Tom Stoppard reveals his Jewish self in ‘Leopoldstadt’

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Thane Rosenbaum | Jewish Journal via JNS

Thane Rosenbaum
Thane Rosenbaum (Via JNS)

There is no small amount of irony in Tom Stoppard’s latest play, “Leopoldstadt,” dazzling audiences on Broadway at the same time as America’s streets are convulsing with anti-Semitic mayhem.

After all, Stoppard — one of the world’s finest dramatists — has for the entirety of his career been a closeted Jew. And not just any Jew, but one of the fortunate ones who, as a small boy, actually survived the Holocaust.

Stoppard was born in Czechoslovakia as Tomáš Sträussler. His family managed to escape the encircling Nazis, although his father was eventually killed. His mother would marry a British, non-Jewish military officer in India, who brought his new family to England. That’s when Tomáš became Tom and adopted his stepfather’s surname.

Stoppard mastered the language of his new country, wrote widely and wittily about weighty themes in a career that landed him on the short list of England’s theatrical royalty. He would eventually be knighted. Not bad for someone whose childhood was darkened by the monstrous events that resulted in the murder of two-thirds of European Jewry.

“Leopoldstadt” is a fictional account of what happened to Stoppard’s entire Jewish family. Most were killed in death camps.

After a distinguished career writing award-winning plays and screenplays (none of which revealed any tribal connection to the ancient Hebrews), Stoppard arrived at a point where he would train his considerable dramatic gifts on exploring the buried story that, psychologically, might have shaped him most. All that British schooling and literary fame had left something very precious unsaid and undone.

And it comes at a propitious moment in America’s finest stage. “Leopoldstadt” should be required viewing for Kanye West, Kyrie Irving and those who have never heard of Kristallnacht and who believe that the Jews, throughout the ages, have led charmed, white-privileged lives. Their ignorance, or plain anti-Semitism, is astounding. Jews involved in the slave trade? When did they have time for that, folded in between the expulsions, Inquisitions, pogroms and genocide?

With this new wave of anti-Semitism becoming so fashionably mainstream and unapologetically visible, far too many have forgotten that the Jews were always first among equals in deserving the special protection of minority status. “Leopoldstadt” is a tutorial on how deceptive perceived privilege can be.

The play unfolds over half a century. The Jewish family at the center of the story plunges from lavishly wealthy, cultured, cosmopolitan Jews to a decimated family tree stump. All that’s left are three scattered cousins and fractured memories.

Stoppard sets the play in Vienna so as to allow the adults in the opening scene to boast of how much influence Jews have had on Austrian culture, and how successfully Jews have assimilated and have been embraced by Austrian society. Indeed, the curtain opens to a massive Christmas tree that upstages the large cast of Jewish parents and children.

Another thematic reason for the country as set piece is that a fellow Austrian Jew Theodor Herzl had just written a book about how the Jews of Europe should leave and start their own country. What a laughable idea, they think. Another Jew from Vienna, Dr. Sigmund Freud, is introducing a new field of medicine — one of the mind — once more demonstrating to the world the intellectual agility of the Jewish people. What would Austrian society do without its Jews? Apparently, the mayor of Vienna is a major Jew-hater, but, honestly, what does that have to do with them?

Later in the play, one of those same characters confesses: “All that culture did not save us from barbarism.”

“Leopoldstadt” is an object lesson for Jews who deceive themselves into believing that once they graduate from the lowly streets of ghettos, they will be forever welcome in high society.

For the poignant reminder of this misperception, Stoppard should be congratulated yet again. After all, he is not alone among Jewish-British playwrights who Anglicized their names and strategically left any trace of their identities out of their dramas. Towards the end of “Leopoldstadt,” the character who represents Stoppard himself as a young writer remarks on his Jewishness as nothing more than “an ironic fact.”

There are many such writers in England. British stages have hosted scores of plays by Jewish dramatists who never came close to making such an admission. Together, they comprise a canon of Jew-less storytelling.

The British are known for having a stiff upper lip. British Jews, apparently, go one step farther: keeping their entire mouths shut. Perhaps it’s because Jews were officially expelled from England in the 13th century, which left a legacy of provisional residency — gentle manners always expected, Queen and country first, bags always packed, just in case.

It was the rare British Jew for whom Jewishness was part of the mystique. Victorian Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli converted to Christianity. Mendoza the Jew, who boxed in the late-18th century, was perhaps the first professional athlete to market his name — and nickname. Harold Abrahams, the world’s fastest man in the 1924 Olympic Games, despite his Cambridge pedigree, never outran the prejudice that drove him.

Until now, in what may become his last play, Stoppard never dwelled on his past. The scope of his loss and degree of Jewish ties took decades to materialize as art. All along the tragedy of his parents and many uncles, aunts and cousins was rich with dramatic possibility and catharsis. Even England could not contain such emotion.

And it has arrived at the right time — for Stoppard and for Jews living in a world eerily reminiscent of those foreboding days when actual Leopoldstadts provided no shelter from dark clouds and hard rain.

Despite his longtime association with Shakespeare (his first play was a retelling of “Hamlet”; his screenplay for “Shakespeare in Love” received an Oscar), Stoppard’s backstory, and the dissolution of his family, proved to be the real thing.

Thane Rosenbaum is an essayist, novelist, law professor and Distinguished University Professor at Touro University, where he directs the Forum on Life, Culture & Society. He is also the legal analyst for CBS News Radio.

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