When historians write about social or political transformation, they often make a distinction between “change from above” and “change from below.” Change from above comes directly from the leadership—Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal is a good example. Change from below is brought about by the efforts of regular people, whether directly from their actions or as a result of pressures brought to bear on those in power. The Civil Rights Movement is an especially compelling example of this. In researching the Jewish history of Louisville, Kentucky, I found a fascinating instance of “change from below” that literally came from above.
Keneseth Israel was created in 1926 from the merger of Louisville’s two oldest Orthodox congregations, both of which had been established by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. By the mid-20th century, a new generation of members had begun to chafe under the requirements of strict Orthodoxy. After World War II, the younger members of the congregation, especially its women, began to push for mixed-gender seating. In 1950, a group of female members, who normally sat in the synagogue balcony, held “sit-down strikes” in the downstairs men’s section during services. During one of these demonstrations, the police were called to restore order, and some members threatened a court injunction to stop the protests. Keneseth Israel’s Rabbi Benjamin Brilliant supported the traditionalists and refused to continue services while women were sitting in the men’s section.
Finally, the board sought to strike a compromise by allowing women to sit on the main floor of the sanctuary separated from the men by a mechitza, though this solution did not satisfy the protestors. Finally, after Rabbi Brilliant left Keneseth Israel in 1952, the congregation voted to institute mixed seating in the middle section of the sanctuary, with separate sections for men and women at the sides. Over the years, the congregation would continue to struggle with how to balance traditional Judaism with the demands of the modern world. Later, Keneseth Israel affiliated with the Conservative Movement and become fully egalitarian.
It’s quite remarkable that thirteen years before Betty Friedan published of The Feminine Mystique, which helped spark the second wave of American feminism, the women of Keneseth Israel decided to challenge the gender inequality of their congregation in such a direct way. Their effort is a perfect example of how most social change comes from pressure from below, even if it actually comes from the balcony!
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…
There it was, in the news, soon after the results of the November 6 election were announced: bigotry in the spotlight, here in Mississippi, again. Headlines declaring a “riot” on the campus of the University of Mississippi (more often referred to as Ole Miss), with white Southern students shouting racial slurs and burning an Obama/Biden campaign poster. Black vs. white. Racial tension in the Bible Belt.
How do we encounter that experience?
There’s a long and complex history of civil rights in the South, and Jewish involvement in civil rights. Luckily, at the ISJL, in addition to studying and sharing the histories, we consider it an honor to have seen and participated in the great work of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation (WWIRR) in action. The WWIRR is located on the campus of Ole Miss, right in the center of the recent controversy.
This whole incident is in “our neighborhood,” but all the more so in the WWIRR’s neighborhood. And community reaction and engagement around this is in my wheelhouse, and something I – and hopefully, the readers of this blog – care about. So I reached out to Dr. Susan Glisson, Executive Director of the WWIRR, to ask her about the situation that has caught national attention, the realities, and responses.
Here’s what she had to say.
Malkie: The WWIRR’s Position on Racial Reconciliation includes an emphasis on the importance of language and “how it is often unintentionally used to blur, divide, and polarize what are essentially similar efforts”. As I was thinking about the ways in which to describe what happened on the evening of November 6th, I considered my choice of words. (Do I call it an occurrence? No, that sounds unintentional. I guess I should call it a riot, but was it a riot? Does the word “protest” capture what took place?) Each word seems blurry in its own way. How might you describe what took place on the Ole Miss campus?
Dr. Glisson: I can only say now that one of the participants described his participation in the event as “defending his beliefs” in “the Republican side of campus, the Confederate side of campus.” So, I think it is clear that racial fears underlie what happened Tuesday night.
Malkie: You informed us that a walk took place on campus called We Are One Mississippi Candlelight Walk. Were you able to attend? What was the tone and message of this walk?
Dr. Glisson: I was there. It was serious and reflective, resolved and hopeful. The message is that love is greater than hate and that we refuse to go back to any old regime of bigotry.
Malkie: For some, these events will serve as an indicator that racism in Mississippi is pervasive. How would you respond to an individual who draws this conclusion?
Dr. Glisson: The results of the election clearly show that we are the most racially polarized we have ever been. Racism is pervasive throughout the country and I think the only question may be about degrees. We ALL have much work to do.
Malkie: Our blog is called “Southern and Jewish.” What would you like Jews in the South to know about the work of the Winter Institute?
Dr. Glisson: The Winter Institute works in communities and classrooms, in Mississippi and beyond, to support a movement of racial equity and wholeness as a pathway to ending and transcending all division and discrimination based on difference.
Malkie: Can you share ways in which you think Jews in the South can play a role in advancing racial reconciliation?
Dr. Glisson: There is a rich history of collaboration between Jews and civil rights activists; I hope we can rekindle that connection through dialogue and community building to repair the wounds of the past.
What are your thoughts on this incident? What do you think is the most constructive way for communities to come together to “repair the wounds of the past”?