Can an all-Mormon cast pull off ‘Fiddler on the Roof’? J. – The Jewish News of Northern California

Posted By on April 18, 2022

For the people involved in these productions and for many of the BYU students I spoke with this line about the messiah was particularly poignant, almost as though they saw their faith in Jesus shared by the Jewish characters they were playing. But for me, it was slightly uncomfortable to see them reading this Jewish cultural text through the lens of their own Christianity.

Christianity has a particularly delicate relationship to Judaism because it emerged from it Jesus was a Jew, after all. Historically, that process of emergence took place via supersessionism, the belief that Christianity overrode Jewish teachings and law, replacing them with something better. Add in a few thousand years of violent persecution, including forced conversion of Jews, and you have a pretty uneasy coexistence between the two traditions.

Today, theres a growing trend of Christians interested in Judaism, searching for connection and legitimacy through ancient practices, but its often still supersessionist. When Catholics hold seders, for example, they frequently reinterpret the traditional rituals and story to focus on Jesus, which most Jews find disrespectful and antisemitic. Its hard not to be suspicious that a similar impulse is at play when non-Jews see their traditions in Fiddler.

And though every Christian production of Fiddler I researched had made efforts toward authenticity, there were also cultural missteps. Drulinger, the Nebraska director, had consulted a local Torah Center, which he described as a place where Christians studied Jewish law; that center is connected to a controversial Messianic Jewish preacher, a place most Jews would not consider a reliable resource.

So when BYU stages Fiddler, is the production about Jews, Jesus, Latter-day Saints or something else entirely?

Justin Bawden, the actor playing Perchik, the shows revolutionary romantic interest, is sitting on the floor, paging through a bible, for a scene in which he tutors Tevyes youngest two daughters.

So you see, children, he says after recounting the parable of Jacob being tricked by Laban, the Bible clearly teaches us: You can never trust an employer.

As I watch, it occurs to me that he should be turning the pages of the prop bible the other way Hebrew is read left to right. I whisper as much to the director, who tells the actors. Bawden looks abashed and quickly flips the book around.

Is it OK to call it a bible? he asks earnestly. Isnt that Christian?

Westin Wright, a blond first year in athletic shorts and glasses, smiled sheepishly as he and five other ensemble members talked to me about what theyd learned about Judaism through putting on the show.

I wasnt clueless about Judaism and their practices, but I guess modern Judaism is what Im more ignorant about, he said. From both my Old Testament and New Testament studies Ive learned about ancient Judaism as it was practiced in Jerusalem in the time of Jesus Christ and the prophets prior to him, so thats where most of my knowledge has come from. I know practices have changed a lot since then.

Modern Judaism has, indeed, changed a lot, given that ancient Israelite practices revolved around a temple that no longer exists. But Latter-day Saint practices are deeply tied to the ancient Judaism Wright spoke of; the most holy events, such as the endowment ceremony where participants are anointed into the priesthood, among other things take place in temples conceptualized to mimic the ancient ones in Jerusalem. Many people I spoke to at BYU see baptism into the LDS church as an adoption into the covenant that Jews hold with God as the chosen people.

The original doctrine of the church, which was founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith, teaches that its members are descendants of two lost tribes of Israel, Manasseh and Ephraim. The Book of Mormon says that those tribes migrated to the Americas before Jesus time. (Today, Latter-day Saints believe they represent multiple tribes of Israel, and each member is told their tribe during a ceremony.)

When I chatted with Adam Dyer, the shows choreographer and a convert to LDS from Catholicism, he kept excitedly touching me on the forearm to emphasize the deep connection he feels to the people of Israel. Dyer repeatedly mentioned his excitement for the gathering of Israel, an event Latter-day Saints believe will happen before the second coming of Jesus in the end times, and asked at one point: How does that affect the people of China? What tribe of Israel are they?

This connection to Israel and the Hebrew Bible in many ways defined the birth of Smiths church. He founded it during a period of American Christian revival known as the Second Great Awakening, during which many Christian movements were seeking a sense of greater authenticity. Smith claimed his sect was the one true Church, positioning it as a restoration of original Christianity, which he said had been lost centuries ago in the Great Apostasy, a belief that the early Christians fell away from Jesus teachings.

