YIDDISH THEATRE 101 > THE YIDDISH PLAYS > THE PLAY IN HISTORY  >  SABBATI ZEVI                                                 

SABBATI ZEVI1, by Julian Zhulavsky

Introductory note: "The ill-starred Bar Kochba uprising in 135 C. E., was the last attempt of the Jews to regain their national independence. Thereafter, all hope of deliverance rested on a Messianic Redeemer to be sent by God at His appointed time. Many a self-styled Messiah came forward at various times, the most famous being Sabbati Zevi (1626-1676), a native of Smyrna. The acclaim with which his appearance was greeted by Jews everywhere, despite the opposition of many Rabbis, was partly due to the fact that he appeared at a time when even Christian writers were predicting the imminent  redemption of Israel and restoration of Zion.

But the hopes he raised were quickly shattered when, arrested on a charge of conspiracy against the Sultan, he embraced Mohammedanism. The present play deals with the events of the last days of his imprisonment which culminated in his apostasy."2

photo: Sketch of playwright of Julian Zhulavsky.


"Sabbati Zevi", a drama in three acts and five scenes with a prologue, was first staged by the Yiddish Art Theatre in 1923: directed by Maurice Schwartz. Starring Maurice Schwartz (Sabbati Zevi). Translated by Joel Entin and Moishe Katz (Zylbercweig: translated by Y. Y. Singer), with settings by Samuel Ostrowsky, music by Alexander Olshanetsky and dances by Russian ballet master Alexander Kotchetowsky. At the Garden Theater, 27th Street and Madison Avenue; then again it was staged again in 1929.

In is interesting to note that, in the play program remarks about curtain calls:

"The audience is respectfully requested to honor the tradition of the Yiddish Art Theatre, which, for the preservation of the illusion of the play, permits no curtain calls until the end of the performance. At that time, the company, if called upon, will feel honored to respond."

Here is a listing of the cast from the 1929 production staged on the Pacific Coast (probably Los Angeles, California):

Jacob Bleifer, Izidore Casher, Lazar Freed, Berta Gerstin, Wolf Goldfaden, Ben Zion Katz, Olga Mark, Maurice Schwartz, Morris Silberkasten, Morris (Moshe) Strassberg, Abraham Tenenholtz (here known as Tenen Holtz), and Anatole Winagradoff.

So, here then is the synopsis of Zhulavsky's "Sabbati Zevi". The name of the actor or actress who portrayed a particular role in the 1929 production is indicated in parentheses:



A room in the Castle at Adrianople. then the Turkish capital, where Sabbati Zevi (Maurice Schwartz) is imprisoned. Owing to the influence of friends at the Sultan's Court, he enjoys privileges not commonly accorded to prisoners of state. As the curtain rises we see Jewish delegations from many countries come to meet the Messiah. Among those present are Cabalists, who are busy arguing about God's omnipotence, and several Talmudic scholars who question Sabbati's Messianic claims. A dispute arises between the Cabalists and the Talmudists, in which the former are reinforced by Nathan Chazzati (Lazar Freed), who professes to be the Prophet Elijah reincarnate. Fugitives arrive from Poland telling of bloody massacres of Jews by Chmielnicki's Cossack bands. Loud wailing ensues and there are clamors for the Messiah. He finally appears and calms the multitude, bidding them rejoice at the approaching deliverance of Israel. All except the aforementioned Talmudists hail him as the long-awaited Redeemer. Presently his beautiful and voluptuous wife, Sarah (Berta Gerstin), arrives, and there are fresh acclamations. An Amsterdam Jew (Morris Strassberg) turns over to Sabbati the money cleared by the Jews of his community through the sale of all their possessions preparatory to the return to Zion, and the latter orders it to be used in feeding and clothing the people. All depart, and Sabbati and Sarah are left alone. From their conversation we gather that, though married, their relations are purely platonic, such being the mortification of the flesh he has imposed upon himself. Sarah bemoans her lot, but when he offers her her freedom, she passionately clings to him. A messenger arrives, summoning him to appear the following day before the Sultan. Sarah is filled with fear, but Sabbati welcomes the opportunity to show that he is the true Messiah. He rebukes his panic-stricken followers and bids them rejoice because the hour of redemption is at hand.


