his understanding of human psychology to force the Jews to decide on their own. This is the core of the story. How can one be part of such a council? How can one decide the fate of others? Who chose them to do this task? How can they find a way out of their moral dilemma?

During its premiere in 2007, the key reason people might have wanted to see the story would have been to remind themselves about the Holocaust and teach their children to never forget. To that end, it serves a clear purpose because during the two hours, we are transported to that time. Because there are many characters and lots of varied rapport, we feel we are a part of it.

Today, our world is caught up in two big themes: understanding truth and the American identify.

First, we struggle to understand the truth in this fake-news era where people in the public eye extend their 15 minutes of fame by muddying the waters of what is real and what is not, intentionally neglecting to show critical evidence of support.

Second, we are caught in the dilemma of deciding whether we are a selfish people or a caring leader nation, as many of us lose economic buying power and look around for blame.

It turns out the two themes are in a cyclical struggle which creates a whirlwind that is difficult to break apart. This holds true in King of the Jews, as well as today.

The March 5 reading was a unique opportunity to hear some great character actors present words, without staging, in such a way as to draw us into their circle and their dilemma. This can be a difficult task. Some of the humor suffers because we are unsure if it is actually humor, even when spoken by the character who is the comedian. Staging could help with this, because a play cannot use words explicitly to provide us with an understanding of the depth of the characters. This would seem forced and unnatural. Therefore, how the actors use their body movements and staging rounds out our understanding that is revealed by their lines.

In a reading, however, we do not get this extra information, so some of the characters blend into each other. Their voices may project bravado, but they show no actions to express the depth of who they are. Still, this cast did a formidable job creating their personas. In particular, Daniel Oreskes stood out in his performance of the German officer, Woltat. As Schpitalnik, the misplaced Jew who was supposed to be in Hungary instead of Poland, JP Sarro showed the most transformation of a scared, spineless man before the JudenRat and a confident and more decisive man after the JudenRat.

Ron Rifkin as Trumpelman catalyzed the JudenRat conversations and played with the emotions of virtually every character. Clearly, he yearned to be moving about the stage, and this desire came forth in Act 2 when he became more demonstrative from his chair on stage and with his female companion, Phelia.

The two women, Phelia and Dorka, played by Mary Illes and Serena Ryen, portrayed feminine sides of the discussion. Mary conveyed well her complex nature of desire and evil with an undercurrent of conscience. Serena forged ahead with uncompromising good, which eventually may have to make compromises.

A noteworthy performance was given by Josh Lerner, a student from Pace University, for his role as the young Nisel. This role is perhaps the most difficult because he sits and listens during most of the reading and then steps in to convey the horrors of the Holocaust. He does this with an obsessive conviction that borders on PTSD.

All in all, I found this reading to a Monday crowd of about 200 people to be compelling, impressive and thought-provoking. It left us all to ponder what we would do in a similar situation of moral dilemma. It left us to make comparisons to today’s political and societal questions of who we are and who we should be, about who is good and who is evil, and about what actions we should take and what we should suppress. There are no easy answers, which makes it all the more important that we continue to ask the questions. I hope to be able to see this reading turn into a fully staged play in the near future.

If you, too, would like to see a full production of this play, please email the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene or Leslie Epstein. And send me a note. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Eric Braun is an entrepreneur, writer and community developer living outside of Boston on the South Shore. He can be reached at SouthShoreEric@gmail.com.