Smiths church and other parallel movements, categorized as Restorationism or Christian Primitivism, see themselves as reviving a more ancient, and thus more authentic, form of Christianity, often looking to the time of Jesus for cues. Since Jesus was a Jew, many of these restored practices derive, at least in theory, from the Hebrew Bible.

For Latter-day Saints, the desire for authenticity manifests, in part, in a focus on temple practices, including garments often derogatorily called Mormon magic underwear that supposedly resemble the priestly garments described in Exodus. (Though they didnt have wicking fabrics back then.)

These practices give Latter-day Saints a sense of deep connection to Jews and Judaism. But for Jews, that connection can feel fetishistic and paternalistic, especially given the churchs emphasis on proselytizing. These contrasting perspectives have led to some offensive and unwelcome acts, such as Latter-day Saints posthumously baptizing Holocaust victims.

I know people who have felt persecuted by members of the Church of Jesus Christ, which is not our goal at all. But they just feel that way because theyre part of other religions, said one cast member, Gabrielle McCarter, 19, a sophomore in the music, theater and dance department.

They do have a lot in common with us, she said of practicing Jews, and even where we dont line up with our beliefs, theyre still amazing people with beautiful beliefs.

Its a Saturday night and Ive found a stool in ABGs, one of two grungy bars in downtown Provo, where Im perched over a lager. About a dozen grizzled older men are also nursing beers in the sparsely populated bar. As the night wears on, a few 20-somethings come in for a pitcher, but when I leave around midnight, there are still a lot of empty tables.

A cafe down the street, open late for a popular karaoke night, also serves alcohol, though the menu is kept behind the counter and is only available upon request; I dont see anyone with wine or beer in hand.

Yet lack of alcohol does not mean lack of nightlife. A country dancing venue on Center Street has a line down the block, and through its plate-glass windows I see some 200 people doing line dances; it seems to be a hot date night spot.

Outside a dry comedy club, a lively crowd has formed a line and theyre encouraging passersby to run down it for high-fives; on my way home, I slap a bunch of strangers hands to boisterous cheers.

Sometimes I forget theres an outside world, said Marion Pack, who grew up in Denver; her family traces its roots back to the earliest days of Mormonism.

Pack, who was playing Yente the matchmaker, was talking about Provo, where the LDS influence is dominant and obvious; the four commercial blocks of Center Street feature a bookstore with an entire wall of Latter-day Saint tomes as well as an imposing temple topped with a golden statue of the Angel Moroni. There are also a wide range of foreign cuisines on offer, appealing to palates expanded by years spent abroad as missionaries.

Experts estimate that some 90% of Provos 100,000 residents are Latter-day Saints. Its easy to grow up without meeting any other type of Christian, much less a Jew, making the Fiddler production an almost anthropological experience for cast and crew.

Though studies show that increasing numbers of millennial Latter-day Saints occasionally drink coffee or alcohol or otherwise bend the rules, Pack said she often forgets that not everyone observes in lockstep because at BYU, they pretty much do. It is the churchs flagship university, with astrict honor codethat forbids coffee, alcohol, extra-marital sex and even beards. Those who transgress risk expulsion. (The men in the Fiddler cast were given an artistic-expression exemption to grow beards for the show.)

I spoke to a few students who admitted skirting the rules for example, driving to Salt Lake City to go to bars where they wouldnt be recognized, or even just drinking coffee but they are extremely careful and paranoid about getting caught.

Despite the homogeneity of their environment or perhaps because of it most involved with the show saw similarities between its portrayal of Jewish practices and their own. The emphasis on marriage in Fiddler in particular was a focus of many of my conversations; within the church, marriage and family life are essential to attaining salvation and reaching the highest echelon of heaven in the church, so short courtships and young married couples are common in Utah.

A keen sense of historical persecution is also central to the LDS cultural identity, and to their sense of common ground with Jews; in the BYU art museum, a painting of beleaguered Jewish refugees arriving in New York Citys harbor hangs near a depiction of Mormon pioneers fleeing American cities.

The early saints in Missouri, they experienced very similar things burning their homes down, raping their women, Garner, one of the ensemble members, pointed out. The cast sees Fiddler as a parallel to our religious experience, and I think thats why its so popular with our audiences. Its a reason why we can sort of see ourselves in that situation, even if we dont authentically portray the Judaism.

Indeed, several other students echoed this sentiment. But others said they felt it inappropriate for LDS audiences to view Fiddler as a parable about their own persecution and maybe even inappropriate for them to put on the show at all.

