A Jewish Outlaw, 17th-Century Style

A Jewish Outlaw, 17th-Century Style

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

He was a heretic who boldly helped to invent secular Judaism. The 17th-century Dutch Jewish philosopher, Uriel Acosta, questioned Jewish orthodoxy at a time when the Jewish community in Amsterdam was still reeling from the Inquisition — and desperately seeking respectability in the eyes of Jews and non-Jews alike. Now, in the capstone production of its two-year Yiddish theater project, comes Target Margin’s “Uriel Acosta: I Want That Man!” Now in previews, it opens next Monday night in Queens for a two-week run, with four actors each playing Acosta, in addition to other roles.

Acosta was born in 1585 to parents who had converted from Judaism to Christianity under the pressure of the Inquisition. The family fled to Amsterdam to resume their Jewish faith, but Acosta became troubled by what he viewed as excessively ritualistic — essentially rabbinic — and irrational aspects of Judaism. For his renegade views, he was excommunicated (and then, after recanting and then backsliding, excommunicated again), publicly lashed and humiliated, and ultimately driven to suicide.

While Acosta may be less well known than his near contemporary, the Jewish rebel Baruch Spinoza, his story was a legendary one for centuries after his death. First dramatized in 1847 by the German Christian writer Karl Gutzkow, it spawned numerous Yiddish translations; indeed, it launched the trend of adapting great Western plays for the Yiddish stage.

As historian Seth Wolitz has written, the story serves an “iconic” role in Yiddish culture; it “embodies that culture’s secular aspirations, and celebrates the integrity and uniqueness of the individual, as well as his right to claim a communal identity without being shackled to its religious authority or enforced traditions.”

In developing the work, Herskovits and his team drew from many different theatrical versions, and incorporated video clips of other dissidents, ranging from Jewish AIDS activist Larry Kramer to the legendary Filipino independence fighter José Rizal. In addition, the production uses a “play-within-a-play” structure, in which the great Yiddish tragedian Jacob Adler is shown competing with other actors on the Lower East Side to stage the most definitive version of Acosta’s story.

Acosta was “a dashing, irresistible man of mystery,” Herskovits told The Jewish Week, “but he was also a misfit.” The title, he said, is open to interpretation. “Is he wanted romantically or because he’s an outlaw? He’s one of the most exciting people in our history. Are we supposed to love him or hate him?”

“Uriel Acosta: I Want That Man!” runs through April 5 at the Chocolate Factory Theater, 5-49 49th Ave. in Long Island City. Performances are Monday at 8 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., with a special matinee this Sunday at 5 p.m. For tickets, $20, call TheaterMania at (212) 352-3101 or visit www.targetmargin.org.

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