Recently, I read an article about a punk-rock production of “Fiddler on The Roof.” The article caught my eye for several reasons. First of all, I’m a theater nerd, and any new-twist-on-an-old-favorite will at least earn a passing glance from me. Second of all, I have my own interesting “Fiddler” tale (which I’ll get to in a minute).
Third of all, um, hello – punk Fiddler?! As a kid raised on Topol’s performance of Tevye, picturing him wearing ripped jeans and black nail polish while screaming into a mic was enough to make me giggle.That’s what drew me to the article, but what stayed with me after I read it was not the article itself; the comments from other readers were what lingered in my mind.
There were a few positive or “hmm, that’s interesting” responses. But more prevalent were critical comments. Some of these criticisms were about this particular production, i.e.:
“G@d forbid we tell [the student actors] that dressing and acting Punk isn’t a good Jewish thing. What happened to a Jewish theater group teaching something Jewish? I am appalled”
… and others were even about “Fiddler” as a show, period:
“In it’s [sic] original it is the worst affront to traditional Judaism. The whole play is about children rejecting the laws and customs of Judaism. The only Jews who actually “love” Fiddler are those who rejected traditional Judaism themselves, but still take comfort in the memories of their grandparents’ tables. Turning it punk only added another level.”
Oy. Pretty harsh – and pretty unfair. As far as the punk version inherently being “not teaching something Jewish,” I’d argue that punk is about rebellion and questioning and figuring things out in your own way – AKA “wrestling with big questions.” AKA something pretty Jewish, if you ask me. My historian friend Stuart also pointed me to this article about how Jews contributed to the creation of punk music. We’re proud of Barbara Streisand and Mel Brooks; why not Jeffry Hyman, AKA Joey Ramone?
As far as “Fiddler” itself being an affront to traditional Judaism, I’d say it’s the opposite. Tevye, a traditional Jew, is the story’s protagonist, and he’s a sympathetic, likable character. Traditional Judaism is treated with warmth throughout this story; we feel the pain alongside Tevye when his daughters move away from the traditions that have shaped his life– even those of us who are not “traditionally observant” can identify with struggling to understand our loved ones, and fearing our own values may be lost. More than anything, “Fiddler” is a story of transitions, choices, navigating one’s own identity and the choices of our loved ones; of finding our own way and wrestling (there’s that word again) with the angels and obstacles in our path. Like it or not, that happens to every family. Jewish, and non-Jewish.
Speaking of which, here’s my “Fiddler” story, as promised earlier: soon after I moved to Mississippi, I started auditioning for plays. As fate would have it, the first role I was cast in was Golde in a local production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” This was odd for two main reasons: first of all, I was 21 at the time, making me way the &*%$ too young to play Golde; and second of all, I was the only Jewish person (at the time) in the entire cast and crew of this “Fiddler” show.
The first item was fixed with a wig and tons of age-makeup. The second item led to a lot of questions, conversations, gentle lessons in how to correctly pronounce “L’Chaim” – oh, the stories I could tell!
But here’s the incredible thing: despite the majority of the cast being largely unfamiliar with any sort of Jewish heritage, “Fiddler” resonated for everyone in the show. They got it. They learned something about Judaism, but also they found something incredibly universal in this particular show. Because “Fiddler” is very Jewish, and also very human.
If you took away its Jewish particularity, the story wouldn’t be as powerful; after all, a specific example is always better than bland general-ism. Yet within that specificity, there is so much room. The characters that choose tradition, those who have change thrust upon them, those who choose change – none are demonized. There are lots of different characters we can cheer for, because there are lots of ways to be [Jewish/in love/political/etc]. People find reflections of themselves, somewhere, because all of us know what it’s like to feel as if our lives are as shaky as … as … as a fiddler on the roof!
And if finding a way to tell a story about how complicated and beautiful and crazy-making family life can be isn’t Jewish, well, I don’t know what is.
That’s why I will continue to defend ‘Fiddler”- be it the traditional, punk, or a heartfelt, Southern-accented version.
What are your “Fiddler” feelings? Affection? Offense? Share your comments below…
Soon after I became Director of Rabbinic Services at the ISJL, I received a call from a Chaplain at a private prison in Mississippi. Prior to this call, there had been no recent Jewish prisoners at the facility. They had experienced no need for a rabbi … until now.
I learned from the Chaplain that the prison had just received a new transfer from Arizona. The inmate had conflicting statements in his records. Some indicated he was Jewish. Some indicated he was Protestant. In addition, I learned that the inmate was threatening to hurt others and take his own life if he did not receive kosher meals. The Chaplain expressed this was an emergency situation and asked if I could come immediately.