Its a conversation that needs to be had, like is it OK for us to be doing this? said Spencer Fields, the shows earnest, bespectacled dramaturg. And were in it, were already doing it, so its a little uncomfy to be having that conversation now.

I meet Sage Patchin, who plays Hodl, at a hipster, crystal-filled cafe a bit outside of the towns main drag. She orders avocado toast without the avocado. (So, just toast? the barista asks.)

Im curious about Patchins experience as the only cast member who is not a church member, though she was raised in an LDS-dominated town in Idaho and has a lot of experience with the church. She chose to attend BYU after doing a summer theater program run by the university, but has struggled with feeling at home at the school. We speak for nearly three hours.

I didnt feel like I was effectively prepared to play my role, Patchin confides. I could do research on my own, but I only know what I know. Theres some things I didnt research right because I didnt know what I didnt know.

We had such a long rehearsal process, she adds. I think we shouldve done two weeks of table work. Being culturally informed affects everything.

The morning after a rehearsal that ended at 10 p.m., I chatted with the students playing Chava, Tevyes middle daughter; Fyedke, the Russian she marries; and Tevyes wife, Golde. They were chipper and I was gulping my contraband coffee as they explained how the play landed differently across the different generations in the church.

Theres this divide between people believing that this is a story about retaining tradition and people thinking its a way to buck it, said Nikole York, a double major in theater and womens studies from Las Vegas, who plays Golde.

The group said they see in Fiddler a parable of dynamics playing out in their church today: Their generation is pushing for more progressive stances on race and sexuality and womens status within the religion, while older members worry about their way of life slipping away in the face of modern pressures. And both generations see the show as endorsing their own position.

I think there are a lot of people in our community who are really digging their heels in to say, This is the way it has always been done and it cannot change. But it can, said York.

The tension between tradition and change is a pressing one within LDS, as in American Jewry. Sometimes that tension plays out in seemingly prosaic issues such asthe design and material used for temple garments women in the church have complained that the synthetic fabric and tight fit causes yeast infections. But there are also major theological debates over, for example,whether Adam, as the first man, is one and the same as God.

The church, still relatively young compared to other religions, has made some major changes; in 1978, for example, it began allowing Black people to become priestsafter previously teaching the racist beliefthat dark skin implied a divine curse. These days, Reddit forums like r/BYU and r/Mormonism are full of talk about whether the religion might someday fully acceptLGBTQpeople.

Many of the BYU students saw their hopes for a more open-minded and inclusive church in Tevyes eventual acceptance of his daughters untraditional choices. And they related deeply to the push and pull between tradition and progress that is so core to Fiddler clearly, each person I spoke to had personally struggled with the same questions and choices as the characters in the play.

In fact, the show maps so neatly onto the LDS church that one member of the theater faculty told me the departments professors often ask each other: When will someone write our Fiddler?

Fiddler director David Morgan, who bears a striking resemblance to a lean Bill Clinton, is watching rehearsal with his arms crossed. The cast is running a scene where members of Tevyes family enter and cross the stage, all talking at once.

It just died right there, Morgan complains, snapping his fingers and urging the actors to pick up the pace.

Why are you going over there? he asks one of the daughters.

The actress hazards a guess maybe her character is getting wood or doing a chore?

You just need a reason, Morgan says. Even if its just walking across the stage. You need to know why.

They run it again.

Morgan calls his directing philosophy minimalist.

I didnt want to put some concept over the top of it that would take away from just trusting the script, he explained. That script is going to say what it needs to say. My approach with actors is just to let how they feel about their character and how they feel about each other dictate their movements on stage. I want it to come out of them.

That means, he said, that early rehearsals were chaotic; he didnt tell actors where to stand or when to move or how to gesture, so they had to fumble through on their own. Once things come together, he said, this approach yields a more realistic, human show.

This was not the original conception for BYUs production. Megan Sanborn Jones, now the chair of the theater department, was originally slated to direct. She had wanted to experiment more with the political message of Fiddler, seeing parallels between the children in cages in the U.S. immigration system and the Jews at Auschwitz, and also considered having a few characters put on hijabs during the final number to reference Syrian refugees. But the pandemic delayed everything, Sanborn Jones was promoted to department chair, and Morgan took over, teaching the cast a very different relationship to the show.

