Bistritzky’s Play ‘Jerusalem and Rome’ (1938/1941)

Nathan Bistritzky (Agmon) (1896-1980) came to Palestine from Russia as a member of the third-Aliyah. As well as working for the Jewish National Fund, both at home and abroad, he was a prolific writer of (mostly) historical plays, and a translator-editor. His Hebrew play about the life, career, and ideas of Josephus, Yerushalayim ve-Romi (‘Jerusalem and Rome’), was originally published in 1938 in a small-book format. It was produced, with a star cast, in Habimah, the leading theatre of the Yishuv (Jewish community in Palestine), in 1941, with the Second World War at its height.

Josephus is presented as an advocate of the union of East and West. He encounters Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai, a recent escapee from the besieged Jerusalem, and implores him to return to the city and try to stop the ‘insanity’ wrought by the sectarians. He argues that Rome is slowly falling apart from within because ‘she lacks an Idea…’; but so is Jerusalem, and both are run by madmen. Berenice is favourably depicted as genuinely in love with Titus after a most unhappy life. To her is ascribed the initiative to prevent the Roman military decision to destroy the Temple.

The play received mixed reviews. It was praised for its dramatic power and for the new light it sheds on its two tragic protagonists – Ben-Mattityahu (Josephus) and Berenika (Berenice). But reviewers queried the author’s preoccupation with the Second Temple period and its self-destructive Messianic impulse, and were concerned by the play offering contemporaries a model of a desperate way forward for the Jewish people in the throes of disaster.

The portrayal of Josephus, and especially that of Berenice, in Bistrizky’s play may have been influenced directly by Feuchtwanger’s Josephus trilogy (translated into Hebrew at an early stage).

Bistritzky-Agmon, Nathan, Yerushalayim ve-Romi: Yosefus Flavius [‘Jerusalem and Rome: Josephus Flavius’]. Jerusalem, 1938. [Hebrew]

Feuchtwanger, L., Milhemet hayehudim [The Jewish War], trans. Yosef Lichtenboim. Tel Aviv, 1932. [Hebrew]
Feuchtwanger, L., Habanim [The Sons], trans. Yosef Lichtenboim. Tel Aviv, 1936. [Hebrew]
Feuchtwanger, L., Bo yavo’ hayom [The day will come], trans. A. Lubrani. Tel Aviv, 1945. [Hebrew]
Feldman, Y.S., ‘ “Flavius” on Trial in Mandate Palestine, 1932-1945: Natan Bistritzky’s Hebrew Play and Lion Feuchtwanger’s German Trilogy’, in: Josephus in Modern Jewish Culture, ed. A. Schatz (forthcoming).

Entry contributed by Yael Feldman (with Tessa Rajak)