Comfort And Discomfort, A Month Of Contrasts

Two very different events marked the month of July for Jews in New York this summer. The first was the performance of “The Merchant of Venice” at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, and now headed for Broadway. The second was Chelsea Clinton’s wedding to Marc Mezvinsky in upstate Rhinebeck. I wasn’t at the second (alas!), but I did attend the first.

The wedding certainly engrossed the entire world, but Jews could enjoy the additional facts that Mezvinsky is not only Jewish, he also showed his Jewishness by donning a kipa and tallit. (That the wedding took place on Shabbat and a rabbi co-officiated are subjects for another discussion.) What stood out during the festivities were Mezvinsky’s total lack of self-consciousness in displaying Jewish religious symbols and Chelsea Clinton’s happy acceptance of that display. (A ketubah appeared prominently at the ceremony.) And what that indicates is the degree to which Jews today feel secure and comfortable in the United States. Arguably more than anyone, the Clintons represent royalty in this country, and here we had a nice Jewish boy marrying into that family surrounded by the emblems of his faith. Could that have happened any place else on earth?

Because of that sense of comfort, as a Jew living in this country I had never been unduly disturbed by portrayals of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, in productions I’d seen of “The Merchant of Venice” or by the depiction of Fagin, Shylock’s counterpart, in Charles Dickens’ novel “Oliver Twist.” My mind would dismiss such characters as pictures from the past, distorted views of Jews as seen by people in another time and place. It was more interesting to delve into Shakespeare’s language and Dickens’ story plot than to dwell on these caricatures.

Watching “The Merchant” in the park this year, however, I squirmed with discomfort and anger. I found Al Pacino powerful and moving as Shylock, despite some critics’ carping. But I found the malevolent representation of this Jewish man offensive and upsetting, despite the sympathetic “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech Shakespeare gave him. The play portrays Shylock as the vilest of creatures, demanding a pound of Christian flesh as an act of vengeance. This in contrast to the “good” Christians who advocate the “quality of mercy,” as the character Portia declaims. Yet to my mind, as the play progressed the Christian characters appeared much viler than Shylock. They sought to crush him completely by stripping him not only of his possessions, but of the essence of his being, his religion and traditions. They force him to convert, not necessarily for revenge, but because for them a Jew has no legitimacy as a human being. Only a Christian is human.

Why did I have such a strong reaction? The mounting anti-Semitism around the world and particularly the campaign to delegitimize Israel make it hard to shrug off anti-Jewishness these days, even in Shakespeare. A friend told me she saw “The Merchant” in England, and was horrified to hear the audience laugh with glee at the anti-Jewish lines and applaud when Shylock is converted. This is the same country whose scholars have repeatedly promoted academic boycotts of Israel and divestment from businesses connected to it. To be sure, criticism of Israel does not signify anti-Semitism, but criticism that aims at uprooting the country is as anti-Semitic as Shakespeare’s Christians who aim to uproot the Jewish moneylender.

In his book, “Trials of the Diaspora,” Anthony Julius traces English anti-Semitism from the Middle Ages to such literary figures as Shakespeare and Dickens to its manifestation in anti-Zionism today. “Israel is the only state in the world,” he writes, “whose legitimacy is widely denied and whose destruction is publicly advocated and threatened. Israelis are the only citizens of a state whose indiscriminate murder is widely considered justifiable.” The perpetrators, of course, are not all British. Think Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Think flotilla “peaceniks” out to aid Gaza while ignoring Hamas’ stated intentions to destroy Israel. Think journalist Helen Thomas telling Jews to “get the hell out of Palestine,” and Oliver Stone accusing Israel of messing up United States foreign policy. Pejorative characterizations of Israel easily slip into pejorative characterizations of Jews, and vice versa.

Daniel Sullivan, director of “The Merchant,” added a scene at the end that shows Christian church men brutally baptizing Shylock in a pool. Afterwards he gets up, puts his kipa back on and walks away, past the Christians. It is an act of defiance, far harder than Marc Mezvinsky’s wearing a kipa at his wedding to Chelsea Clinton. It is also an act of redemption. Shylock has saved his soul, although we don’t know what will happen to his body at the hands of the clergymen. I’m glad for that scene, Shakespeare notwithstanding. It somehow redeems the play also. n

Francine Klagsbrun’s most recent book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.”


About the Author
Francine Klagsbrun, a Jewish Week columnist, is the author of more than a dozen books, among them Voices of Wisdom: Jewish Ideals and Ethics for Everyday Living. She was the editor of the best-selling Free To Be You and Me, produced by Marlo Thomas and the Ms. Foundation. Her newest work is an in-depth biography of Golda Meir to be published in September 2017 by Schocken Books.