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How Jewish is “Ma Rainey”?

The late Chadwick Boseman was amazing in "Ma Rainey." Even more than you think.

I spent several very pleasant years as the rabbi of Temple Israel in Columbus, Georgia. Among my memories is that of passing by a two story “shotgun” house, which would otherwise be of little interest to anyone.

Except this house is a historical site. The house  belonged to Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, “The Mother of the Blues.” Ma Rainey had been born in Columbus, and when she retired in 1935, she moved back to Columbus and settled into that house on Fifth Avenue. She lived there at the time of her death, on Dec. 22, 1939. She was just 53 years old.

I re-visited that memory, upon seeing the Netflix production of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the film version of the play by August Wilson, directed by George C. Wolfe.

The play is about a recording session on Chicago’s South Side, at a studio owned by Mel Sturdyvant. Mel is a difficult character, and Ma, played brilliantly by Viola Davis, is nothing short of a powerful  black woman, whose sexuality and artistry are right out in the open.

Much of the play is about the interactions between members of Ma’s band, especially Levee, the egotistical and ambitious trumpeter, played by the late, lamented Chadwick Boseman, and the backstage politics between Ma and her solicitous manager, Irvin. “All they want is my voice,” “Ma” says, and she is so much more than that voice.

Wolfe added two pieces that had not been in the original play. First, at the beginning, he shows black children running to hear Ma singing in a tent in Georgia. You can feel the heat and humidity of that night in Georgia. 

Second, at the end, Levee, the ambitious trumpeter, begs the recording executive to buy some of his songs. The executive turns down his request to record them, but then buys his songs for five dollars a piece. He gave a piece to an all-white band — with the clear statement that indigenous black music would only, initially, find its way into popular culture through whites.

What’s Jewish about this play, which chronicles a key facet of the American black experience?

More than you would have imagined.

August Wilson’s affinity with Jews and Judaism. In the spring of 1986, a friend invited Wilson to a Passover Seder. At that seder, Wilson had a revelatory experience. He realized that the Seder was an annual rehearsal of Jewish communal memory — and that this was precisely what he had been trying to achieve, through his work, for African-Americans.

He said: “Blacks in America want to forget about slavery. That’s the wrong move. If you can’t be who you are, who can you be? How can you know what to do? We have our history. We have our books, which is the blues. And we forget it all.”

That festive meal of memory became Wilson’s inspiration — to create a theatrical haggadah (narrative) of the black experience in America.

The manager and the recording executives would have been Jews. True — the play never refers to Mel nor Irvin as Jews. But, both their names, and the history of jazz managers and recording studios, would lead to the assumption that they are Jewish.

In fact, in an earlier version of the script, Wilson was quite specific about their Jewishness. Ma, frustrated that her manager takes the side of a recording executive against her, says something like: “You always talking about blacks and Jews sticking together. Well, start sticking.”

An amazing line — which unfortunately wound up on the editor’s floor.

Wilson himself enjoyed the unending support of his own Jewish impresario. Benjamin Mordecai, a former managing director of Yale Repertory Theatre  produced ten of Wilson’s plays on Broadway, off-Broadway, regionally and in London’s West End.

Levee’s speech. In one of the most shattering soliloquies in Wilson’s oeuvre, the trumpeter, Levee, describes his mother being raped by a gang of white men. She had cried futilely for God and Jesus.

Levee waves his knife skyward, taunting the absent and/or malevolent God.

“Why didn’t God strike some of those crackers down? Tell me that! That’s the question!… I’ll tell you the truth! It’s sitting out there as plain as day. ‘Cause he’s a white man’s God. That’s why! God ain’t never listened to no nigger’s prayers. God take a nigger’s prayers and throw them in the garbage.”

The speech is classic Holocaust theology. Elie Wiesel could have written it.

Or, was it Levi Yitzhak? When I saw the play, something stuck in my mind — the name of the trumpeter.

Levee — as in the embankment built to prevent the overflow of a river?

Or, is it Levi?

Which got me thinking — not about the biblical Levi, son of Jacob, the ancestor of the priests, as well as Moses.

But, rather, about the Hasidic master, Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev (1740-1810) — one of eastern European Jewry’s most beloved figures.

The Berdichever was particularly known for his “A Din Toyreh Mit Gott” — a plaintive lament to God, also known as “Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s Kaddish.” In this history of Jewish literature, it stands out as a classic example of the Jewish struggle with God and with the meaning of divine justice.

Good morning to You, Lord, Master of the universe,

I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berdichev,

I come to You with a Din Torah from Your people Israel.

What do You want of Your people Israel?

What have You demanded of Your people Israel?…

And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berdichev, say,

“Yisgadal v ‘yiskadash shmei raboh-

Magnified and sanctified is Thy Name.”

And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berdichev, say,

“From my stand I will not waver,

And from my place I shall not move

Until there be an end to all this…

Levi Yitzhak’s prayer was set to music. No less a personage than Paul Robeson, the noted black singer, actor, and activist, sang it at the great rallies for European Jewry and for the State of Israel following World War Two.

Most notably, Robeson sang it in 1958 in Moscow at a special concert — notable because Robeson had notorious Communist sympathies:

“And now I shall sing an anti-imperialist song for you which you may not have heard in some time. It was written more than one hundred and fifty years ago by a Russian as a protest against the Czar. The name of the author is Levi Yitzhak, and he lived in the city of Berdichev.”

As he began to sing the piece, weeping broke out in the auditorium. It was a stellar moment of black-Jewish solidarity.

Is it too much to wonder aloud? Did August Wilson ever hear Paul Robeson’s version of Levi Yitzhak’s words? Had he heard about that performance? Did he, consciously or sub-consciously, memorialize the late Hasidic master by naming the tragic trumpeter for him?

We cannot know.

But, Ma’s excised words — “You always talking about blacks and Jews sticking together. Well, start sticking” — sticks with me.

They should stick with all of us.