Di brider Ashkenazi

[The Brothers Ashkenazi]


Part I.

1830. Outside an inn in Lodz, Russian Poland, Germans arrive in wagons. Their leader, young Heinz Huntze, tells the wondering inhabitants that they have been invited by the Russian Government to develop the textile industry. The Jewish traders are disturbed by the news that they will no longer be permitted to import foreign textiles. Johanan Ashkenazi, head of the neighboring Jewish community of Lentchitz, advises the Jews of Lodz to become weavers, and he envisages an important Jewish settlement in the town with his son, Abraham Hersh, as its leader.

1860. Abraham Hersh Ashkenazi, head of the large Jewish community of Lodz, is perturbed because of the neglect of Jewish ordinances and because his wife, Roise, who is about to become a mother, objects to his departure to spend Passover festival with his rebbe (Hassidic rabbi). He is persuaded by other followers of the rebbe, poor people whom he usually takes with him at his expense, to ignore his wife’s pleading. The scene closes with the announcement of the birth of twins to Roise; they are named Simcha Meyer, who is the elder, and Jacob Bunim.

Twelve years later. Huntze is now head of the Lodz textile industry, with Abraham Hersh Ashkenazi as his sales manager. Ashkenazi urges him to end competition with the rival fir of Getzke by merging the two. Huntze is finally convinced and agrees to appoint Ashkenazi sole General Agent of the combine. Ashkenazi has brought his two boys to see the factory, and Huntze is impressed by Simcha Meyer, who is clever, keen, and ambitious.

EIght years later. In the hand loom workshop of Hyam Alter, the workers are harangued by Tevye. He tells them they are being exploited and that their master is amassing wealth to provide a large dowry for his daughter Dinah to enable her to marry the brilliant Simcha Meyer. Hyam Alter urges them to work with greater zeal and promises to invite them to the wedding.

The wedding. Hyam Alter is worried by creditors and by the tears of his daughter who does not love Simcha Meyer, but rather his brother Jacob Bunim, who is in love with her. Her parents tell her she is lucky to marry a man such as Simcha Meyer, who arrives with his brother and other guests. Pearl Eisen, daughter of a wealthy Hassid, begins a flirtation with Jacob Bunim, who is in agonies because his brother is marrying the girl he loves. After some bickering because the dowry is not delivered in full and because some of the guests are deemed too frivolous for the Hassidim, the marriage ceremony takes place.

Some years later, on Dinah’s birthday, the guests include Jacob Bunim, who, although now married to Pearl, shows his affection for his brother’s wife. Hyam Alter, on the verge of bankruptcy, asks his son-in-law to lend him the dowry money, and Simcha Meyer seizes the opportunity to acquire a partnership in the business. He boasts to his wife, Dinah, that he will transform the workshop into a modern textile factory by the introduction of steam power and that he will outrival Huntze.

Two years later. The hand-loom weavers are in the synagogue for prayers. Tevye declares that the labor conditions have worsened since Simcha Meyer became a partner. He proposes that they organize to demand a fourteen-hour day and other reforms.

In the office of Abraham Ashkenazi, Simcha Meyer reproaches his father for selling goods on credit, and is reproached in turn by his mother who complains that he never visits home. He says he is a very busy man. Huntze comes to ask Abraham whether he should give his children money to acquire a noble title. Abraham disapproves, while Simcha Meyer flatters Huntze. Father and son quarrel. Abraham detests his son’s greed and brutal attitude. Simcha Meyer is scornful of his father’s old-fashioned business methods. Abraham demands that his son pledge that he will never deviate from Jewish observance for money. Simcha Meyer refuses and his father slaps his face. Simcha Meyer decides to advance money to the young Huntzes to gain their favor; he telephones them and agrees to meet them at a night club. He begins his new adventure by cutting off his side curls.

Part II.

The Huntzes host a reception and ball to celebrate their ennoblement, obtained with Simcha Meyer’s money. Heinz Huntze breaks down in trying to make a speech to the Governor and guests. The gathering shows its contempt.

At the Huntze factory, Heinz Huntze having died, his sons dismiss old Ashkenazi, the General Agent, and appoint Simcha Meyer, who has changed his name to Max, in his place. Max demands the keys and the books from his father and dismisses the old hands who are distasteful to the heirs.

Max Ashkenazi is now wealthy, but this has not made his wife, Dinah, any happier. He is visited by his brother, who has also adopted modern garb, and is the General Agent to a rival firm. He demands of Max an account of their inheritance and expresses his love for Dinah. The brothers quarrel and Jacob Bunim loftily renounces his share of the inheritance. Max cynically remarks, “An insult goes, but money stays,” to which his wife rejoins, “Money goes, but an insult sticks.”

Max, in his lust for power, neglects his home and children. His son, Ignatz, despises him; his daughter, Gertrude, falls in love with her uncle and suggests that he should divorce his wife and marry her. Jacob sees in her a replica of her mother’s youthful self, but is reluctant owing to his affection for Dinah.

1914. World War I. Max, as the chief of the Huntze factory, is the industrial head of Lodz. He is harassed by labor troubles and by heart attacks. One of the young Huntzes demands money but Max tells him he is now in sole control of the business and holds a majority of the shares; also that he has worked hard to create wealth while the Huntzes have squandered money. Max’s wife brings him the news that their daughter has eloped with Jacob. Max furiously vows that he will bring her back. A Russian General arrives with the information that the town is being evacuated before the advancing German forces. Max decides to leave immediately for St. Petersburg to arrange to transfer his factory there. His family refuses to accompany him.

October 1917. The Russian Revolution. Max and Tevye meet again in St. Petersburg. Tevye has spent years in Tsarist prisons, but is now an important official. He confiscates the factory and arrests the owner.

Jacob Ashkenazi, overlooking Max’s treatment, makes a hazardous journey to Russia and succeeds in inducing the Tcheka (Soviet secret police) to release his brother. Max is deeply moved and full of remorse. He promises to start life anew with his brother and the rest of the family.

The two brothers are detained by brutal soldiers at the Polish border. An officer takes delight in degrading the two prominent Lodz Jews by commanding them to dance before a jeering mob. Max performs his dance of shame to save his life. Jacob refuses, strikes the officer, and is shot instantly.

In his despondency, Max is visited by his family and townsfolk, but can find no solace. He recites verses from the Book of Job to his daughter, and begins to intone the prayer for the dead for his martyred brother. Stricken with a heart attack, he dies to the wail of a distant factory siren.

Adapted from a Yiddish Art Theater program by Sonia Gollance