Remember that time when you were eight years old and it happened and you were scared and you knew that who you are will not be the same? No, you probably don’t. You probably never will, unless someone reminds you of it, and points out your scar. This is what happened to Tom Stoppard twenty years ago. That moment was so precious to him that he wrote a play to preserve it forever.
Leopoldstadt, now on Broadway is the most Hanukkah play I have ever seen. It is the story of a Jew who forgot he’s a Jew so that he could live a normal life among the nations, and then seeks salvation by reconnecting with his Jewishness. It is a re-dedication of the Temple, a rekindling of his eternal light, a coming out party, a redemption, a payback to his roots, maybe even to his God, for what Stoppard called his “charmed life.”
Hanukkah is about assimilation. The Maccabees are the ur-anti-assimilationists. Leopoldstadt (spoiler alert!) begins in 1899 with a Christmas tree with a Star of David on top. It continues to 1924 with the story of an Austrian Jew so sure of his ability to become a regular Austrian that he converts to Christianity, until Kristalnacht ends all illusions. But it’s the final scene, in 1955, which illustrates the deepest Hanukkah idea.
This is when we meet the playwright. He enters the scene a non-Jew. We watch him speaking to a relative, who reminds him of the night in 1938, when he was eight, when he cut his finger while the Nazi officer announced to the family that they must move out of their home. We watch him look at the scar on his finger, collapse into a chair and weep. We hear his relative tell him that of all the family he’s the only one with four Jewish grandparents.
Without this conversation with his relative, based on the real one he had with a relative during a rehearsal for Arcadia in 1994, Stoppard would have never remembered his Jewishness. אין עצור מוציא עצמו מבית האסורים, says the Talmud: “A prisoner cannot release himself from prison.” Someone else is needed. In this scene we can sense the playwright’s gratitude, and we can sense his guilt. We see the process of the unconscious becoming conscious. It is the one stunning moment in a play which is otherwise in many ways quite standard. It felt like a light being lit out of what appears to be nothing. Once it’s lit you know that the oil…