Its not our job to interpret for the audience, York (Golde) told me. We can interpret for ourselves in how we play our characters, but all we can do is be honest within the characters were playing. When you have a live audience, it becomes a dialogue, understanding the energies that are in the space and responding to it.

Morgan, who described himself as a weird dude, is surprisingly blunt and risqu, at least by Provo standards. At one point, he referred in an offhand manner to the history in Mormonism of people getting married in polygamy and all this weird crap, and he often drew big laughs from his cast for using phrases such as go to hell and youve all worked your asses off the closest thing to swear words I heard over five days on campus.

He sees Fiddler as a show that pushes the boundaries of Provo life, just as he himself does in his own speech and mannerisms.

Most of the audiences here do not want to have to think about whether what theyre doing is right or wrong they want to be told, they want something didactic, they want a show thats going to tell them how to feel, he said. They like stuff thats pretty, they dont like things that are messy or dark or uncomfortable. And those are all the things that I like.

Of Fiddler, he said: I hope it challenges them. I hope that they look beyond, because theres a lot of close-mindedness here its hard to be here, and Ive been here 30 years.

When I asked why he has stayed so long, Morgan said he wants to ensure theres a home at BYU for the misfits struggling to navigate nuance within its often-rigid world. He thinks theater is where the black sheep flock, and he hopes to provide them a safe place to explore and challenge themselves.

It seems to be working: Playing Fyedke has been kind of a source of therapy for me, Bangerter told me. Its so hard to be trained in black and white thinking and then start to learn how I can not see it that way anymore.

I have a few free hours, so Im wandering through the BYU art museum, where theres an exhibit of French posters and another, titled Becoming America, that showcases landscapes and paintings of Mormon pioneers migrating west.

In the entrance hall, an imposing Carl Heinrich Bloch oil painting of Jesus caring for the ill takes up an entire wall. Next to it is a basket of pencil nubs and scraps of paper with a sign encouraging visitors to share how the painting affects them.

Numerous personal testimonies are tacked to the wall. Some describe feeling Jesus love as they look at the painting, others exhort whoever is reading to open their hearts to the messiah.

Jesus will save us all! proclaims one.

Peter Morgan, the productions Tevye and no relation to the director said his characters direct, conversational relationship with God is one of his favorite parts of Fiddler. They always have discourse. Theyre always talking and questioning, Morgan explained. His way of speaking to God is the way that I personally do a lot of people have told me Im too casual.

Morgan grew up in Boston, in a household where religion was a taboo topic. (Id read the Scripture under the sheets with a flashlight, he told me.) As a child, he, like Tevye, leaned towards the dogmatic. Now, he is pushing the churchs boundaries; an an openly gay man, Morgan is outspoken and critical about BYUs restrictive policies on sexuality.

Ive always been open to change I used to be totally homophobic and Im gay, Morgan told me. Im the friend who people come to in the middle of the night, suicidal, because theyre gay, because theyre having doubts about their religion.

Navigating the tension between queerness and the strict doctrines of BYU has been challenging. I joined the church in Boston and I loved it I felt like it helped me to be a good person and do good in the world, Morgan said. But then I came here and was immediately met with judgment and shame for just being me.

He said all of this casually, sitting in the middle of the rehearsal room as the rest of the cast streamed in. But being openly gay, and openly saying he hopes to marry a man someday within the church, is a big deal at BYU. The church does not recognize same-sex unions and condemns all extramarital sex as sinful, meaning acting on what the church terms same-sex attraction in any way is forbidden.

The attraction itself is not a sin but acting on it is, says the churchs LGBTQ+ resource web page.

The church currently allows gay people to receive blessings and even leadership roles in the church if they remain chaste. But it also holds that marriage between a man and a woman is essential to reaching the highest echelon of heaven, and so, at least tacitly, encourages gay LDS members to enter into heterosexual unions; some church resource sites even state this stance explicitly. (This is a change from the churchs earlier doctrine, which said queer peoples sexual orientation could and should be changed.)

Sage Patchin, the only student I met at BYU who is not a member of the LDS church she played Tevyes second daughter, Hodl said she struggled with the rigidity of the churchs stance on issues of identity in particular.

They teach things on exams like True or false, you wont get into the Celestial Kingdom if youre LGBTQ, she told me. And I have to say true even though thats something that I fundamentally, as a human being, disagree with.

