Angels in America (Jewish)


[[Ignaty Nivinsky The Red Lightning (1919)]]


What’s so Jewish about Angels in America, part II, Perestroika?

Let’s start with Louis. When I saw part I, Millennium  workshoped (in very gentile) San Francisco, this bothered me a lot, this posing of Louis as Judas next to the Christ-like figure of Prior, whom he betrays. It was the 1990s identity politcs. I’ve since gotten over it. Louis bothers me less, now that I’m older. I also understand now that Louis had to be Judas, because Judas is the most important Jew in the Christian Bible of this most Christian country. And the more capacious point is that Kushner redeems Judas by reuniting Louis with Prior-Jesus group at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park at the end of play. He’s still a jerk,  but he’s Tony Kushner’s kind of jerk, a downtown leftie Jewish kind of Jew-jerk (apologies to Derrida, Greek-Jew).

Looking past Louis, it seems to me that the whole milieu of Angels in America is Jewish. It’s post-Holocaust setting in the time of AIDS. There’s the tribalism inherent in the way the group sticks together, no matter what, or the enduring bond of hate that keeps brings Ethel Rosenberg back to haunt Roy Cohn. There’s also the idea that God abandons “His” people the Angels, the sense that the world has gone to hell in a hand bucket, the angry suggestion voiced twice (?) by Prior that if it were up to him, he’d sue God. The anger at an absent God and the solidarity with suffering people even against God are all motifs that dominated Jewish post-Holocaust theology. By the 1990s, these motifs had already become cliché. But I still kind of like this idea voiced by the dead grandmother playing cards with the dead rabbi that struggling with God, “That’s what Jews do.” The grandmother and rabbis talking to each other in Yiddish are too cute, but I like the idea. This is what Jews do. They argue with God, they say kaddish for Roy Cohn, they stick together, they argue with each other, they spite each other. That’s what Jews do. And if you want to get really cute about it, they take care of each other, work for change, fix the world, stitch things together.

At least that’s what Tony Kushner seemed to think in the early 1990s that “that’s what Jews do,” at least in America. Which is nice. But I prefer Hyman Roth mordant line in the Godfather It’s my favorite, and also my mother’s favorite line: “this is the business we’ve chosen.”

The full Hyman Roth quote goes as follows: There was this kid I grew up with; he was younger than me. Sorta looked up to me, you know. We did our first work together, worked our way out of the street. Things were good, we made the most of it. During Prohibition, we ran molasses into Canada… made a fortune, your father, too. As much as anyone, I loved him and trusted him. Later on he had an idea to build a city out of a desert stop-over for GI’s on the way to the West Coast. That kid’s name was Moe Greene, and the city he invented was Las Vegas. This was a great man, a man of vision and guts. And there isn’t even a plaque, or a signpost or a statue of him in that town! Someone put a bullet through his eye. No one knows who gave the order. When I heard it, I wasn’t angry; I knew Moe, I knew he was head-strong, talking loud, saying stupid things. So when he turned up dead, I let it go. And I said to myself, this is the business we’ve chosen; I didn’t ask who gave the order, because it had nothing to do with business!

(I tried, by the way to find a good image of a Jewish angel, but the 2nd commandment would seem to have foiled my plan. I could have settled with one of those sexy-gay angels of E.M. Lilien. I also considered posting a photo of Lee Strasberg as Roth, or I.B. Singer, because if I had to imagine what a Yiddish angel would look like, I always think of Singer. I “settled” with the Nivinsky. One, because I never heard of him before; two, because of the communist connection; and three, because Nivinsky’s expressionism (they called it cubo-expressionism in the Soviet Union?) suggests that Kushner’s Angels of America might be roughly linked with 1980s neo-expressionism in painting such as Anselm Kiefer’s).


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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