A father was saying goodbye to his daughter at the train station. She was going away, going away to be a grown up, but her father would always see her as his little girl. She was going far away, into difficult circumstances, facing many unknowns. Her father had responsibilities at home to the rest of his family, so she had to go alone. Their goodbye ran chills up my spine and filled my eyes with tears.
It could have been me on that train platform, in the uncomfortable quiet before the inevitable goodbye. It could have been a grown Emma, naively comforting me and assuring me it would all be okay. That’s what I saw in my mind’s eye. It was an incredible emotional connection I made at that train station.
But it wasn’t me. In fact, it wasn’t really a father and daughter. More than that, the train station was three feet off the ground, on a stage in front of me. I was watching 12, 13 and 14 year olds transform into adults. This emotionally effective moment came from a middle school performance of Fiddler on the Roof.
And, as I sat there, mesmerized and half-considering yelling out to Tevye to not let her go – as I sat there, in that moment, I realized that I had to admit how very wrong I was. Not for the consideration of giving Tevye very public parenting advice…had I seen this show one more time, I don’t know if I could hold that in.
I was wrong because when the middle school musical was announced, the majority of people involved were uber-excited. Jack, my middle schooler who this affected the most in our family, couldn’t wait. The director, a good friend of mine, told me Fiddler was one of his favorite shows and I later came to understand that he would only produce it with just the right group of kids. The excitement level among our friends who are parents of middle-schoolers seemed sky high. I’m now embarrassed to admit, my reaction could most accurately be described as “meh”. But that, you see, was my own fault, my own doing. I didn’t get it. I do now.
For many of you, the thought of any emotion at the unveiling of a school musical selection is whimsical, at best. However, I know many others of you live in a household similar to mine… the school musical isn’t just some light and airy “oh, isn’t that fun” kind of thing. In my home, the school musical takes over – we’ll be reading lines, listening to music, practicing choreography, diving into background material, searching for costuming pieces – for months and months. That’s to say nothing of the emotional investment in the rehearsal process – the time the kids spend together, the (hopefully) lifelong bonds they form, and the stories they tell us. So, the unveiling of the musical is not just some flighty and fun passing moment in our house. In our house, it’s an EVENT in capital letters.
When Fiddler was announced, my brain sunk deep into its recesses (not to suggest my brain is too deep, just that as shallow as it may be, it sunk to its deepest parts) and dusted off some memories and deep seated emotions… The memory that jumped to mind was watching Fiddler on the Roof on TV as a child, at maybe seven years old or so. I remember it as boring, frankly. I remember it all looked old. I remember people with funny accents and jokes that the adults laughed at but didn’t seem funny to me at all. I remember being bored…. And I remember my parents explaining how this was a movie about our people. My family’s ancestry – both sides -- is a direct line from Eastern European Judaism. I think they thought this fact would make me love the movie more when, in fact, it drove me further away. I didn’t want to be associated with this movie or the people in it or the stories they lived… (I may need to see Woody Allen’s therapist to really dig deep into this counter-intuitive reaction. But, I’m fairly sure, I’m not the lone Jew in modern day who felt this way. Maybe we could get a group session…)
When Fiddler was announced, I tried to get past my apathy and tried to get excited for Jack and all the other kids. I knew – in my heart, I knew – this is a show that people love. I have complete trust in the gentleman directing the show. He is an amazingly talented and caring guy, and his standards for what goes on that stage are incredibly high. I trust him... So, I knew there had to be redeeming value in this show. I just had to get past my own head trash.
We watched the movie with Jack. So, okay, it was much better than I remembered. I secretly cursed my parents for making me watch it as a seven year old – and then realized that Emma just watched it with us. She’s seven. Oops.
Over the next couple months, Jack came home with stories and tidbits from his rehearsals. It was clear that he had fallen in love with his part (Motel the Tailor) and the show. He’d regale me with the things he’d learned about Judaism in the early 1900’s. He’d retell stories of character development and symbolism and authentic dances. His excitement was palatable. And that helped me. But it didn’t get me over the hump.
In the weeks before the show, I happened upon IMDB’s Fiddler on the Roof page. As I commonly do, I wandered over to the “Quotes” section and started perusing. Tevye: As the good book says, when a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick. Hey – that really is clever. And I read more. Tevye: I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can't You choose someone else? As I read more and more, I came to appreciate how finessed this writing really was. How had I missed that before? Well, it is a classic, right? This brought on the much deserved self-imposed head slap as I uttered “duh” to myself.
When the show opened, I came to the theater with a much more open mind. And what I experienced watching this show, I still have a difficult time putting into words. I mean that literally. After the first show, I found my friend who had directed the show and I could not form the words to tell him what a profound impact the show had on me. Wordless. Me! Mark the time and date, as that was a first and might be the last time that happens to me.
The show opens in darkness, with the sound of live instruments tuning. Our show had musicians – live musicians! – who volunteered their time to play. We had teachers and teachers’ spouses and alumni and friends who volunteered their time – lots of their time – to come play for this show. And these people were no mere amateurs. They played beautifully and added an element of warmth to the production. How incredibly fortunate we are to have folks of this quality play for our kids’ show. It was magical.
