“All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come.” — Victor Hugo
This line was quoted by Carol Penick, Executive Director of The Women’s Foundation of Mississippi at the opening of the foundation’s annual luncheon. This year, as the foundation celebrated its 10th anniversary, they honored ten “Women of Vision”. Carol pointed out that years ago, the time for change in the role of women had come– but while the time for change had come, it took people like these ten women who invested time, energy, and funds into making sure that changes took place in Mississippi.
The ISJL was honored to participate in the event, which honored our own board member emeritus, Kathryn Wiener.
As one of the women who helped start the Women’s Foundation, Kathryn Wiener has made a significant impact on the lives of women throughout this state. As pointed out at the event, the foundation has grown from a fund which distributed $6,400 to a foundation which distributed $506,000 this year. The Women’s Foundation is the only grantmaking and advocacy organization in Mississippi entirely dedicated to funding programs that improve the lives of women and girls statewide.
By ensuring the creation of the Women’s Foundation, Kathryn has been instrumental in advancing the economic security, safety and health of women and girls in Mississippi as well as their families and communities. In fact, it is because of the Women’s Foundation of Mississippi that the ISJL has been able to implement T.A.P.(Talk About the Problems) in Mississippi schools.
T.A.P., a conflict resolution program, provides a process through which students can resolve their conflicts peacefully. Girls who are selected to serve as peer mediators play a critical role in helping their peers arrive at a peaceful resolution to their conflict thereby improving the learning environment of all of the school’s students.
In addition to helping women and girls in Mississippi, Kathryn played an important role in the founding of the ISJL. Thanks to leaders like her, our organization now reaches a 13 state region, enhancing Jewish life for thousands of Southern Jews each year.
In his introduction of Kathryn Wiener, Dr. Robert Pearigen, President of Millsaps College told the audience that there isn’t a cultural organization in Jackson that has not been touched by Kathryn Wiener. Kathryn’s reach has been deep and vast. Kathryn is an example of what one individual can do to improve the lives of people in their community.
The ISJL is tremendously grateful to the Women’s Foundation of Mississippi for inviting us to participate in honoring Kathryn Wiener, a strong Southern Jewish woman. Seeing Kathryn, along with her nine “sisters in change,” be recognized for achievements that were undoubtedly hard to come by, was inspiring and energizing. We celebrate Kathryn, and her peers, all of whom chose to engage in turning the idea of advocacy for women and girls into a reality. We recognize the great responsibility that comes along with standing on the shoulders of such incredible women, and are honored to have been given the opportunity to be a part of the ongoing pursuit of positive change.
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…