Der yidisher kenig lir

[The Jewish King Lear]


Act I. The festival of Purim in the home of Dovid Moysheles, the table prepared for a feast. Dovid’s wife, Khane-Leah, sends their servant Shamay to fetch the food, while her youngest daughter Taybele says she has invited Yaffe, her teacher, for dinner. Yaffe enters and mocks Purim, suggesting that Jews should focus more on activism than on ritual. Enter Dovid’s other daughters and their husbands: Etele and her husband Kharif, and Gitele and her husband Moyshe. The sons-in-law fight until Dovid enters and gives his daughters gifts: rings for Ettele, earrings for Gitele, and a 350-ruble broach for Taybele. Etele and Gitele respond flatteringly, but Taybele says she neither needs nor likes the gift. Dovid then announces that he will soon leave for Palestine, and is leaving his fortune to his children. Etele and Gitele act grateful, but not Taybele, and Dovid kicks her out. Yaffe cites Shakespeare’s Lear as a warning to Dovid, warning him that by his actions just now, he has become like King Lear.

Act II. Shamay bemoans his fate; once wealthy, Dovid and Khane-Leah are starving, and Kharif and Etele mistreat them all. Meanwhile, Taybele, now a doctor, is about to leave for St. Petersburg, but when she arrives, Dovid chastises for not knowing a woman’s place. Yaffe chides the others for their false piety, and says that Dovid persists in playing the role of Lear. Dovid fights with Kharif over who is master of the house, but ultimately waives his legal right to take back what he gave away. He laments the loss of peace and respect in his house, and finally breaks down: “Water! Water! Can I get a bit of water in my own house?! Water!” He falls, and the rest cry, “Father! Father!”

Act III. Five years later. Taybele provides an update about her parents: Khane-Leah is sick and weak, and Dovid has gone blind. Taybele hides when her parents enter, and hears her father tell Shamay how much he loved her. But when she reveals herself, he spurns her, and says things have changed. The family situation decays further when Moyshe brings in Hasidim who threaten Kharif and laugh at Dovid’s blindness. Yaffe excoriates them, but Dovid again refuses his and Taybele’s help. Yaffe moralizes: “Oh Lear! Lear! Jewish King Lear! It’s not for nothing that you come from a nation long known as a stiff-necked people.” When all the others have gone, Dovid and Shamay leave together, with Dovid crying, “Alms for the Jewish King Lear!”

Act IV. opens with preparations for the wedding of Yaffe and Taybele. Kharif and Etele arrive, and Yaffe says they should give Taybele her share of the inheritance so she can build a hospital. But Kharif says that he has nothing, since he signed everything over to his brother. Yaffe sends him and Etele away. Dovid comes tapping at the window, and when Shamay brings him in, Taybele reconciles not just with him, but with Gitele and Moyshe as well. Kharif and Etele return; they are now the ones with nowhere to go, for his brother has taken everything. Meanwhile, Yaffe gets a letter that the courts are returning all of Dovid’s assets to him. He forgives everyone, and offers a prayer for their well-being as everyone replies, “Amen!”