For Peter Morgan, BYUs music, dance and theater department has been a haven from this kind of judgment. By contrast, he said, some professors in the commercial music department had made homophobic remarks to him and tried to censor his capstone project. (He wrote a musical about gay students at a Christian university.) But the music, dance and theater faculty were more supportive.

Theater departments are among the more progressive enclaves at many universities, so the students I spent time with are likely not representative of BYUs broader student body. Still, its worth noting that nearly every cast member I spoke with said that the churchs stance on LGBTQ people was their primary complaint. These students are devoted to the faith and the church, but see a difference between the will of God and cultural practices put in place by humans.

And they see this as exactly the distinction Tevye is trying to navigate; like them, he believes, human traditions can be easily discarded, but Gods will cannot. The trick is to find the line between the two.

Larsen, who described herself as really strong in my faith, said she was using her experience of playing Chava to help navigate real-life challenges.

It feels really timely to me playing this part because I have quite a few really close family and friends who have been recently deciding that they dont believe what their families believe or what they had been believing for a long time, she said. Getting to be in their shoes has been really significant for me.

Everyone in the cast has straggled into the rehearsal room, eating takeout and chattering, when the stage manager asks for an opening prayer. A tall guy in a Winnie the Pooh sweatshirt volunteers, and the others bow their heads.

Dear Heavenly Father, Pooh Bear Guy begins. He prays for the cast to work together, to act lovingly, to tell the story well and to be professional. There are no giggles or sidelong glances. No one looks up.

In the name of Jesus Christ we pray, he concludes.

You may have noticed, we pray over everything, Megan Sanborn Jones told me.

I had.

Every event I attended during my five days in Provo opened with a blessing, all extemporaneous. Some were flustered and giggly, some rambling, others basic and almost utilitarian. The topics were usually related to the event at hand, but not always; York (Golde) dedicated one rehearsals opening blessing to praying for the victims of human trafficking.

Frequent prayer reflects a key part of LDS theology a belief in a continuing process of revelation that gives each member of the religion access to a close, personal relationship with God. Its also why the cast members see themselves in Tevyes chats with God.

Dear God, did you have to send me news like that today of all days? Tevye groans upwardly at one point in the show. I know, I know we are the chosen people. But once in a while, cant you choose somebody else?

When the students talked about the changes they hoped to see in their church, this type of personal prayer played a big role in their own understanding of what to discard from the churchs teachings and what rules are truly Gods will. Just as they see Tevye praying to God for help deciding what to do about his daughters, they also pray to discern Gods will on LGBTQ+ relationships or womens roles.

This idea that culture and faith can be different things that the traditions and the culture that youve created are not necessarily tied into the faith, mused Larsen. Its really hard for people to separate that.

Many students said they use prayer to navigate when to criticize church dogma and when to obey it. But its a delicate balance, especially within a religion with strict rules delineating how to live, down to ones underwear.

There are still lines and there are still people who cross those lines, Garner told me. Its trying to determine whether those lines are doctrine like if they are the will of God or if they are practice, just something that humans have been doing for so long.

One afternoon at a theater departmental lunch a taco bar with pork and beans and assorted garnishes my vegetarianism inspires a lively debate over whether Joseph Smith, the churchs founder, endorsed eating meat. (Apparently, the answer hinges on the placement of a comma.)

Then Michael Kraczek, an associate professor, cuts through the chitchat over course schedules and Covid to ask me bluntly if I think the BYU production of Fiddler on the Roof is appropriative.

Should we be doing this? he wonders aloud.

I dont know the answer. Its a good question, I reply.

Given that Fiddler was meant to appeal widely, and make Judaism legible to non-Jews, restricting who can put it on would defeat that purpose. And historically, it hasnt been limited to Jewish casts; even in major Broadway revivals, Tevye has often been played by non-Jews.

On the other hand, the Jewish community now treasures the show, often using it to teach and reinforce identity. It feels intimate and personal, which makes having an entirely non-Jewish cast feel problematic especially when every actor is a member of a proselytizing Christian sect.

Nearly all Latter-day Saints are called as missionaries at some point, but in Fiddler, conversion is a tragedy. Fyedke who marries and converts middle daughter Chava is, at least in Tevyes eyes, a villain. But this particular parallel seemed to elude the cast.

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Can an all-Mormon cast pull off 'Fiddler on the Roof'? J. - The Jewish News of Northern California

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