The ‘Lehman Trilogy’ cast had questions about Jews and money — and a rabbi to answer them
Not long before the debut of Lehman Trilogy at London’s National Theatre, Rabbi Daniel Epstein was teaching the cast about kaddish. In a play dense with Jewish references, the prayer for the dead is a symbolic lodestar, and Epstein wanted the actors to know what it meant.
Only three actors have lines in Lehman, which is wrapping up its Broadway run this month before heading to Los Angeles, and all three recite kaddish; of the three, only one, Adam Godley, is Jewish. Godley alerted Epstein to a coincidence: his father had died a few weeks earlier.
“I basically got very emotional at that point,” the rabbi recalled. He told Godley: “You have no idea what you just told me and what’s about to happen.”
Epstein predicted that when Godley recited the kaddish on stage, a number of the audience members, being Jewish themselves, would instinctively respond “amen.” In a theater with more than 1,000 seats, a minyan was virtually guaranteed, meaning Godley would be fulfilling the mitzvah of saying kaddish for his father, several nights a week.
Get the Forward delivered to your inbox. Sign up here to receive our essential morning briefing of American Jewish news and conversation, the afternoon’s top headlines and best reads, and a weekly letter from our editor-in-chief.
Lehman Trilogy charts the rise and fall of Lehman Brothers, the bank whose collapse marked the dawn of the 2008 financial crisis, beginning with the opening of a dry-goods store by three Bavarian Jewish immigrant brothers in the 1840s.
Consulting for the National Theatre before the play’s 2018 debut, Epstein, who is rabbi of the Western Marble Arch Synagogue in Central London, was charged with making the Jewish elements of the play ring true. Though he only met with the cast a few times, his guidance on the pronunciations is audible in every show.
But that was only part of the job. The impact of Epstein’s other role — helping the actors understand what they were saying, and enabling them to see complicated Jewish men in a more forgiving historical context — was more subtle but weightier.
He spent hours delving into uncomfortable questions swirling around Lehman Trilogy. Does it traffic in antisemitic tropes? Does it justify stereotypes with real life examples?
Epstein filled a need that had not been anticipated by director Sam Mendes. The rabbi’s involvement only came about after the hair-and-makeup supervisor for the National Theatre — one of Epstein’s congregants — overheard the cast botching some of the Hebrew parts. She asked Mendes if she could invite her rabbi to help. No audition necessary: he had the gig.
Confronting unsavory Jewish characters
It seemed clear from the script what his work would entail. In the first act alone, the characters light Hanukkah candles (with a blessing), say kaddish, sit shiva and observe shloshim, the 30-day period after the burial.
But when Epstein’s first meeting with the cast stretched past three hours, it wasn’t because the Hebrew was hard. It was because the cast had pressing questions about the story.
“Questions that in another sense would have been sort of borderline antisemitic,” Epstein recalled, “but that they were asking from a genuine place of knowledge. So why is it that Jews and money are always so connected?”
The rabbi was confronting, head on, what for many Jewish viewers might be the central tension — or awkwardness — of the play: between the family’s overt Jewishness and its imperious business sense. The Lehmans close their store on Shabbat, light Hanukkah candles, and quote the Talmud. They also benefit from slavery (their first fortune is made in cotton) and tilt the global economy toward ruin.
The three-plus-hour, two-intermission show has completed sold-out runs at the National Theatre, the Park Avenue Armory and London’s West End. It will play at the Nederlander Theatre on Broadway through the end of the year, then open in Los Angeles in March.
Each opening of the play has produced a new round of hand-wringing about the Jewish tropes that animate it. Epstein recognized the potency of financiers who worship the almighty buck. Asked what he thought the play said about Jewish people, he said, “It depends what your preconceived notions are.”
To contextualize the Lehmans’ success for the cast, Epstein schooled them on feudalism and Christianity and Tsarist Russia. He described the creativity and determination it took for Jews just to survive in European systems that prevented them from owning land or accruing wealth. In America, the Lehmans could apply the same ingenuity without having to navigate the obstacles faced by their ancestors. The riches followed.
That doesn’t make the family redeemable. The Lehman brothers — that is, the three Bavarian immigrants who are the soul of the play — owned slaves in real life, a fact that does not come up in the play. (One might have misgivings watching the play even without that knowledge, as the family makes its fortune in cotton in the antebellum South.)
Qualifying that he wasn’t totally sure about the history, Epstein defended the characters by saying the standards were different then.
“I think we have to be contextual, you know — that’s what it was then and that’s how it worked and Jews primarily weren’t involved in the physical trading of people,” he said.
No matter how bad the characters look, or how easily they fit into cliches that have damaged Jewish people for centuries, the rabbi never saw the play as antisemitic. That’s partly because [Epstein] sees the play as a morality tale. In the beginning of the play, the Lehmans hew to their faith — for example, they observe the seven-day shiva period and light Hanukkah candles. When their religious observance diminishes, they run into trouble.
In other words, the same savage ambition that fuels the Lehmans’ empire is ultimately what dooms it.
“I felt no sense of worry or animosity or anxiety about seeing Jews becoming successful,” he said, “because you see the firm being spectacularly unsuccessful at the end.”
A prayer from the stage
Context mattered for the pronunciations, too. Simon Russell Beale, the play’s lead, widely considered one of the world’s greatest living stage actors, had already learned kaddish by the time Epstein arrived on set. But he had learned it in modern Hebrew.
“I’m like, no,” Epstein said. “You’re in 1840s Germany. Nobody spoke modern Hebrew in 1840s Germany.” Epstein rejiggered the kaddish to give it a thick Teutonic twist — instead of “tushbechata v’nechemata,” it was “tushbechoosuh v’nechemoosuh.” (The same accent also produced the oddest Hebrew word in the play — shloshim, which the cast pronounces “shlaushim,” like it rhymes with “housing.”)
Before he saw Lehman Trilogy performed, Epstein wondered if he had overestimated the audience’s participation in kaddish. He went on the second night of previews. As Godley intoned the prayer’s solemn Aramaic in the first act, the theater murmured its response.
“At that point I completely lost it,” the rabbi said. “It was quite overwhelming.” Months later, after he saw the play a second time, Epstein visited Godley backstage.
“I asked him, is it still happening?”
Godley confirmed. “Every single night.”