Yoshe Kalb

[Yoshe Kalb]


Part I. Three young men, whose part in the present production resembles somewhat that of the Chorus in the classic drama of ancient Greece, appear on the stage and one of them reads from a time-worn tome the story of “Yoshe Kalb.”

The Hasidic Rabbi of Rachmanivke and Reb Melech, the Hasidic Rabbi of Nyesheve, meet by prearrangement in Carlsbad, to which they have been secretly followed by groups of their mutually hostile adherents. Reb Melech, the more domineering of the two, coaxes and bullies the other until he consents to a match between his only son Nachumtche, a learned, dreamy, and mystically-minded youth, and Reb Melech’s youngest daughter Serele, a pretty but somewhat insipid girl of fifteen. From the whispered remarks of Reb Melech’s followers we learn that the reason why he is so anxious to marry off his daughter is because he is desirous of marrying again, although 68 years old and thrice a widower, the object of his desire being the young and beautiful Makale, niece and ward of his follower Mechele Hinever.

A room in Reb Melech’s house on the eve of Serele’s wedding. Traditional ceremony of shaving the young bride’s head, which will then be kept covered in the manner of a modest married woman.

Reb Melech is closeted with Mechele Hinever, with whom he discusses his plans of marrying Malkale.

In front of Reb Melech’s house. A number of Hasidim, donning military uniforms and swords, go forth to meet the bridegroom and his parents and to escort them to the court of Nyesheve.

Nachumtche and his parents are alone in the apartment assigned to them. Nachumtche is exhausted by the journey, the long fast (Jewish brides and bridegrooms must fast on their wedding day), and the ordeal of handshaking he has just gone through. His mother, repelled by the vulgarity and noise of the Nyesheve court, is fill with misgiving about her son’s future. She fondles him and croons to him, but he is rudely interrupted by Reb Melech’s aide, who comes to summon Nachumtche to the synagogue, where he is to deliver a learned discourse such as is customarily delivered by a scholarly bridegroom shortly before the marriage ceremony.

Outside the synagogue during Nachumtche’s speech. Only those are admitted inside who have brought rich gifts, while the learned but poor are kept out by the uniformed guard brandishing a sword. Finally, the milling crowd of disappointed Hasidim overpower and carry off the guard, who begs for mercy, being nothing but a Hasid in Cossack’s clothes.

Inside the synagogue. Faintness forces Nachumtche to abruptly finish his erudite discourse, which has dazzled and delighted the audience. He is followed by the far from learned Reb Melech, who delivers a short speech wherein tzadikim (Hasidic Rabbis) are likened to kings and the Jews are exhorted to lavish gifts upon the only rulers vouchsafed them since they lost their own kingdom.

Wedding dances, first by a group of women and then by a group of men. (Orthodox Jews consider it improper for the two sexes to dance together.)

In Malkale’s room, on the eve of her marriage to Reb Melech. Malkale rebels against the idea of marrying such an old man, but yields finally to the tearful pleas of her aunt. Yet the spirit of rebellion is still strong in her, and she refuses to let them shave off her hair. The fond Reb Melech, to whom the matter is reported, declares that it is merely a custom anyway, and grants her absolution.

The night of Malkale’s marriage to Reb Melech. The Hasidim are seen sprawling on tables and benches, exhausted by the feasting and merry-making. Reb Melech’s aide enters and tells them that on a night like this there is a great danger that the Evil One may do harm to the Rabbi, and accordingly he sells to the highest bidder the honor of pronouncing the prescribed incantation against an evil spell. The incantation is pronounced, and the Hasidim make merry again.

Shortly afterwards Reb Melech is again closeted with Mechele Hinever, to whom he bitterly complains of Malkale’s scandalous behavior in refusing to fulfill her conjugal duties. He dismisses Mechele Hinever from his presence, and remains alone with his grief. Presently Malkale enters the room, whereupon he berates her for her wanton conduct, and reminds her that he is a tzadik, with the power to bless and to curse. This only makes her laugh, and he almost sinks to the ground in impotent rage.

The living room of Serel’s home at the close of the Sabbath (i.e., Saturday evening). While Nachumtche is in his own room studying, Serele is chatting with her sisters, who have come to visit her. They leave, and presently Malkale arrives. In her feverish, passionate way she asks Serele whether Nachumtche still keeps aloof from her, and tells her what she would do if she were Serele in order to win his love. From her remarks, and from her behavior a little later when Nachumtche joins them at tea, it is apparent that she is in love with him, while Serele tells her that Nachumtche has been a different man since she, Malkale, came to the court.

Nachumtche and the teacher and companion his father has engaged for him are in the woods nearby, where they have gone in order to enjoy greater solitude while engaged in study. The teacher warns Nachumtche against excessive occupation with mysticism, which has resulted in the undoing of many a man. When the time for the evening prayers draws near, he returns to the town, but Nachumtche lingers. A storm breaks out. Malkale comes running along and clings to Nachumtche as though seeking shelter in his bosom from the elements. Soon they indulge in their first kiss.

