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THE THREE GIFTS1, by Isaac Leib Peretz

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"The Three Gifts" is a play in two parts and twelve scenes. The play was dramatized by Melach Ravitch and Maurice Schwartz. I

t opened on 1 October 1945 at the Yiddish Art Theatre (formerly Public Theatre), 2nd Avenue at 4th Street in New York City. The music was composed by Joseph Rumshinsky, and the play was staged by Maurice Schwartz.

The action takes place in the eastern part of Europe in the second half of the last century.


photo: Maurice Schwartz, in "The Three Gifts".
Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Along with Maurice Schwartz, the cast included:

Abraham Lax, Michael Goldstein, Gustave Berger, Yudel Dubinsky, Luba Kadison, Berta Gerstin, Sam Levine, Charles Cohan, Isidore Elgard, Lena Marcus, Abraham Teitelbaum, Celia Lipzin, Liza Silbert, Abraham Teitelbaum, Leon Gold, Menachem Rubin, Victor Bergman, Morris Bielawsky, Max Tanenbaum, Jacob Brandis, Max Rosen, Rebecca Weintraub, Izidore Casher, Morris Strassberg, Celia Pearson, Isaac Arco, Herman Serotsky, Leib Kenigsberg, Jenny Casher, Boris Auerbach, Charlotte Goldstein, Misha Fishzon, Solomon Krause, Meyer Scherr, Paul Steiner, Solomon Krause and Muriel Gruber. Dancers: Nina Caiserman, Beatrice Weiseman, Marion Levine and Lillian Zanor.

photo: Scene from "The Three Gifts", 1945. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

So, here is the synopsis of Peretz's "The Three Gifts". The name of the actor who portrayed the particular role is in parentheses:


Once upon a time there was a fiddler named Joel (Maurice Schwartz), and he lived in the town of Samosc in Poland. He was a great and restless soul and a musician of true genius. He had it in his power to gain world renown as a virtuoso. Instead he chose to head the town band in order to bring solace and joy to the poor and the suffering.

Joel had a wife, Mirel (Berta Gerstin), who had borne him eight sons, all of whom were musicians playing in his band, but the family lived in poverty because of his selfless devotion to his calling.

Women found it easy to worship him and the ready responsiveness of his artistic nature caused him to fall deeply in love many times, his profound affection for his wife Mirel notwithstanding. Unending conflicts with Mirel made his heart give way, but he continued to play with even greater feeling.

Lt. to rt.: Luba Kadison, Maurice Schwartz and Berta Gerstin, in "The Three Gifts", Oct. 1945.
Photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

During the final year of his life he fell desperately in love with a dark and mysterious young woman, Pesha (Luba Kadison). No one knew who she was and whence she came. She called him King David and began appearing suddenly at weddings dancing rapturously to his music. At the last wedding at which he played, Pesha is revealed as the bride. She implores Joel to strike up flaming dance music. To se her in the bridal gown with the bridegroom at her side is more than his heart can stand, and he dies under the strains of the music.

Before he died he had willed his place as the head of the band to his long lost twin brother, Jechiel, if Jechiel should be found.

In heaven, Joel's good deeds are weighed against his sins, and the scales are evenly balanced. Hence his soul can be sent neither to Paradise, nor to the Inferno. He must wander the earth again until he gathers in three Gifts of Pure Virtue to tip the heavenly scales in his favor.

And Joel is returned to wander the earth again in the incarnation of his long lost identical twin brother.

He arrives in Constanisa, Romania. There, at the inn, bandits are robbing a Jew, who is readily giving up all of his belongings, excepting one. The bandits kill the Jew for it, only to discover that it was a little sack filled with soil from the Holy Land. (According to Orthodox tradition, great virtue is accrued upon death if one is buried with as much as a handful of the holy soil.) Joel picks up the little sack -- the first Gift of Pure Virtue to bring to heaven.

Joel continues on his quest for other Gifts. His longing for his family, as well as for Pesha, brings him to his own home town of Samosc. He arrives at the house of his family for the first Passover night. His  wife and his sons are frightened by his return from the dead, but Joel calms them by presenting himself as his long lost identical twin brother Jechiel. Meanwhile the house is raided the the Czarist police. Joel's son Joseph is suspected of being a revolutionary because of his friendship with the rabbi's son who is reputed to be a revolutionary leader. The old rabbi (Abraham Teitelbaum) himself is brought in for questioning. The police chief (Misha Fishzon) orders the rabbi to remove his hat out of respect for the law. The rabbi remains in his skull cap because the Orthodox faith forbids him to go bareheaded, but the cap is knocked off his head. The old rabbi runs for his cap. He is being jeered and beaten, and he dies of heart failure.

Joel picks up the skull cap -- the second Gift of Pure Virtue.

On his further wanderings he reaches Brandenburg in Germany, where a young Jewish girl had just been found guilty of desecrating an exalted Germanic procession in her presence. She is to be punished by having her tied to the tail of a horse and dragged through the street until she is dead. Before her execution, the girl asks for some pins. She sticks the pins into her flesh, fastening the hem of her dress, so that her body may not be exposed while she is dragged through the streets.

Joel picks up a blood-covered pin of the martyred maiden -- the third Gift of Pure Virtue.

He returns to heaven where he now finds his wife Mirel who could no longer live without him.

The three gifts gathered in by him tilt the heavenly scales in his favor, and the gates of Paradise are opened to him and his wife. But he does not wish to abandon himself to heavenly bliss while there is so much misery on earth. He wishes to play the violin accompanied by the heavenly orchestra and have the earth's inhabitants hear the divine music.

The merciful God grants him his wish, and the celestial airs fill heaven and earth.

The dances were arranged by Lillian Shapero, the settings and costumes were by H. A. Condell. The Stage Manager was Leib Kadison, Morris Belavsky and Isidore Elgard were the Assistant Stage Managers. Maurice Strassberg was the Wig Designer; Isadore Lash, the Librarian. Lyrics were from the works of I. L. Peretz. 

1 -- From the playbill for "The Three Gifts", 1945. Courtesy of the New York Public Library Billy Rose Theatre Collection.


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