The Book of Esau
"It says a man,
eesh, a man -
but ever since the story started being handed down,
everyone insists it was an angel.
They say he wrestled an angel..."
- Esau, opening of Red Angel
Red Angel: The Book of Esau - Background and Summary
Songs from the Show: lyrics for reading and links for listening
|Red Angel: The Book of Esau
The story of Jacob and Esau is a pivotal moment in the story of the Jewish people. As told in Genesis, it begins with twins struggling in the womb. As youths, Jacob, the younger brother, coerces the famished Esau into selling his birthright for a bowl of red pottage. Later, with the help of their mother Rebecca, Jacob steals the blessing which their father, Isaac, had reserved for his eldest and favorite son. Jacob then flees the wrath of his brother and does not see him again for twenty years. On the night before this fateful meeting, there is a famous episode in which an angel comes to Jacob's tent in the night and wrestles with him until daybreak. Triumphant, Jacob demands a blessing from his opponent, who blesses him and gives him the name Israel. Thus it is from this moment that Jews trace the spiritual vigor of their faith and their origins as a people.
Esau, cheated and betrayed by his younger brother, does not kill him on meeting him the following morning but forgives him, embracing him with kisses and tears. Yet, through the ages Esau has been reviled like no other figure in the Bible. He has come to represent everything that Israel is not - sensuality, brutishness, irreverence, betrayal. This visceral rejection of Esau is mysterious, and points to something deep in the heart of the religion - perhaps of all religions. Even more mysterious, Esau keeps reappearing in the stories of the Bible - the hairy, red hunter, the sensualist, the eldest son who is passed over, the traitor, the oppressor, the goat. Jewish rabbinical tradition identifies him with Rome, but if you read carefully, you find traces of him in the stories of Cain and Ishmael, of the hairy, violent heroes Samson, Elijah, and red-haired David and his favorite son Absalom. His signature is even recognizable in the origins and characters of both Jesus and Judas as well as later figures all the way down to the dybbuk of the shtetl, Red Emma and Jerry Rubin.
In mythology, the appearance of twins symbolizes a doubleness, the existence of two halves of one whole which cannot exist apart from each other - like light and shadow. As a people, our hatred of Esau is a complex hatred of something within us - an aspect of ourselves that the official story can never fully reconcile or subdue. Based on an unorthodox reading of the text (it says eesh - "a man" - it says he wrestled a man...), Red Angel presents a gripping drama in which Esau comes to see that his apostacy is necessary to his brother's redemption - and in accepting his role as the eternal villain in his brother's story, becomes a champion in his own.
Hugh as Esau
The entire play takes place on the night of Jacob's famous wrestling match. Esau, recalls the betrayals by his younger brother and gives his side of the story, revealing a spiritual nature ill-suited to the yoke of religion. Still, he is bitter at losing his father's favor, and his decision to kill his younger brother in his tent ends the first act. The second act begins with a dreamlike caberet theatre with a modern-day Esau singing satirical songs that undermine traditional Biblical interpretations of.... just about everything. But after having his fun he finds the humor in his own situation equally ironic, and his brother's need for redemption too strong to ignore. He decides that the best way to fulfill his destiny and his father's blessing, is to use his strength on behalf of his younger brother precisely by using it against him - to force his brother to become stronger and more mature. At the end of the play, he reconciles himself to his family, and to the thankless role he now takes on. Donning a fierce angelic mask, he goes off to wrestle his brother - not to kill him but to give him life.
In this version of the story, Esau is both the biblical figure and a contemporary man who, through his nature and values, finds himself an outsider in his own family and religious community. In parallel ways, each comes to understand his lonely destiny and finally embraces it.
|Gen. 25 25And the first came forth
ruddy, all over like a hairy mantle; and
they called his name Esau. 26And after
that came forth his brother, and his hand
had hold on Esau's heel; and his name
was called Jacob. 27And the boys grew;
and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of
the field; and Jacob was a quiet man,
dwelling in tents. 28Now Isaac loved
Esau, because he did eat of his venison;
and Rebbekah loved Jacob...
29And Jacob sod pottage; and Esau
came in from the field, and he was faint.
