"IN THOSE DAYS": A MUSICAL ABOUT A JEWISH BOY'S RESISTANCE TO ASSIMILATION IN 19TH CENTURY RUSSIA
Original script, music, performance and video by Franklyn Wepner. "IN THOSE DAYS" is a musical show based on the Hebrew novel of the same name written by Yehuda Steinberg in 1904. It is an epic tale tracing the adventures of a Jewish boy named Samuel Horvitz who is a "Cantonist", one of the tens of thousands of Jewish boys who were kidnapped for service in the Tsar's army. Growing up far from his family in a Christian foster home in Central Russia, Samuel confronts all the trials which led most Jewish children who endured similar pressures to convert to Christianity. On the one side there were the physical and psychological tortures, and on the other side there were the seductive advances of a charming young Christian woman named Marusya. Samuel resists all of these forces, and after proving himself a hero in the Crimean War he returns home to his childhood shtetl, to his aged parents and to a very surprising joyful "shidduch" (traditional Jewish marriage). The musical score draws from Hassidic, Russian, and American musical theater traditions .
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SCENE 1: 1896. A Jewish home in Pinsk, in the west of Russia. Yosie, who has been drafted into the Army, sits with his father Samuel Hourvitz, his mother and his girl friend. Samuel reminisces about how 50 years ago he himself was by force kidnapped at age 10 to be a "Cantonist", a Jewish recruit to be raised in a Christian family in central Russia until age 18 and then forced to serve many years in the Tsar's Army.
SCENE 2: Flashback to 1846. The Jewish "Catcher" (who does the kidnapping for the Tsar) sings about difficulties he is having finding enough Jewish children to catch.
SCENE 3: Despite his mother's efforts to protect him, Samuel finally is grabbed by the Catcher. Samuel is betrayed by the Rabbi, who substitutes him for a different Hourvitz who is a married Torah scholar with a child.
SCENE 4: Russian soldiers force the Jewish children to say the oath of loyalty to the Tsar before an open Torah scroll. The Rabbi visits their prison cell to encourage them to behave like Joseph the Righteous in Egypt, and not give in to pressures to abandon Judaism.
SCENE 5: The children journey to central Russia. Samuel prays for deliverance, and the angel Michael intercedes for him against the cruel guards.
SCENE 6: Samuel, now age 18, is punished for refusing to eat pork by Anna, his fanatically Christian foster mother. Anna's husband Peter and daughter Marusya (also age 18) request leniency for Samuel from Anna.
SCENE 7: Marusya and Samuel are falling in love. It is April. She sings to him, "It's Springtime".
SCENE 8: Anna forces Samuel to eat roast pork, but he vomits it out. She orders him out of the house for the night. Marusya brings Samuel a bag of acceptable food in the woods, and asks if she can kiss him good night. Despite misgivings he agrees. Samuel hears the chanting of three other Cantonists who are singing psalms in honor of Tishah B'Av. Samuel confesses to them his growing love for Marusya. Jacob, their leader, warns him to resist temptation.
SCENE 9: Samuel is becoming an excellent soldier. Peter, Marusya and Samuel playfully act out the legend of Prince Oleg, who led the Russians against the Greeks.
SCENE 10: The Sergeant catches Samuel talking in ranks and sentences him to 20 strokes with the birch rod. The Sergeant respects Samuel's ability as a soldier, and he reduces this to 10 strokes. Marusya intercedes on Samuel's behalf, and the Sergeant cancels the other 10 strokes also. This infuriates the anti-semitic Demitri, who calls Marusya a "Zhidovka" ("Jewess"), since there is gossip in the village that Anna is a convert from Judaism. Samuel beats up Demitri.
SCENE 11: Peter returns home drunk and he is aggravated by Anna's self-righteous nagging. He also calls Anna "Zhidovka". To learn if Anna really is Jewish, Samuel one night pretends he is dreaming. He calls out loudly to his mother not to kill Anna for abusing him, since Anna also is Jewish. Samuel and Marusya see that when Anna overhears this she is deeply moved.
SCENE 12: Anna confesses her Jewish past and shares with Samuel her anxieties that Peter's relatives, especially the bigot Demitri, may disposses her and Marusya if Peter should die before she does.
SCENE 13: Marusya considers converting to Judaism. She will not, however, tell anyone about this until she fully has prepared herself.
SCENE 14: Samuel's troop is leaving for the Crimean War. To Marusya he sings, "If I Return, To You I Return". Samuel proves himself to be a hero by grabbing the battalion colors from a fallen soldier and leading an assault. Demitri, who would like to be an officer, proposes to Samuel that he take credit for the heroism of Samuel. Samuel agrees, on condition that Demitri signs the house over to Anna. Wounded, Samuel arrives in the hospital, where Marusya is serving as a nurse. He gives her the note from Demitri.
SCENE 15: Samuel is discharged from the army and he returns home to his parents' village in Pinsk. Despite his love for Marusya, he agrees to accept a Jewish bride which the Rabbi has found for him.
SCENE 16: In the original novel on which this play is based Marusya does not convert, and the story ends tragically when Samuel marries the Jewish woman which the Rabbi has found for him. I have rewritten the ending. In the present version the Jewish woman which the Rabbi has found for Samuel turns out to be Marusya, and as was the custom in those days among religious Jews, Samuel joyously meets his bride for the first time at the wedding.
True, the sequence of events in this melodramatic 19th Century story do certainly seem a bit contrived and unlikely from a 21st Century point of view. Nevertheless, the story does have value as a snapshot of an important moment in Jewish history, and it is especially relevant today in view of the serious manner in which it portrays the problem of assimilation. The play targets the lives of teenagers, a group especially susceptible.