The Merchant of Venice
On the streets of Warsaw and Kraków, alongside carved wooden figurines of Saint Nicholas and potbellied beer drinkers, they sell little Orthodox Jews, black-capped, black-garbed, and bearded. A few wear the tallit, the prayer shawl; others play the fiddle and the horn for klezmer music; but the great majority are sad-faced men with staring eyes and their hands held in front of them forming a slot in which is inserted not a prayer book but a złoty. I have severely undeveloped taste for kitsch and have no idea why people find these objects cute or funny. The yid always clings to money? Or the poor yid is down to his last cent? Or, when you are looking for money, you can always turn at last resort to a yid?
I am confident that a certain percentage of those who buy the figurines are themselves Jews, picking up a souvenir of their visit to Auschwitz or their package tour of the sites Steven Spielberg used in filming Schindler’s List. On the shelf back home the tchotchkes serve as a material reminder of the completed pilgrimage—like the little badges that Christian pilgrims in the Middle Ages used to buy at Santiago de Compostela—or perhaps as an emblem of the terrible fate that they, the modern pilgrims, somehow avoided.
There were moments in the Public Theater’s recent Merchant of Venice, directed by Daniel Sullivan and performed at Shakespeare in the Park, in which Al Pacino’s rumpled, bearded Shylock uncannily resembled one of these Polish figurines. Pacino is, for a start, very short—next to Byron Jennings’s lean, anguished Antonio or Lily Rabe’s statuesque Portia, he looked positively shrunken in the black suit by costume designer Jess Goldstein, seeming more an animated block of hard wood than a creature of flesh and blood. (The sense that he was a manikin was heightened by the rapturous applause of the starstruck audience, which treated his mere appearance on stage as if it were an impressive conjuring trick, a celluloid image come to life.)
Pacino’s miming of a Jew was itself an odd piece of artifice, bearing roughly the relation to any imaginable Jewish reality that the figurines for sale in Warsaw bear to Roman Vishniac’s photographs of the doomed inhabitants of the ghetto. “Ay yam contendt,” his broken moneylender, reluctantly agreeing to convert to Christianity, declared in accents that only alluded to the way Jewish immigrants actually sounded. Pacino’s distance from the truth of my grandpa Mendel, my cousin Meyer, and innumerable others did not seem to me a sign of failure; rather it served simply to reinforce the still greater and more consequential distance between Shakespeare’s imaginary Jew and the real sixteenth-century Jews whom Shakespeare, the inhabitant…
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