30And Esau said to Jacob: 'Let me
swallow, I pray thee, some of this red,
red pottage; for I am faint.' Therefore
was his name called Edom. 31And Jacob
said: 'Sell me first thy birthright.' 32And
Esau said: 'Behold, I am at the point to
die; and what profit shall the birthright be
to me?' 33And Jacob said: 'Swear unto
me first, and he swore unto him; and he
sold his birthright unto Jacob. 34And
Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of
lentils; and he did eat and drink, and rose
up, and went his way. So Esau despised
|27 6And Rebekah spoke unto Jacob her
son, saying: 'Behold, I heard thy father
speak unto Esau thy brother, saying:
7Bring me venison and make me savoury
food, that I may eat, and bless thee before
the Lord before my death. 8Now therefore
my son ... 9go to the flock and fetch me
two good kids of the goats; and I will make
them savoury food and thou shalt bring it to
thy father so that he may bless thee before
his death.'... 11And Jacob said: Behold my
brother is a hairy man, and I am a smooth
man. 12My father might feel me and I shall
seem to him as a mocker; and I shall bring a
curse upon me, not a blessing. 13And his
mother said unto him: 'Upon me be thy
curse, my son...15And Rebekah took the
choicest garments of Esau and put them on
Jacob. 16And she put the skins of the kids
of the goats upon his hands, and upon the
smooth of his neck. ... 18And he came unto
his father and said 'My father'; and he said
'who art thou, my son?' 19And Jacob said
to his father: 'I am Esau thy first-born...I
pray thee sit and eat of my venison that
thy soul may bless me.'
|Gen.32 25And Jacob was left
and there wrestled a man with him until
the breaking of the day. 26And when
he saw that he prevailed not against
him, he touched the hollow of his
thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh
was strained, as he wrestled with him.
27And he said: 'Let me go for the day
breaketh.' And he said: 'I will not let
thee go, except thou bless me.' 28And
he said: 'What is thy name?' And he
said 'Jacob.' 29And he said: 'Thy name
shall no more be called Jacob, but
Israel; for thou hast striven with God
and with men, and hast prevailed.'
30And Jacob asked him, and said:
'Tell me, I pray thee, thy name.' And
he said 'Wherefore is it that thou dost
ask after my name?' And he blessed
31And Jacob called the name of the place
331And Jacob lifted up his eyes,
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A Unique Jewish Voice
Hugh Blumenfeld has earned a national reputation as a songwriter's songwriter. Since 1988 he has released five CD's of original songs and performs at concerts and festivals across much of the U.S. and in Europe. What makes his work unique is an extensive background in poetry (he holds a Ph.D. in Poetics from N.Y.U.) and a sensibility deeply rooted in Jewish culture and spirituality. His approach to religious themes is often indirect and suggestive, using familiar stories, images and traditions as starting points for his poetic explorations. The resulting songs are as heartfelt as they are intellectually challenging.
Blumenfeld's songs run the gamut from psalm-like meditations to anthems and from pathos to biting satire. "Bring Stones," recalling the Yom Kippur ritual of tashlich, urges us to cast off all the sins and hardenings that constrain and burden us. "This Mountain" envisions a just peace in Israel that will truly make it the Promised Land, though, like Moses, we ourselves may not live to see it. The love song "Jerusalem" follows the prophetic tradition which speaks of the holy city as a lover and a bride. "Noah's Raven" is a dark retelling of the Flood story, based on the largely ignored passage that precedes Noah's sending of the doves. In the satirical "Holy Moses," the freed Hebrew slaves long for the security of their chains. As for "Longhaired Radical Socialist Jew," published in Fast Folk and Sing Out! Magazine, . . . oy!
Other songs have more personal origins. "The Strong In Spirit," written during his mother's final illness, celebrates the will to overcome adversity. "The Visit" is a poignant attempt to explain a son's reluctance to visit the Jewish cemetery where his mother rests. And "Brothers," the finale of his new one-man musical, Red Angel: The Book of Esau, is a peace offering that transcends sibling rivalry without resolving it.
Red Angel is Hugh's most ambitious work to date. This 75-minute one-man show is somewhere between a musical and a musical revue, combining poetry, drama and song in a startling re-reading of Genesis: what if the "man" Jacob wrestled was not an angel but really a man - what if it was his twin brother Esau? This premise, based on a literal reading of the Hebrew text and a foregrounding of some neglected passages, sets the stage for an exciting drama, Red Angel brings the most ancient sibling rivalry in literature into the present, and explores the continuing importance of the rebellious outcast in defining our religious tradition. Appropriately, the show premiered at the Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford, originally built as Connecticut's first synagogue and now a secular arts space. While this evolving performance piece has only been staged half a dozen times, key songs from the show have long been standards in his concert set list.
Increasingly, Hugh has sought out audiences for his religious and spiritually-based work. In 1997, the St. Louis Hillel Center at Washington University invited him for a weekend of concerts, services and workshops, and commissioned a song in response to the week's Torah portion. In 1998, he performed at the bi-annual Greater Chicago Jewish Folk Arts Festival, attended by 40,000 people, and finished the year with a three-week tour of Israel. During 1999-2000 Hugh served as Connecticut's official State Troubadour. Over the years, he has taught literature as a faculty member at several colleges, and as a touring performer and artist-in-residence he has given workshops and presentations on the history and writing of songs around the country. His goal is to share his Jewish journey in forms that will inspire others to reexamine the primary texts of their faith and pursue their own spiritual path, whatever their practices and beliefs.
Esau: The Red Book, and contents of this page ©1998, 2001 Hugh Blumenfeld
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