A Sephardic “Merchant of Venice” Deals with Love, Commerce, and Bigotry

Jun 14, 2015 by

By Chana Lieba Rosenbluth

Clipart_David Serero“The Merchant of Venice” currently running at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan will not please Shakespearean purists. But it should please everyone else.

Long viewed as the archetype of antisemitic literature, this “Merchant” reflects the sensibilities of the American Sephardi Federation, under whose auspices it is being presented. In this production, the Jewish characters are Sephardic Jews. When they sing, it is either in the Hebrew of the Siddur or the Ladino of their culture.

In fifth grade, my class at the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey presented an abridged version of “Julius Caesar,” using a girls-only cast in a play that originally boasts exactly two female characters. The RYNJ version, which was cut so that it ran only about 45 minutes, retained only the barest bones of Shakespeare’s powerful story, character, and language, but it was enough: I fell in love.

That is what this production of “The Merchant” should accomplish for those students fortunate enough to see it.

Written, produced, and directed by David Serero, who also assumes the pivotal role of Shylock, this “Merchant” is passionate and vibrant. While keeping the story basically intact, he has simplified most of the more obscure language and removed the complexity of three subplots. His focus is almost exclusively on the Shylock story.

In returning Shylock to his Sephardic, Ladino roots, Mr. Serero has given him depth and history. When Shylock realizes that Jessica, his beloved daughter and only family, has betrayed him, her community, and her tradition by eloping with a Christian (and stealing a fair amount of her father’s wealth in the process), he breaks into a tragic Ladino song of farewell. This Shylock uses Ladino exclamations the way an Ashkenazi Jew might wail “Oy Vey!”

The production isn’t perfect. Inexplicably, the Ladino influence seems to infect Portia (played by the lovely Dina Desmone), who sings a Ladino love song to Bassanio (Joseph Talluto).

While Jessica is mentioned, her part and virtually her entire plot is gone, making Shylock’s bereavement less understandable to those who have neither read nor seen the play before.

But quibbles aside, Mr. Serero has given us a production rich with food for thought. While Antonio (James Bocock) was seen by Shakespeare’s audience as a noble character, Mr. Serero emphasizes his antisemitism. When Shylock notes bitterly the abuse he has suffered at Antonio’s hands, it is no surprise to the audience, who can bear witness to the cruelty.

Perhaps most interestingly, Mr. Serero makes it quite clear that despite the forced conversion, this Shylock remains true to Jewish tradition. His final “Shalom Aleichem,” not only mirrors the opening of the play, but serves as a testament to the Jewish tradition of brave defiance in defense of their beliefs.

The other characters in the play, including the Duke of Venice, the prince of Morocco, and Tubal were played well by Ron Barba.

Mr. Serero is no stranger to antisemitism. Born and raised in Paris, he is a trained actor and operatic baritone. He now brings his considerable talents to New York, where he now resides. He says he left Europe because of the increased, growing intolerable antisemitism.

“I know what it’s like to walk in the street and have people hiss ‘Jew, Jew,’ at you,” he said in an interview after the first performance.

He brings that sensitivity and sensibility to this “Merchant.”

His hope is that Jewish organizations and, especially, students throughout the country will see “The Merchant” through his eyes and, thus, gain a new understanding of the character of Shylock and the play.

For more information on bringing Mr. Serero’s “Merchant” to schools and other locations, he can be reached at davidsereroopera@gmail.com or www.davidserero.com.

The play will be shown at the Center for Jewish History, 15 W 16th St, in Manhattan, on Sunday, June 14, at 7pm; Monday, June 22, at 8pm; and Wednesday, June 24, at 8pm. For tickets, call 1-800-838-3006 or go to www.asfmerchant.bpt.me.

Don’t miss it.