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…
This blog originally appeared on Lutheran Confessions, and is re-posted here with permission from the author, Pastor Clint Schnekloth.
Although I in no way mean to imply that Lutherans and the Jewish community in Northwest Arkansas are identical, it is true some of us wear similar t-shirts (I have a t-shirt that reads “The Lord be with y’all”).
It was our honor and privilege to attend Hanukkah celebrations at Temple Shalom in Fayetteville this evening. The evening began with a blessing over the separation (Havdallah, the candle lighting to end Sabbath).
This included a nice hymn, “A good week. A week of peace/May gladness reign and joy increase.” Also the Kiddush, and blessings over the spices and the candles. We sang these standing in a large circle, then danced to the song even most non-Jewish communities know well, the Hava Nagila (let us rejoice).
Two enthusiastic Fellows from the Institute of Southern Jewish Life taught many of the traditions. The Institute sends out nine Fellows each year. They spend their year conducting Sunday school type programs in the synagogues they serve.
I love Temple Shalom’s mission statement, “Temple Shalom is located in the city of Fayetteville, nestled in the Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas. We are a small, tight-knit, welcoming congregation representing a diversity of practices, and dedicated to serving as the focal point for Jewish life in our small corner of the world.”
Although past years have seen 50-60 participants in programs like the Hanukkah party, this year over 150 people were in attendance, almost all (with the exception of our Lutheran household and a few other visitors) were Jewish. Although I do not know all of the reasons for this growth, my guess is that a) it is an attractive community engaging in effective forms of outreach, and b) more Jewish families and individuals are moving to NWA.
After prayer, we lit the Hannukah candles, and we ate. I think my favorite were the latkes. I’m a huge fan of potato pancakes soaked with sour cream or apple sauce. “Latkes (Yiddish: לאַטקע) are traditionally eaten by Jews during the Hanukkah festival. The oil for cooking the latkes is symbolic of the oil from the Hanukkah story that kept the Second Temple of ancient Israel lit with a long-lasting flame that is celebrated as a miracle.”
Then there was the potluck. Lots of great hot dishes and more latkes of various shapes and flavors. We focused some of our attention on the sweets. I have this evening eaten a chocolate version of the Decalogue. Certainly evocative of Psalm 19: “The law of the Lord is perfect, sweeter than honey.”
But the best part of the party was the fellowship. Although we had to leave early for family bedtimes, we had the opportunity to spend an evening with neighbors and friends we love and deeply cherish.
We share this common story, the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, and Lutherans and Jews also share a common immigrant story to Arkansas. Here’s to lighting candles together, lights that fend off the darkness and give indication of our joy.
We hear a lot about “interfaith” and “outreach” programming. In fact, I spend a lot of my time promoting it. But why does it matter? If it might lead to some difficult conversations and such – why bother?
Well, my experiences not only as a director of programming, but also as a proud New Orleans native, have shaped my understanding of the value and vital need for these sorts of efforts.
“….Temple Sinai is a house of prayer for all people and all who enter our doors in the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood are always welcome and that includes the members of Greater St. Stephens Ministries.”
These words were spoken by Rabbi Edward Cohn. Since becoming the Rabbi of Temple Sinai in New Orleans 25 years ago, Rabbi Cohn has made interfaith and outreach programming a priority for the congregation. His efforts have led to a strong New Orleans Interfaith clergy group which meets on a regular basis to discuss theological, ethical and political issues as well as forming strong bonds of friendship which have served all of these congregations well. Often times, our opinions or convictions may conflict, but there is always respect and love. In times of celebration and in times of tragedy, these congregations have stood with each other side by side.
In fact, when the Greater St. Stephens Baptist Church burned down, Rabbi Cohn reached out to Bishop Paul Morton and Senior Pastor Debra Morton and offered the Temple Sinai sanctuary as a … sanctuary!
I attended several of the services to see what it was like while the St. Stephens congregation was worshiping in my synagogue. Sitting in the back of that 1,100 seat-sanctuary (completely filled twice each Sunday while they were there), I was blown away by the full Gospel choir and the spirit. Whatever your faith, God was in that place, and I knew it.
That’s why interfaith and outreach programming matters. Because in times of triumph, and in times of trial, it enables us to be better neighbors and experience modern miracles … like when the trial becomes the triumph, and two communities can share one sacred space.
What has been your very best interfaith experience?