Lost Jewish (Male) Souls: A Midrash on Angels in America

Article excerpt

Tony Kushner's 1993 Pulitzer-Prize-winning play, Angels in America, is very gay. And Jewish. It's about assimilation, self-loathing, and men with lost souls; the betrayal of the faith and the abandonment of a moral vision. Depending on who the viewer is, there are two versions of the play, playing simultaneously. There's the deeply moving, virus-infected, goyishe-gay-who-divinely-hallucinates ; plus Mr. married-Mormon-coming-out-of-the-closet to pill-popping-straight-soon-to-be-happy-ex, Mrs. Mormon--AIDS version. Then there's the culturally lost, wondering-insecular-exile, ambivalent treyf, quasi-civil-libertarian-melting-pot-mess, full-of-self-deception, painfully revealing Jewish version? located in the extremely bizarre triumvirate of Roy Cohn, Ethel Rosenberg, and the imaginatively invented totally believable (character of) Louis Ironson. Ultimately, one plot informs the other as the characters move in out of their tightly woven, interrelated narratives. But Angels in America will always be my Jewish Fantasia ors National Themes. It resounds in my ears like the long, hard, final sound of the shofar calling the People Israel to worship in a postmodern, Hillary Clinton--reconstructed, school-prayer-reinstated, third-wave-neo-Newt-Gingrich era. Where, lying at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, Jewish identity is in fragments while lost Jewish (read male) souls seek solace in the exact same, singular, superclean anus of a closeted, selfrighteous, God-fearing married Mormon faggot. Yes, Angels is about Jewish male self-loathing in the twentieth century held tightly within the ever expanding embrace of Miss Liberty's very tired, porous hands.

Angels opens with a quintessential, North American Jewish moment: A very old rabbi with a heavy Eastern European accent, long beard, and stooped shoulders presides over the funeral of a woman who has spent the last ten years of her life at the Bronx Home of Aged Hebrews without a visit from her grandson, who lives minutes away. At the funeral, the rabbi reads out loud the names of the family mourners whose roster by the third generation is generously sprinkled with one Gentile appellation after another. For the Jew who dies alone without family or community, Kushner has written the new "Diaspora Kaddish." Rabbi Chemolwitz publicly admits that he doesn't know the deceased Sarah Ironson or her family. But he knows Sarah's journey and the meaning of that journey, which in the end is more important than knowing the person herself. For it is in the irreversible departure from Eastern Europe to the climactic, but culturally dislocating arrival at Ellis Island where Jewish continuity is affirmed. Listen to the rabbi:

Rabbi: (He speaks sonorously, with a heavy Eastern European accent, unapologetically consulting a sheet of notes for the family names):... This woman. I did not know this woman....She was...(He touches the coffin)...not a person but a whole kind of person, the ones who crossed the ocean, who brought with us to America the villages of Russia and Lithuania--and how we struggled, and how we fought, for the family, for the Jewish home, so that you would not grow up here, in this strange place, in the melting pot where nothing melted....

By using the plural "we" rather than the singular "she," the rabbi purposefully includes himself in the historic crossing of Ashkenazi Jews from the old country to the "new" country. And with the public insertion of himself into his "eulogy for the unknown," he affirms Jewish continuity in spite of the fact that he is presiding over the funeral of a Jew he did not know for a family he does not know. Then, through the brilliant use of the second-person "you," Kushner personalizes the impersonal space of the estranged Diaspora Jew from his/her cultural roots. Alone in the middle of a pitch-black stage with the coffin of our ancestors, the stooped rabbi stands facing the void. At the exact same moment, the audience is dramatically transformed into the future generations--not only of Sarah Ironson's family, but of the Jewish people in general. …


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