OY VEY! Why I'm dissatisfied with "Jewish theatre"
This seems like a strange topic so let me start with who I am. My name is Gary Hofman. I am an actor, director, producer, a student, a Jew and I also work on the Taurima Vibes team. I have become known as the "Jew with a View" and so it only seems fitting that the first blog that I write is about something very dear to me. Above all, the two things that give me the most life are Judaism and theatre. So why not talk about both?
Judaism and theatre. Two large concepts. Hard to define. Hard to place in a box. Combine the two and what do you get? Too much to handle. Judaism has traversed it’s religious meaning and become something so much more than what it was originally created to be. Jews come in different denominations, colours and variations of observance. Theatre is not just the end on performance to an audience that it used to be. Nonetheless, Jewish theatre is something that has been prevalent from early days.
We’ve have a bounty of “Jewish theatre” but why do I, a modern day, young(ish), Jew, feel dissatisfied with what we have? There are numerous answers – many of which I don’t have the time or patience to delve into, but I have thought this long and hard and I would like to, if I may, talk about the most prevalent reason in my mind – none of it feels relevant to me.
LThe golden goose of all Jewish theatre is Fiddler on the Roof. Winner of nine Tony Awards, this classic musical shows the story of Tevye and his family during the Pogroms of Russia. Historically an important event of Jewish history. On stage a timeless story of discrimination and coming together.
But something seems wrong. I have many criticisms of the show. For one, the famous wine bottle dance is in no way a Jewish custom but rather something invented for the purpose of entertainment. This can seem quite harmless but when I see people who are not exposed to my culture come out of a performance of Fiddler, I can only cringe. For, that then becomes the image of what Judaism is.
The schtetle life that is shown in Fiddler on the Roof is one that also gives me anxiety. I hate the idea of a minority group self-segregating or othering themselves. Rather, what I want to see is more exploration of intersectionality. Bring me gay Jews, feminist Jews, Jews of colour. Show me the diversity within the peoplehood, not the sad existence that we see here. Sure, this is how many Jewish villages were, but it is not how we are.
There are some great examples of, what I consider to be, amazing Jewish theatre that dives into the complexity of what it is to be a modern-day Jew. Take, for example, the Torch Song Trilogy. Written by Harvey Fierstein, it tells the story of Arnold Beckoff, a Jewish homosexual, drag queen, and torchsinger who lives in New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This play explores the complexity of identity. One thing does not define Arnold. He is at once many things and that is human.
So what is my point? I didn’t write with the intention of roasting Fiddler on the Roof. I do however, think it needs to be taken down from its pedestal as the corner stone of Jewish theatre for Jewish theatre can be so much more.