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Yiddish Theatre

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Who’s to Blame God or Man ?
By Irene Backalenick

Theatre critic Irene Backalenick covers theatre for national and regional publications. She has a Ph.D.in theatre criticism from City University Graduate Center. Her book "East Side Story--Ten Years with the Jewish Repertory Theatre" (based on her doctoral thesis) won a first-place national book award in history. Other awards in journalism and theatre criticism include a New York Times Publishers Award (received while writing for The New York Times). Her professional organizations include the American Theatre Critics Association, Association for Jewish Theatre, Outer Critics Circle (on the executive board), Drama Desk, Actors Equity Derwent Committee, and the Connecticut Critics Circle e-mail: ireneback@sbcglobal.net  Web : www.nytheaterscene.com 

Who is the true Jew, he who faithfully observes the religious laws and puts his trust in God or he who follows a secular, humanistic path? This ongoing battle between Jews of opposing persuasions is spelled out powerfully between two characters in “The Quarrel.” While one sees the high moral ground as a pact between God and man, the other sees man as wholly responsible for his fellow man. The Man of Faith versus the Humanist.

This worthy two-man show, which played at Makor (the Steinhardt Center of the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan) in the fall of 2006, now enjoys a one-night return on March 7, at Stern College on East 34th St. It brings together two characters who had been boyhood friends years earlier in a Bialystok Yeshiva. Now, as adults, one is a Rabbi, the other a poet/journalist/columnist. They meet by chance in Montreal, Canada, where one, Hersh, leads a congregation and the other, Chaim, is plugging his newest book. Each is amazed to find the other is alive. Both are Holocaust survivors who have lost their entire families.

One is reminded of Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen,” where the same duality is posed, but the Holocaust background lends a special edginess to this piece, with emotions cutting more deeply.

While “The Quarrel” often feels like a polemic, as arguments for each side are offered, it is rescued by a display of considerable emotion. It is a good deal more than opposing philosophies, with personal grievances and past histories adding layers to the piece. Chaim offers his arguments with barely-suppressed rage, providing sharp contrast to the serene, at times smug, Hersh.

At one point Chaim peels an apple and offers a slice to Hersh. Is this another version of Eve offering the forbidden fruit to Adam? More likely, it is a symbol of man’s relentless thirst for knowledge, at whatever cost.

“The Quarrel” has undergone many incarnations, beginning as a short story by the Yiddish writer Chaim Grade titled “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner.” From that point it became a 1992 screenplay by David Brandes, and ultimately evolved as this play which Brandes co-wrote with Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.

In the earlier production, actors Sam Guncler as Chaim and Reuven Russell as Hersh gave strong, impassioned performances as they battled fiercely, each defending his own view. Convoluted arguments were interspersed with memories of the past. Each blames the other for losses and failures, but acknowledged the closeness. “You were much smarter than I was,” the Rabbi reminded the writer, “and my father always compared me to you.” But the ties and former affection outweighed the resentments. Both suffered from survivor’s guilt, both felt that they might have saved family members if they had behaved differently.

And now the Russell/Guncler team returns. “The Quarrel” is heavy-going, but worth the effort. There is no doubt that it reaches its theatergoers through their hearts, minds, and, dare we say it, souls.


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