“The Golden Bear,” now at the Theater for the New City, is playwright Laurel Hessing’s adaptation of Michael Gold’s autobiographical novel about growing up on the Lower East Side, “Jews Without Money” (1930). The novel — which Hessing told the Forward she has kept to as “closely as I could” — doesn’t cast its gaze away from the poverty and filth of tenement life. It humanizes the teeming streets with the hopes and dreams of tenement inhabitants as they strive to survive in their New World ghetto. Storytelling, too, plays a big part in this world, with the protagonist’s father entertaining his children with colorful tales straight out of the Arabian Nights, including one about a benevolent golden bear that serves as a symbol of hope.
As Alfred Kazin once wrote, “I know of nothing so powerful — and unforgettable — about the Lower East Side in the era of mass immigration as ‘Jews Without Money.’”
Hessing told the Forward about Free Acres, N.J., where as a child she played with Gold’s children, her neighbors. She read his novel at age 11, finding it a complement to her mother’s stories of her youth in the immigrant enclave. The book is relevant today, she said, mentioning the final scene in which a radical speaks atop his soapbox of how war pits workers of one nation against those of another. The last scene, however, is the only overtly political one, providing a glimpse of the Communist causes to which Gold would dedicate his subsequent writing.
Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave.; through April 6, Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m.; $10. (212-254-1109 or www.theaterforthenewcity.org)