“Intermission at Broadway’s The Merchant of Venice. This play always stirs feelings of hatred in me. As a Jew it’s often hard to sit through.” I Tweeted this thought last week while sitting in the Broadhurst Theater during a break in the Broadway revival of Shakespeare’s play, starring Al Pacino. It was the only thought swirling around my head after watching Pacino embody such a controversial role as Shylock, the Jewish merchant at the heart of this classic work.
By the time I left the theatre and turned my phone back on, a friend, Howard Sherman, of the American Theatre Wing, had replied on Twitter, asking me if my hatred towards Merchant of Venice was towards the play itself, the portrayal of Shylock or seeing how others treated the character. How to answer that? We both agreed that our responses to the work were complex.
Were it not for Sherman later passing me an essay that he had written 17 years ago, on this very subject, I might have left any further discussion of Merchant of Venice to a rant over coffee, but his thoughts on grappling with Shylock as a Jew resonated deeply within me, leaving me to reflect on my own identity, as both a Jew and a theatre journalist.
Pacino recently spoke with the New York Times about his current turn on Broadway, but even the storied actor avoided touching on the controversy surrounding Shakespeare’s portrayal of a Jew, saying that he “preferred to avoid looking at [Shylock] from a critical distance.”
For myself, growing up as a Jew meant little more than seven nights of gift giving in December, and noshing on matzo in the spring. I was a Jew without religion, identifying proudly with my ethnic background but paying little attention to the notion of God. I was living in Los Angeles. Everyone seemed to get by just fine with a superficial lifestyle. Who was I to buck the trend?
It wasn’t until I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and ended up bunking with a guy from Mississippi that I felt the urge to defend my bloodline. Upon first meeting this towering redneck, I noticed a cross dangling around his neck. “Okay, no Jesus talk,” I told myself. I wasn’t one to embrace any particular idea of God, and had very little patience for religious talk. Frankly, it bored me. But, then he decided to invite me to church.
“Eh, I’m a Jew,” I remember saying with a sense of aloofness, hoping that he would kindly accept my lack of interest in Jesus and let me have a day of rest. Apparently that comment came as a complete shock to Mississippi, who began to explain how he used to think Jews had horns. Seriously. I vividly recall hearing the words “Jews” and “horns” used in the same sentence, and directed towards me. Had I been wearing a hat, I would have kindly taken it off to show my head was smooth, especially so following a buzz cut in boot camp.
Initial shock aside, I attempted to explain how my being Jewish didn’t necessarily mean I considered myself a religious man, rather I considered myself of Jewish heritage, much like he considered himself to be Irish. After living with Mississippi for a year, I can honestly say that he never quite understood the concept of Jewish identity, nor did he refrain from using anti-Semitic language around me.
My encounter with Mississippi was the most profound thing to happen in my life up until that point, for it set me on a path of answering my own personal Jewish identity question. What does it mean for me, an agnostic, to be a Jew?
Upon leaving the military, I returned to Los Angeles and decided to seek counsel from a local rabbi, who kindly took me under his wing, attempting to school me in the ways of the Jewish religion. Torah study groups. Private discussions. Weekly synagogue services. After about a year of immersion, I sufficiently felt schooled in the ways of my religion, yet, to this day, I don’t have a connection to God. But my connection to being Jewish is stronger than ever.
Sitting in the darkened Broadway theatre, watching as Shakespeare’s Shylock spewed vengeful and vile traits on stage, echoes of Mississippi’s “horns” remark rang in my head. Had Shylock been a person’s first exposure to a Jew, should they be crucified for thinking he was a devilish creature? There is no telling what each theatergoer feels as they watch Shakespeare’s play, and perhaps that’s the point. More than 400 years after its publication, Merchant of Venice remains a work of controversy, and one that deserves constant dissection and critical attention.
Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus.