Like his other cantatas, Lazar Weiner composed The Last Judgment in part to increase the repertoire of the New York Arbeter Ring Khor (Workmen’s Circle Chorus), of which he was the director. By that time the chorus had passed its peak in terms of quality and of critical recognition in the general music world—a situation owing primarily to its aging membership and the diminished draw Yiddish choruses then had on younger generations. It was nonetheless still active, and it continued to offer concerts in major public venues. Also, Weiner anticipated performances by other Yiddish choruses throughout the country, in Canada, and elsewhere.
The libretto is actually a creative English adaptation of Isaac Leyb Peretz’s story Bontshe Shvayg by Samuel Rosenbaum, who was no stranger to Yiddish translation and adaptation for new music works. Earlier, he had written the English libretto for Sholom Secunda’s cantata If Not Higher (previous in Volume 17), another of Peretz’s most famous stories; and he had collaborated with Weiner previously as well.
Peretz published “Bontshe Shvayg” in 1894 in Literatur un lebn. From the outset Bontshe is presented as utterly insignificant, completely ignored, subjected to all manner of misery and mistreatment, and shamefully exploited during his early existence—all the while silent and meekly accepting of his tortured life: “He was born in silence. He lived in silence…. Not once did he complain of anything or anyone.” When he died a lonely, painful death, no one cared or even noticed: “Here on earth the death of Bontshe Shvayg made no impression.”
Bontshe’s arrival in “the next world” (olam habba—the “world to come” in Judaic references), however, is greeted with splendorous fanfare befitting a saintly hero—even before the typical adjudication proceedings imagined in religious folklore that would determine his worth in relation to his life, his accumulated merit in relation to his transgressions, and, if adjudged deserving, the amount and nature of his “portion” of paradise as his heavenly reward. A golden chair is brought for him by the angels, along with a golden crown beset with jewels, for as the angels point out, the prosecution can have no case against him. Still, he remains as silent as he had been on earth. Never, his defense counsel proclaims (is it really a defense?), did he ever complain either to God or to any human: “Not once did he ever feel a drop of anger or cast an accusing glance….”
There follows, supposedly in his defense, the graphic litany of his earthly sufferings—those at the hand of circumstance or fate (“God’s will,” in religious terms), and those imposed by his human tormentors, deceivers, and exploiters. Misfortune and suffering were his lot in life, and he had accepted it without so much as a murmur. Content to play the deck of cards dealt him, he had not had the slightest inclination to protest its unfairness—nor even the knowledge that he could have done so to any effect. Even now in heaven, Peretz underscores, as the proceedings continue to enumerate and illuminate his silent suffering, “Bontshe still understood nothing.”
The prosecuting angel decides also to remain silent—to drop whatever case he might have had against Bontshe. The defense has said it all. “Take what you want. It is all yours,” proclaims the Heavenly Tribunal, explaining that it “is not for us to determine your portion in paradise. Ask for whatever you wish: it all belongs to you.” What does Bontshe request—with a smile, no less—as the full measure of compensation? Only (and “most of all” we are told) a warm roll with fresh butter every morning! And what is the reaction? The judges and angels hang their heads “in shame” while the prosecutor laughs.
It goes without saying that the story is open to various, even conflicting and sometimes intersecting interpretations. For some if not most readers, it has always been transparent as a metaphor for the passivity of the masses (proletarian or agrarian). That passivity, upon which the ruling forces have traditionally counted, becomes the guarantor of their oppressed condition and the most potent weapon of the establishment.
For others, the story remains more cryptic, inviting a variety of subtle readings. On still another plane, Bontshe can be seen not so much as a deserving victim as a self-centered simpleton who knows neither his worth nor the significance of his situation. In that case he is so much a fool that he is silent not only because he has been numbed by experience into obliviousness, but also because even in the absence of any reprisals to be feared, he sees nothing extraordinary in the circumstances of his lot. There is nothing about which to have complained. The ultimate offer of reward is an unexpected bonus. “Things are the way they are” was, for example, one of the longtime bandied-about defenses for maintenance of the status quo in the American South vis-à-vis segregation. One heard it proclaimed by politicians (including a few who quietly knew better) and sometimes sadly echoed with resignation by older generations of southern black victims until the heightened consciousness of the postwar era and the Civil Rights Movement.
Yet even if Bontshe’s inane request betrays his selfishness, which precludes his seeking the future correction of earthly injustices, that presumed selfishness too can be viewed as the product of institutionalized oppression, which has stifled any will to resist and has left him with only the simplest of purely material desires. Like the ungalvanized masses in whose ingrained passivity some Marxist-Leninist (especially Leninist) theoreticians and Communist Party leaders saw a primary obstacle to lasting revolution and reordering of society, Bontshe is easily passified.
Thus, a general consensus among perceptive readers of that story revolves around its social and sociopolitical message as a consciousness-raising condemnation of economic, social, and political passivity in the face of oppression and subjugation. The tribunal’s remark to Bontshe is telling:
You yourself never knew that had you cried out even only once, you could have brought down the wall of Jericho. You never knew what powers lay within you.
This seems as clear a confirmation as any of the potential power of ordinary people to affect change. It could also be a warning to the exploited masses of their obligation to avail themselves of the grassroots strength that can be found in unity and collective resolve. In life Bontshe had gone constantly hungry, while working, when possible, at the most demeaning and physically brutal jobs. He had never even protested the nonpayment of the paltry wages due him for backbreaking labor. But his naïve behavior in front of the Heavenly Tribunal only confirms his silent complicity in his earthly injustices. So ingrained in his persona is the accustomed passivity that even in heaven it is not shed. Even when offered the opportunity for compensation, he could have been expected to demand little. If this is the pattern of behavior by the masses, then evil forces on earth have nothing to fear from them.
Jewish workers’ movements quite naturally seized upon “Bontshe Shvayg” (along with other Peretz stories) as an illustration of their principle that saintly suffering and acceptance of unjust authority were not virtues, but societal weaknesses that stood in the way of progress. They were evils to be overcome. More radical groups invoked the story as a call for needed class consciousness, even if Peretz himself rejected (or was ambivalent toward) that notion.
Rosenbaum took a number of liberties with Peretz’s story by expanding and reinterpreting it from perspectives applicable to 1960s American sensibilities. There is, for example, no mention of a “last judgment” by Peretz. If anything, Bontshe’s aborted trial is an initial judgment. In Rosenbaum’s libretto, all mankind, more so than Bontshe himself, appears to be on trial for the dehumanization it permitted for Bontshe. In Rosenbaum’s deviations from the story, which may be overly simplistic and lacking in full appreciation of Peretz’s subtexts and implications, Bontshe is simply a naïve, uncomplaining victim of a set of life’s trials and tribulations; and he is far more sympathetic a character than Peretz’s contemporaneous readers and subsequent literary critics have traditionally interpreted him to be. His responsibility for—and role in—his own suffering as a passive participant who is probably incapable of free choice is largely absent. The libretto is also mostly shorn of its political significance. It was written, after all, in post–Word War II America by a modern cantor who was fully at home in the American establishment and not part of a lingering, socialist-leaning Yiddishist milieu—despite his unquestionable fluency in the Yiddish language.
The music, which verges at times on operatic vocal deliveries, is carefully crafted to reflect emotional changes and mood swings in the text. It is characteristic of Weiner’s delicate, inventive harmonic language and his deft use of intervallic patterns and motives, conservatively enriched tonalities, and rhythmic figurations.
The premiere of The Last Judgment was given in 1968 at Temple Beth El in Rochester, New York, Cantor Rosenbaum’s pulpit. He narrated the libretto, and Weiner conducted the performance. It was filmed live by CBS for subsequent broadcast on its nationally syndicated program Lamp Unto My Feet.
Text by Samuel Rosenbaum
Based on a story by Yitzhak Leib Peretz
Sung/spoken in English
And now he was dead.
Bontshe, silent Bontshe was dead.
Unknown, unloved, a cipher, an unseen shadow.
His days a stifled cry. His nights an empty dream.
His hopes a vapor on the wind.
[Spoken] A whisper that died before it was voiced.
An image washed from the eye before it was formed.
His memory an eternity of nothing.
[Spoken] An eternity of nothing.
Had we listened, we might have heard his neck crack under the pack.
Had we looked, we might have seen the eternal lamb!
Dead coal eyes sunk in perpetual terror deep in the tallow cheeks.
Had we thought, we might have wondered why his head was always bent.
Still as the dawn in birth, mute as fear in life, hushed as a sigh in death.
Unheard, unhearing, a shroud of silence, crumbling in the grave.
The great messiah horn, portent of imminent grandeur, proclaimed his coming.
Bontshe has been called!
With timbrel and trumpet, with cymbals and horn.
With flute and with viol, with dancing and song, the seraphim host made ready his way.
In each of Heaven's seven heavens the grandest angels with the broadest wings carried the news:
"Bontshe has been called before the Throne of Glory!"
[Spoken] He is coming! He will soon be here!
Up before the Throne of Glory!
How many times had he dreamed there on earth.
How many times had he dreamed of gold and treasure only to wake shivering.
Fists grasping only the shards of his hope.
Eyes shut tight,
Bontshe dreams, he dreams a dream.
It's a dream, a dream: Bontshe pales to the soul.
The sweat, a layer of ice on his heart.
The court, in awesome majesty, sways and spins.
Louder and louder, the rushing in his ears.
Faster and faster the room turns and totters.
The case of Silent Bontshe.
Counsel for the Defense, rise to address the Court!
COUNSEL FOR THE DEFENSE:
His name—Silent Bontshe, and as his name so was he.
Not once a complaint, never a murmur against God or Man.
No spark of hate ever burned in his eyes.
Through all his days he never raised them in reproach.
To all that came he was silent.
His mother died before he could learn to remember her face.
In her place, a vile, evil woman who spared him no pain or shame.
Abandoned, rejected, he wandered where his feet would lead him.
Hungry and cold he made no sound—begging only with his eyes.
Before he began to live, he began to die.
Drenched in sweat, doubled under a load, hunger always about.
His heart did not cry out.
Reviled, duped, and cheated like a beggar at the door, but he made no complaint.
CHORUS (THE SOUL OF BONTSHE):
Then it's me they are talking about after all.
COUNSEL FOR THE DEFENSE:
Once, only once, fate smiled at Bontshe.
He stopped a runaway carriage.
Grateful to Bontshe, the owner made him a driver, provided him with a wife, and the wife with a child.
Still, Bontshe kept silent.
He murmured not when his wife ran away like a thief in the night, leaving the child behind.
Later, he was silent still when the child, grown to man, threw him out on the street.
He was silent too when his patron, riding again in his elegant carriage, trampled and broke him under the wheels.
Still he kept his own counsel, though he knew his despoiler.
In silence he suffered the pain.
Smothering a cry as they bore him to a bed to die.
In silence he saw his last thin strand to life … strain and snap at the pick and the pluck of the impatient, insatiable messenger of Death.
A trembling takes hold of Bontshe.
Now he is truly afraid.
He knows that now will certainly come the Prosecutor.
Who knows what embers he will inflame?
Had not he, Bontshe, long forgotten what his defender remembered?
Who knows what sin All-seeing,
All-knowing Sammael will remember?
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