The Sultan, Mohammed IV (Ben-Zion Katz), a pathetic little man. whose sense of his own inferiority and weakness demands repeated assurances of his power--is awaiting Sabbati, of whom he speaks alternately with arrogance and apprehension. Some Talmudists appear and denounce Sabbati as traitor, but at the instigation of his physician, Hakim Pasha (Wolf Goldfaden), a renegade Jew and secret friend of the supposed Messiah--he orders their execution. Finally Sabbati and Sarah arrive, arrayed In royal attire and accompanied by an army of Jews carrying palms and chanting psalms. The Sultan commands Sabbati to bow to him and acknowledge his authority, but the latter remains erect, and in turn calls upon the Sultan to relinquish the kingdom to him, the anointed of God. Mohammed IV quails before the Jew; but mustering sufficient courage to yield the crown, provided the latter gives proof of his divine powers. Sabbati agrees to have three poisoned arrows shot at his naked breast to demonstrate his invulnerability, and the Sultan undertakes to do it himself. But when he is about to discharge the arrows, a thunderstorm breaks out, and at the same time word comes of revolts in several provinces. The terrified Sultan postpones the ordeal for the next day, and the Jews rejoice, seeing in it the hand of God.  


The evening of the same day. Sabbati is praying fervently and invoking Heaven's aid for the morrow's ordeal. He refuses all offers of food and drink, although he has been fasting since the night before. Sarah beseeches him not to tempt fate again, but he is confident of his triumph and persuades her to retire. Left alone, he implores God's forgiveness for having undertaken the redemption of Israel without Divine authority, an act to which he was led, not by any desire for power or glory, but solely by the long martyrdom of his people, and for which he now does penance by scourging himself until his body is covered with blood. Aroused by the sound of the blows, Sarah rushes in and snatches the lash away from him. He insists that she give it back to him, but she refuses and mocks his Messianic mission with all the bitterness of a neglected wife. This outbreak soon gives way to words of tenderness and love for him, and Sabbati, exhausted and bleeding, sinks into her arms.


Scene 1: The morning finds Sabbati still nestling in the arms of Sarah. At last he awakens and realizing the situation, bewails what, to him, is a fall from grace. Soon the voices of his followers are heard calling him for the ordeal. Sarah would keep him back, but he thrusts her aside, dons his royal robes, and is led to the Sultan.

Scene 2: It is the same Sultan that faces Sabbati, but Sabbati is no longer the same. And so, when the supreme moment arrives and the Sultan is almost ready to capitulate, Sabbati announces that he is not the Messiah. having merely assumed the Messianic role in the hope of leading his people back to Zion.

When he, however, realizes his disgrace and the ultimate stain which he has cast upon the Jewish religion, he suddenly announces his conversion to Mohammedanism. This conversion is his ultimate sacrifice, for he sees, as in a vision, that his failure will ever disgrace Judaism, and so to save this abhorred religion, he sacrifices himself. One can only dimly realize the torment cast upon his soul by becoming a Mohammedan.

At his "conversion" he, however, tells the Sultan: "It is not you who have vanquished me, but the God of Israel. When the true Messiah shall come, all your power will not avail you, for all the Kings of the earth will bow to him." Consternation seizes his followers, but Sarah is happy, for the passing of the Messiah means the return of her "husband." But her happiness is short-lived, for Sabbati sinks to the ground and dies.

Nehemiah Ha Cohen (Morris Silberkasten), who takes over the leadership and rallies the Jews, bends over the dead body and says-"Baruch Shofet reneth", i.e. "Praised be He who judgeth ever rightly."


1 -- From the playbill for the Pacific Coast production of "Sabbati Zevi", Yiddish Art Theatre, 1929.

2 -- Synopsis prepared by Maximilian Hurwitz.





Photograph courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

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