As well as making the Jewish community susceptible to almost any form of prejudice, multiple affiliation also uniquely adapts it to survive. Blackface is essentialist, and monovocal; it is about buffoonishness, and other markers of low intellectual power. (Then again, though it is not for me to proscribe a reaction for another community, at this point in history, wearing blackface – as with any overt, over-determined, and framed act of anachronistic racism – is as more of a critique of the racism of the wider society than that of the oppressed community. Yet as evidenced by Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000), the gesture still smarts.) In contrast, notwithstanding all the Jewish cliches, Fiddler, as with many Jewish dramas, is actually about rejecting the Jewish status quo. Each of the four rejections in the play (Tevye’s three daughters, and then Tevye’s own forced rejection of his homeland) are valid historical responses to the question of how to live in a world where the rules -- both within the community and outside -- have to be resisted. And, like the Jewish joke about the two families on a desert island who maintained three shuls (one for one, one for the other, and one neither would be seen dead in), Jews have the possibility of diverse responses to diverse persecutions – a problem and a luxury denied to those nomos communities predicated on a single constituting factor.
Whether from temperament or ideology, there will always be those Jews who insist on insularity, on living as adults in an exclusively Jewish world. For such Jews, a non-Jewish Fiddler is a kind of invasion of sacred space, a trespass by the goyim onto the theatrical bimah. At the other side of the spectrum there are those who live as Jewish adults in the modern secular world trying to absorb, adapt, react to the advances of modern society. One could say this is the crucial struggle of our age, and not just in the Jewish community: we live in an age in which isolationist Christians and isolationist Muslims are pitting ever greater resources against one another in a battle of reactionary civilizations, using the technology of the secular culture they mutually despise to exclude and annihilate one another. More on this below.
Ironically, in the case of Fiddler, it was the secularizing portion of the Jewish community that was most vocally upset by the non-Jewish cast, because they saw it as an expropriation of Jewish culture. There was a sense that we had lost control of our cultural representation -- and this was especially important for those Jews for whom culture is primary.
And yet, cultures are expropriated all the time. To take but one obvious example, rock and roll, Elvis and Buddy Holly clearly took from the folk music that surrounded them which, for Elvis, did not come solely from his own ‘racial heritage.’ Yet if these two musicians had not celebrated/quoted/stolen the music they loved (q.v. Bob Dylan's recent album entitled "Love and Theft"), we would have ended up without The Beatles, among many others. It is only when a dominant culture expropriates either some claim to the authentic cultural expression of the first (as, to an extreme degree, the Nazis proposed), or the financial rewards that are properly due to the first (something that was true to some extent of Elvis and his less talented colleagues) that we have to ask questions of the powerful culture, or the mores of society as a whole.
Even the most remote rural corners of the globe are being dragged by their opportunity costs into the complex arenas of global politics and economics. Depending on the power hierarchies (i.e. whether the rural community in question is in Alabama or in Somalia) this has led to varying types of defensive isolationism. This is understandable but untenable, even in the mid-term. Yet how we will survive into the future, and who that “we” will be, is common to all groups, not least the Jews, and it’s a concern that’s shared across the spectrum of Jewish belief and practice. If we have confidence in our culture, our understanding of tradition, our use of history, then the more groups we can interest in rehearsing the ideas and the issues with which we, as a vibrant, living, people are grappling with, the better.
So yes, this Jewish drama is good for the Jews -- but not just the Jews. As with all relationships we need to build up trust, and that means finding out about one another. The more that different groups share their cultural perspectives and difficulties (and perversely the Israeli-Palestinian relationship may be our best hope for twenty-first century international relations because they have been forced to share the most perspectives despite the most hostile conditions) the more likely we are to have a deep and functionally diverse national and international community.
Sex is crucial. Not only as procreation to populate the planet and its various communities but, as Michel Foucault pointed out, as a primal desire that can be used by authority to keep itself in power. And anyone who has seen a Woody Allen film, or read a Philip Roth novel, knows that the dilemmas of day-to-day modern Jewish life and identity are inextricable from sex. Even given all that, the prominence of sex in the new crop of Jewishly-themed plays is striking. Perhaps this should not surprise us: Both Judaism and Jewishness seem critically invested in questions of libido, generativity, and of how and what to transmit.
The central organ of cultural transmission in Judaism is the family, and the way that the family comes together is through dictat or desire. Tevye’s daughters go the way they go because they are demonstrating the different accommodations that can be made between the dictat of father and Rabbi on the one hand and desire on the other. Unlike Tevye’s kitsch anguish, the cultural and religious obstacle course that the libido must navigate on the way to its goal is played for laughs in the two contemporary Jewish comedies in New York: Modern Orthodox -- played by an exclusively gentile cast (Jason Biggs, Jenn Harris, Molly Ringwald, Craig Bierko) and ending up with all four Jewish protagonists in bed with their Jewish partners -- and Jewtopia. In this they follow the Folksbiene’s Yiddish revival of A Novel Romance, but unlike Goldfaden’s hapless heroine of the late nineteenth century, our modern heroes have that mainstay of twenty-first century Jewish dating to guide them: JDate.
Neurotic Visionaries & Paranoid Jews
April 7, 2005
Jews on Stage
Out of Bounds
Messianic Troublemakers: Jewish Anarchism
Our 640 Back Pages
Zeek in Print
Spring 2005 issue now on sale!
From previous issues:
Three Jewish Books on Sadness
God's Unchanging Hand
Edward Weston and the "M" Word