As I drove to the correctional facility, my mind was racing. I had two primary tasks ahead: determine if the inmate was a threat to himself or others, and determine if he was or was not Jewish. For me, it was the latter that gave me great pause. I was about to sit in judgment upon another individual. I was going to be involved in something that is so personal and thus subjective, making a recommendation that would forever impact someone’s life.
Upon arrival at the prison, which stood on the side of Highway 49 like a large gated rest-stop, I was met by the Chaplain. He began to walk me around the head offices of the prison, introducing me to the Wardens. Additionally, I also had the privilege to meet many of the block captains, security officials, and office managers. Everyone was extremely warm and welcoming, expressing their thanks for my immediate response to their situation.
When the inmate, “R.S.”, was brought into the room, he was extremely agitated (had to be restrained). His frustration was understandable. Having just been transferred from a prison in Arizona, he was in a period of prison in-processing, where – for a week or two – he was allowed no access to his personal items, and given little information. Additionally, he is trying to get used to new guards, a new “cellie” (roommate), a new prison system, he’s on a hunger strike, and now here I am, trying to determine his faith. Any one of us would be equally as stressed.
Although I tried to express my understanding, he would have none of it. It’s not that he didn’t believe me. It’s that he didn’t even want to hear my voice, the chaplain’s voice, or any other voice besides his own. And so for a good hour, R.S. vented. This was okay with me. I just listened. And, this passive engagement with R.S. seemed to start working. Slowly he calmed down, lowering his tone, beginning to share a few details with me of who he was and what he felt was going on. The guards exited, leaving R.S., the Chaplain, and myself to finally engage in a productive conversation.
I told R.S. that it was a pleasure for me to meet with him, and, that my purpose in being here is first to determine whether he was a threat to himself or others, as well as to determine the issue over religious affiliation. While I wanted to get to the more serious life/death issue, R.S. wanted to engage in the religious issue. In the discussion that followed, I learned that R.S. was part of the Kosher Religious Diet Program in his old prison, and was studying with that prison’s Jewish Chaplain. Thus, per the rules and regulations of the prison, which I had handy during the meeting, R.S. was entitled to have that diet continued in the new facility (unless he sells or trades that food to others).
I also learned that R.S.’s maternal grandmother was Jewish. His mother was not observant – which mattered little in formulating his Jewish identity anyway, for he was raised by his maternal grandfather and his step-grandmother, in a Protestant home. But, R.S. informed me, his estranged mother did force him to have a Bar Mitzvah. He called it “one of the worst days in his life,” as many of the family problems erupted during the service. Shortly thereafter, R.S. started getting into trouble, eventually leading to conflicts with the law.
R.S. has been in prison since 2004 for armed robbery. Upon entering into this prison sentence, he began somehow to re-connect with his Jewish roots, studying with the former prison’s Jewish chaplain. He started observing rituals of Jewish prayer, diet, Shabbat, and more. So, in my professional opinion, R.S. is Jewish, at least in an early stage. Not merely because of his mother’s or maternal grandmother’s religious identity; rather, R.S. is Jewish – in my opinion – because he further identifies himself as such and actively engages in Jewish deeds.
With that sentiment expressed to the Chaplain as well as to R.S., he relaxed completely, allowing me to address the other reason for my visit: the prison’s concern that he is a danger to himself and others. R.S. emphatically said, “There had to be some mistake. While I am upset and may act out at times, it is not my intention to hurt anyone else, or myself.”
I then used my remaining moments with R.S. to review with him the sins that Judaism views as particularly dire: idolatry, inappropriate sexual relations, and murder. As keeping kosher is not one of these, I recommended that while waiting on kosher meals to arrive, he eat at least eat some of the vegetables, bread, and other such staples on the regular meal plate so as not to jeopardize his health. I expressed that doing this would also ensure that he would uphold another Jewish value, p’kuach nefesh. He smiled, for the first time that day, and said he would do so.
We ended with the Priestly Benediction and a hand shake, as R.S. was lead out of the meeting room to go back to his cell. Before I departed, the Chaplain and I spoke. He asked if I would be interested in coming up to the prison more regularly to help guide the Jewish program. Without reservation, I said I would be delighted. These are after all fellow Jews and no matter where they may reside, they have the right to be supported in their Jewish faith.
Judaism is not a luxury; Judaism is a necessity. Even when imprisoned, a Jewish person remains Jewish. A person of faith needs their faith while preparing to return to society. And nobody knows that more than these inmates and the spirited Chaplains who serve them.
As a circuit riding rabbi serving an entire region, Rabbi Klaven is a resource for wide swath of Southern Jews, including those behind bars. His “Passover Pilgrimage” program includes conducting seders at a correctional facility. The work of Beth Tikvah Jewish Prisoner Outreach provides a model, as well. Do you often think of Jews in jail? Does your community do any outreach to imprisoned Jews?