Jewish World Review / March 15, 1998 / 17 Adar, 5758

Jonathan S. Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin Still searching for Jews at the opera

THERE IS A SCHOOL of thought with deep roots in Western culture which has always viewed the Jews as the bad guys. Not because any of the crimes "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" would ascribe to us. There are a lot of people who have always resented the Jews because we "invented" G-d. More to the point, they see us as the inventors of morality in the broadest sense of the word - what many are fond of calling the Judeo-Christian tradition. The 18th century Enlightenment philosopher and writer Voltaire is just the most prominent of these intellectual anti-Semites.

With all due respect to the traditions of other cultures, these critics may have a point.

It was only with the collision of the ancient Jews with the pagan societies of the Eastern Mediterranean that a lot of the concepts such as the sanctity of life (i.e. no human sacrifices) and codes of sexual conduct began to spread. Think of the Jews as sort of the Christian Coalition of the ancient Middle East, and perhaps you can imagine why we were seen as such a troublesome people. This was and is an awkward role for a people to play. Much of the Jewish history in the Bible is the story of our struggle with the expectations set for us in the Torah. The culturkampf comes as often from within as without.

A problematic piece of theater

I was reminded of this struggle recently while attending a new production of the French opera "Samson et Dalila" at the Metropolitan Opera The MET in New York. The MET is an unusual place to be thinking of things Jewish. It is a temple of western culture which often celebrates the values of hedonism in a way Voltaire might have enjoyed. Yet the search for Jews at the opera often uncovers some interesting finds. Even there, our Biblical heritage sneaks in every now and then. And occasionally, as with the current "Samson," the effect is telling.

This particular Samson opera is a problematic piece of theater. Written by the late 19th century composer Camille Saint-Saens, it is more oratorio than opera. Which is to say, there isn't a lot of action going on. Little seems to happen on stage even when they get to the good parts like the famous haircut scene.

In the piece, Saint-Saens also seemed to load the dice in favor the Philistines over the Hebrews. The Philistines get all the really good music including: love songs and a Bacchanal ballet that really rocks. Outside of Samson's heroic call to revolt, all the Hebrews seem to do is stand around the stage and shrei gevalt. (scream in anguish).

Yet in spite of himself, Saint-Saens produced a work that was profoundly moral as well as dramatic. If the guiding principle of 19th century French opera is the triumph of sex over absolutely everything in life, then "Samson et Dalila" can prove the opposite.

Tales of Samson

The Samson story is one that has always fascinated secular writers and thinkers as well as Biblical commentators. It has everything: action, sex, sin, redemption and what Cecille B. DeMille would recognize as a wow ending. For some Jews, Samson has even come to represent the dilemma of modern Israel. It was Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (1895-1969)who referred to the Jewish State as "Shimshon der Nebedicher" - (Samson the nebbish) - the mighty military power who thinks of itself as a victim and patsy. Zionist leader and writer Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880-1940) used the story of Samson the Judge for his only full-length novel. It is (in contrast to Jabotinsky's brilliance as a journalist and orator) a dreadful book with little literary merit. Its sole claim to fame is a short passage in which the Biblical judge comes upon two brothers, one honest and one lazy, who have an equal share in a field. The lazy one does little work but claims the entire harvest. The honest one is entitled by right to all of the fruit of his labor but, to be a nice guy, he only claims half. Jabotinsky's Samson rules that the lazy brother is entitled to 75 percent of the harvest. Why? asks the honest brother. Because he had conceded half already, says Samson, it is only his own half that is under dispute and that the judge splits evenly. "Your brother is a liar," says Samson. "But you are a fool and that is worse." Any resemblance of this parable to territorial disputes in the modern Middle East is entirely intentional.

The struggle within

But the real battle in Samson is the struggle within the character: the carnal versus the moral. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes of Samson in his book "Biblical Images" (Basic Books) that in contrast to other Biblical judges, who were "generally upright, G-d-fearing examples to others...Samson offers us a perplexing exception to the rule - mischievous, vehement, full of a certain devil-may-care impetuousity and bravado." He is, in Steinsaltz's words, "the prophet of divine power expressed as physical force." By succumbing to the temptations of Philistine hedonism Samson endangers the national struggle of the Jews as well as dooming himself.

Ironically, of all depictions of this story, it is the new MET production, conceived and designed by Elijah Moshinsky, an English Jew, which brings these out these struggles as well as any I've seen.. In his vision of the story, the ancient Hebrews are in dark tones of black and grey, dressed in the drab clothes of the Eastern European victims of the Holocaust. They wear tallit and tefillin, and look to G-d to save them from their oppressors.

In contrast, Moshinsky's Philistines are the epitome of paganism run amuck. Half naked and daubed with wild shades of orange and red, they are savages who prey upon the Jewish victims. They are sensual, while the Jews are spiritual. Samson attempts to bridge the gap but cannot. Ultimately, he will bring down the temple of Dagon upon people who have proved themselves not merely evil but bestial.

Unlike other religions, Judaism has never taught a dichotomy between the spirit and the flesh. Each serve G-d's purpose. But without law and morality, sensuality is ultimately destructive. It is a lesson that Samson learns only too late.

As brilliantly sung and played by Placido Domingo (who opera trivia fans know spent two years early in his career singing in Israel) and the appropriately sexy Denyse Graves, the famous lovers are a compelling couple in a story that is well told with powerful music.

So while New York theatergoers search for Jewish themes on Broadway and off this season, the fact is, the best Jewish story told on stage this year might be the one at the opera house. The search for Jews at the opera continues.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger.


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2/1/98: Economic aid is not in Israel's interest
1/25/98: Jews are news, and a fair shake for Israel is hard to find

©1998, Jonathan S. Tobin