By Education Fellow Reva Frankel
Tomorrow brings the end of Black History Month. Most often when we discuss the Jewish connection to this month, we think of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel or other notable Jews involved in the civil rights movement. Rarely do we think back to those Jews, like so many southerners at the time, who owned slaves before the civil war, or the small number of enslaved African Americans who adopted the religion of their captors.
Mathew Lopez’s riveting play, The Whipping Man, explores the lives of these Jews—both enslavers and enslaved—and I had the chance to see it in Charlotte, where it will run through March 9th. The play is set in a dilapidated home in Richmond, Virginia, following the end of the Civil War. Caleb, a wounded Jewish Confederate soldier, returns home to find two former slaves there, Simon and John, who are also Jewish. They must rely on each other, while also figuring out how to relate to each other as equals.
The story itself is captivating, but the larger ideas discussed are what make this play simultaneously horrifying, fascinating and beautiful. The play deals directly with the conflict of Southern and Jewish identities by addressing the inconsistency of Jewish values and the way masters often treated their slaves. It also deals with loss of faith due to war. One thing I loved is that there are many frank discussions about what it means to be enslaved and what it means to be a Jewish slave with a Jewish master.
Just one small spoiler: there is a hilarious scene when all three characters try horse meat (which is not kosher) for the first time.
I highly recommend seeing this play. If you are in the South, you can see The Whipping Man currently in Norfolk, Virginia, through March 17th and in Atlanta March 8th–April 7th. Visit the playwright’s website to see all upcoming and current productions, and/or to buy the script.
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…
What do Yiddish-speaking chickens, screaming latkes, and a pig who really, really wants to be kosher have in common?
They’re all characters featured in Jewish Books Cooking, a children’s theater show that brings eight popular, contemporary children’s books to life with bright characters and catchy songs.
Jewish Books Cooking (JBC) is a project made possible by The Covenant Foundation. The show debuted earlier this year in New York City. Created and directed by Liz Swados, the New York production of Jewish Books Cooking was mounted at several venues around the city. This December, along with a new director, new music director, and new cast, the show is also going to have a whole new destination – the Deep South.
How does a show like JBC wind up traveling through the South? It happened how it always happens in show biz, baby: “ya know a guy.”
While preparing for the inaugural New York production, the staff at Covenant thought about how great it might be to bring a peppy show like this to smaller communities. They would need a director for the touring show, and an organizational partner with connections to smaller communities…
But they knew a guy – or, in this case, a gal – and they knew of just such an organization. So they made a few phone calls. They called me (because I’m a theater nerd who lives in Mississippi, and was lucky enough to intern with Covenant awhile back). They called the ISJL (since they’re an organization located in Mississippi, accustomed to partnering and delivering programming to smaller communities). They posed the question: what do you think about teaming up to bring JBC to Southern cities – smaller communities that aren’t always reached by this sort of performance?
Everyone was excited about the idea. I mean, who wouldn’t want to bring something totally different to Southern audiences … namely, a children’s show filled with moxie-rich Jewish stories, not to mention all the kooky, rapping, dancing, hilarious characters?
In short order we had actors, venues, and everything else the recipe called for to stir up a Southern helping of Jewish Books Cooking. Though a lot to wrangle, this has been a fun and rewarding process. The stories included in the show are all upbeat, sometimes poignant, sometimes zany, but never dull. The music gets stuck in your head for days — in a good way, as the entire cast can assure you. And even the craziest of the characters is charming and relate-able, especially as conveyed by our talented actors. (These guys are pros: they go from being rats to parrots to witches to fried foods, without batting an eye!)
Directing JBC has been a treat. But best of all, knowing that this show will travel around and delight audiences who might not see anything like it all year … well. It’s practically a theatrical Chanukah miracle.
Next week, this show hits the road, traveling to Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Memphis, and closes out right here in Jackson, Mississippi. The show is free, and the Southern touring production will be followed by a family program focused on exploring Jewish stories and sharing family bedtime rituals. The program was written and will be implemented by the ISJL Education Department staff – so it’ll be just as fun as the show itself.
Welllllllllll, maybe it’ll be more fun. I mean, the show is pretty hard to beat. Did I mention there’s a Yiddish-speaking chicken?
If JBC is coming to a city near you, find more info here and go check it out! In the meantime, tell us: what’s your favorite Jewish children’s story?