In Act 4, Scene 9, of Part Two: Perestroika, Roy Cohn, the Jewish attorney largely responsible for the conviction of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1951, lies in his hospital bed dying of AIDS. The year is 1986. The ghost of Ethel Rosenberg enters and informs him that he has been disbarred and can no longer practice law. Roy begs Ethel to sing him a song and, reluctantly, she sings him the well-known Yiddish folk song “Tumbalalaika.” (Tum means “noise” in Yiddish, and a balalaika is a Russian stringed musical instrument.)
This iconic photograph of the Rosenbergs was taken in 1951 as the couple left the courthouse after being found guilty of espionage. The recording of "Tumbalalaika" is by Nathan “Prince” Nazaroff, on his album Jewish Freilach Songs (1951), licensed by Folkways Records, which is now owned and operated by the Smithsonian. (As is often the case with folk songs, more than one set of lyrics exists for "Tumbalalaika," and the lyrics Nazaroff sings are distinctly different from the ones presented by the lyrics sheet we've chosen, from Lomir kinder zingen . The written lyrics, however, are the more well-known ones today.)
Suggested Activity: Have students read Act 4, Scene 9, of Part Two: Perestroika. Then show them Roger Higgins's photograph of the Rosenbergs. Have students examine the photograph in small groups. Discuss: do you recognize the people in this photo? What can you learn about these individuals just by looking at the photograph? Reveal that the woman is Ethel Rosenberg, whose ghost visits Roy Cohn on his deathbed. Tell them about Cohn's role in the Rosenberg trial.
Next, ask students to research the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in small groups. Students should consider: who were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and what were they accused of? Were they innocent or guilty? Were they tried and punished fairly? Did anti-Semitism play a role in their sentencing? Have each group take on a different question and present their findings to the class.
Then return to Act 4, scene 9, and have students consider: What is the significance of this scene and what role does Jewishness play in it? What is the effect of including historical figures in a play featuring primarily fictitious people, places, and events? What does the inclusion of Cohn and Rosenberg add to the play?
Then play the recording of "Tumbalalaika" and examine the lyrics as a class. What is this song about? What kind of song is it? When might you imagine someone would sing this song? Why might Kushner have included this song in this scene?