Seeing herself doomed to a life of unhappiness with an old man, while the man she loves belongs to another, and being always surrounded by old people and old things, Malkale rebels against her cruel fate. And so in a moment of frenzy, while the men are attending services at the synagogue (it is the night of the feast of Shavuos), she sets fire to a wing of the house where the old garments of Reb Melech’s deceased wives are kept. In the general excitement that follows, she grasps Nachumtche’s hand and leads him to the woods, where he, the ascetic Kabalist, succumbs to her blandishments and commits the mortal sin of adultery.

Nine months later. The Chorus of three men informs us that Malkale has died in childbirth, and that all efforts of the midwife to remove the child from her womb so that it might be buried separately, in accordance with Jewish religious law, have proven futile. And so a court of three rabbis has been summoned to order the deceased woman to give up the child.

Needless to say, the rabbinical court is no more successful than the midwife. The rabbis depart, and Reb Melech is left alone with his great grief. Presently Serele rushes in to tell him that Nachumtche has disappeared. For, although no one suspected his guilt, Nachumtche was so filled with remorse by Malkale’s death that he fled from his home to wander like Cain.

Part II. In the course of his wanderings Nachumtche, now calling himself Yoshe, arrives in the town of Byalegure, where he becomes the assistant to Konoh the Sexton, who takes him into his house as a prospective husband for his half-witted, lewd, and motherless daughter Zivya. Because of his meekness and excessive piety–he rarely talks and is forever reciting the Psalms–he is nicknamed “Yoshe Kalb” (i.e. Yosh the Simpleton). As the curtain goes up, we see him in the synagogue, sitting apart from the worshipers, who use it as a house of prayer, and the vagabonds, who use it as a sort of poorhouse. From the conversation of the people in the synagogue, it appears that there is a plague in the town, and that there are many deaths daily. The vagbonds haze Yoshe Kalb, who is rescued from them by the arrival of the burly sexton Konoh, who drives them out of the synagogue. Zivya brings some food for Yoshe, and when her father leaves the two alone, tries to make love to him. Presently the rabbinical court arrives, followed by the townspeople. The presiding rabbi, addressing the people, tells them that the plague is a divine visitation upon them for their sins, and commands them, if they know of sinners, to report them to the court.

At the sexton’s house hard by the cemetery. Konoh has finished his repast and is reciting at top speed grace after meals. This does not prevent him from transacting business with the smuggler, Yankel, who pays him for permitting him to hide contraband in the cemetery. Konoh is called away to a burial, whereupon Yankel, who has been having trysts with the half-witted girl in the cemetery, arranges for another tryst that night. He leaves, and soon Yoshe Kalb comes home. But when Zivya again makes love to him, he runs out of the house. Presently Abush the Butcher, leading a committee in search of sinners, arrives and observes Zivya closely. She is found to be big with child and is dragged off to the rabbinical court.

The members of the rabbinical court are in the midst of an earnest conversation about the Messiah, signs of whose imminent coming they see in the very outbreak of the plague. Zivya is brought in, but her father defends her by saying that it was Yoshe Kalb who has seduced her. Though wholly innocent, Yoshe Kalb neither admits nor denies the charge, and is adjudged guilty. Instead of punishing him, however, the court decrees that he marry Zivya, and that the nuptials be held at the cemetery, the marriage of two orphans in a graveyard being regarded as an effective remedy for a plague. Moreover, everyone is enjoined to bear no malice toward the couple but, on the contrary, to shower them with gifts.

The town beggars are dancing in the streets, rejoicing in the prospect of a great feast, which is always prepared for the poor in connection with an important wedding. Their leader enjoins them to insist on better portions and larger gifts of money, this being a season of grace.

The nuptial ceremony at the cemetery. Although Yoshe Kalb does not pronounce the prescribed formula which alone makes a marriage valid, Konoh asserts he has heard him say it.

The Chorus of three young men appears and informs us that in the general merry-making which followed the wedding, Yoshe Kalb disappeared.

Shortly afterwards he returns to Nyesheve, after an absence of fifteen years, and has no difficulty in establishing his identity as the long-missing Nachumtche. The aged Reb Melech rejoices over the return of his son-in-law and declares his intention to make him his heir and successor, his own sons having proven unworthy.

As Reb Melech and Nachumtche are leaving the synagogue on the Rosh Hashone (the Jewish New Year), they are confronted by Shachna, a member of the rabbinical court of Byalegure, who denounces Nachumtche as an imposter and adulterer. Reb Melech vows dire vengeance on Shachna, but the latter holds his ground.

The Chorus of three young men informs us that Shachna has stirred up a great controversy, which is shaking Jewry from center to circumference, and that a court of seventy eminent rabbis–a veritable sanhedrin–has been convened in an effort to settle it.

The trial scene. Both sides offer equally convincing testimony, and as Nachumtche refuses to say who he really is, the court is nonplussed. Finally the rabbi of Lizhan, a member of the great court, declares that, in his judgment, both sides have told the truth, and pronounces the defendant a Gilgul–a lost and wandering soul, drifting aimlessly in the world, and bringing misfortune wherever he appears. The shock of this pronouncement, which is accepted by the rest of the court, kills the aged Reb Melech. Thereupon his followers proclaim Nachumtche Rabbi of Nyesheve, in accordance with Reb Melech’s well-known wish. But in the general excitement that ensues, Nachumtche flees and becomes once more a wanderer like Cain.

Adapted from a Yiddish Art Theater program by Sonia Gollance.