The first vision on the stage was of the cast forming a semi-circle at the back, all dressed as Russian peasants from 1905 The Fiddler, perched on the roof of the little stage house, played the familiar Fiddler tune, and on walked Tevye. Our shows are all double cast, meaning there are two kids who play each role – when one is “on cast” (meaning playing the casted role), the other is in the ensemble in their “off cast” role. The first performance I attended was for Jack’s “on cast”. In this cast, Tevye was played by an eighth grader named Eli. I’ve known Eli for a number of years, and he’s a wonderful kid, always a smile on face. I’ve seen him act and even do some improvisation work. I knew he was talented.
But when Eli walked on that stage, he wasn’t Eli the smiling eighth grader playing Tevye. He was Tevye. The costume helped, but something inside Eli made that character come alive. His mannerisms, his accent, his relationship with the other characters, his relationship with God – he was Tevye. I lost myself watching his performance. Had you told me this was a professional production with kids who had been on stage since birth, I would not have blinked. Eli started the show – and then the rest of the cast came in – Golde, Tzeidel, Hodel, Chava, Perchik, Yente, Feyedka, Lazar and, yes, Motel came to life, too. We were transported back in time in a way I’ve never experienced.
It wasn’t just the lines that were spoken, although they were spoken well. It was the little moments. It was the reaction to the dialog. It was the very real relationships these kids had with each other, being given to us, the audience, as a gift. I watched Jack and one of the female cast members, a friend of his in real life, react to the news that their characters were being forced out of their town. Devastation. And I watched as they tried to silently comfort each other. The looks on their faces. The trust they had in each other. It was a small moment, hidden behind the main action happening at the front of the stage – but that little moment was so powerful for me. I felt what they felt. I was hurting because of their pain. And, yes, they are 12, 13 and 14 year olds on that stage. Think what you will, but it was a moment that will last in my memories forever.
The music became electric. This “old” show, in my mind at least, infected me with its musical charms. Jack performance of “Miracle of Miracles” became an earworm for me (here is the video if you’d like to see for yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YXBftynKOLw), but all of the music was unbelievably fantastic. I recognize that isn’t very descriptive for a writer to write “unbelievably fantastic” but I’ll remind you that I am at a loss for words…
That loss for words extends to what may amount to be my favorite moment ever that I've watched Jack on stage. If you think of musical theater as "compartments" -- the big three are "acting", "singing", and "dancing". Of those three, Jack has always felt least comfortable with the last one -- dancing. However, knowing that he wanted to be on that stage and not limited, he worked to overcome his lack of natural dance ability. He was so serious about it that he asked us to enroll him in ballet classes, which, by the way, helped him immensely! In Fiddler, Model and Tzeidel get married at a very traditional Eastern European Jewish wedding. And at this wedding, the men do a very traditional "Bottle Dance" where they balance an empty bottle of wine on their heads and dance until it falls. The dance they do is intricate and difficult. I thought, surely, we'd cut this from the staged version of the show. Nope. I watched Jack and some of his closest friends perform a stunning bottle dance, live, for seven performances of this show. The nauced performance they give gives me chills. To know the love this group of boys have for each other and to see their breathtaking achievement -- no words. This was the jaw-dropping, audience frenzy-inducing moment of the show. (Here is one performance, if you are interested in seeing it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oEL4J8bIu_Q)
After seeing the show for the first time, my head was spinning. How would a group of kids, not even in high school, give a performance like that? The answer is clearly – they bought into it, too. They fell in love with this show. I was starting to understand.
I had the pleasure of seeing the show again the next day, with the other cast. After what I had experienced the first night, I wasn’t sure what my expectations should have been, but, no surprise, the other cast knocked it out of the ball in the same way Jack’s cast had. It was different – but so engrossing and beautiful and tangible…. And again, my head was spun. These kids, most of whom I’ve known for years and seen do fine work in other shows – beyond “fine” actually…I’ve seen them do phenomenal work in other shows…. but in this show, they took it to a level beyond anything I could have comprehended before seeing it. Maybe the right word is “enchanting”.
After three shows from each cast, we were blessed with the opportunity to watch the staff and alumni of our school perform in one performance, with the kids providing the ensemble. It, too, was magical – and not just because Blythe performed the role of Grandma Tzeidel to perfection! I walked out of that last show as a convert. I had become a Fiddler fan!
As with all shows, the kids get incredibly close. However, there was something about the magic of this show that made even that different. When the shows were over, the emotions ran high. For our eighth graders, this was their last hurrah as a middle school performers. Seventh graders were being handed the leadership mantle. There were lots of tears and lots of laughs…and lots of hugs. They were a family, saying goodbye….like Tevye at the train station.
We’ve been so fortunate to have such an amazing “theater family” around us in all the shows the kids have been a part of the past few years. It shapes Blythe and I as much as it shapes them. We, too, have formed bonds that will, hopefully, last a lifetime. These shows are really special moments in our lives. I was worried that Fiddler wouldn’t be as special. Wow – how wrong I was… With that new mindset, I say “L’Chiam”!