David Serero in The Sephardi Report 2019
“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 initially boasts precisely 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, nature, 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 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), he breaks into a tragic Ladino farewell song. This Shylock uses Ladino exclamations like 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 are 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 Bo- cock) was seen by Shakespeare’s audience as a noble character, Mr. Serero emphasizes his antisemitism. When Shylock notes the abuse he has suffered at Antonio’s hands bitterly, it is no surprise to the audience, who can bear witness to the cruelty.
Perhaps most interestingly, Mr. Serero makes it quite clear that this Shylock remains true to Jewish tradition despite the forced conversion. His final “Shalom Aleichem” mirrors the play's opening and 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 currently resides. He says he left Europe because of the increased, growing tolerable 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.”
He hopes 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 Shy-Lock and the play.