Irving Berlin

By Amanda Stein

Irving Berlin, born in Tsarist Russia as Israel Baline, arrived at Ellis Island with his family in 1893 (Root). It was not until Berlin published his first song in 1907, titled “Marie from Sunny Italy” that he legally changed his name to Irving Berlin, a clear break from his religion and ethnicity (Sears 357). Many have described Berlin’s life as the classic “rags-to-riches” story that we all love to believe in. However, his life story is much more complex than simply labeling it as a rags-to-riches success story.

After being forced from his home by pogroms at the age of just five years old, Berlin still found himself living a difficult life on the lower east side of Manhattan. He began as a street singer and singing waiter, as well as working as a song plugger, before publishing his first song in 1907 (Sears). Of course, just four years later, the publication of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in 1911 earned Berlin international recognition, and remains one of Berlin’s best-known pieces today (Sears). At the age of only 23, Berlin, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, was an international sensation. But, we must ask ourselves why Berlin felt it necessary to change his name in the first place.

In an article by Charles Hamm, in which he analyzes the various stylistic changes in Berlin’s songs, Hamm pays close attention to societal changes that greatly influenced Berlin’s music. In 1917, increasing restrictions, including a literacy test, were put on new arrivals, attempting to limit the number of immigrants successfully entering the United States. Furthermore, the Immigration Act of 1921 essentially halted all immigration from Central Europe and the Mediterranean (Hamm). Additionally, as immigration into America from certain regions was being entirely thwarted, the Ku Klux Klan was gaining such popularity that by 1924, the membership of the white supremacist group totaled more than five million white men (Hamm). Many racial and ethnic minorities were regarded not only as inferior, but also unwanted. As tensions grew and reactions against non-white, racially inferior persons continued more and more aggressively, recent immigrants as well as first-generation Americans recognized the need to keep religious and cultural differences out of the public eye.

Similarly, Berlin and other songwriters acknowledged that with this societal shift, ethnic protagonists were no longer a desirable aspect of hit songs. In fact, Berlin wrote almost no songs after 1915 that reflected his own ethnicity or ethnic protagonists, both of which had characterized Berlin’s early work (Hamm). Instead, ballads filled with generic “Is” and “you’s” began to dominate Berlin’s songs, one example from 1914 being “I Love to Quarrel With You” (Hamm).

Many historians applaud Berlin’s knack for being “up-to-the-minute” with enduring themes that characterized America and American culture at the time of production (Kaskowitz). However, Berlin’s unwavering ability to connect each show with the issues of its time has also led historians to view Berlin as performing his American citizenship on stage in an effort to claim an American identity (Decker). One author went so far as to say that Berlin even let “useful” fictions, or those rumors that would effectively minimize any religious or ethnic affiliations to Berlin, stand in official documents so as to establish himself as strictly and undoubtedly American (Root).

Two of Berlin’s more famous songs were written well into his career, much after establishing his identity as an American songwriter. “God Bless America,” sang by radio star Kate Smith on November 10th, 1938, was originally written as the finale for a production called “Yip, Yip, Yaphank,” although Berlin decided not to include it.

Twenty years later after having forgotten about the song, Berlin provided Smith with a revised version. Many of us often forget that one of America’s most powerful and unifying songs was written as a “thank you” from an immigrant who wished to express his gratitude for a new chance at life (Kaskowitz, “’God Bless America’: 100 Years of an Immigrant’s Anthem). Moreover, “God Bless America” served as an outcry for tolerance in the face of Nazism, which was rapidly increasing in popularity in Europe by 1938. After Eleanor Roosevelt gave a speech denouncing bigotry as well as “Fear arising from intolerance,” Berlin led the crowd in singing “God Bless America,” a song that quickly came to signify the need for unity and tolerance of diversity. Unfortunately, as cultural rifts began to form in the mid 1960s, “God Bless America” was no longer a symbol of inclusivity and acceptance, but instead “became a symbol for a white, conservative worldview” (Kaskowitz, “’God Bless America’”). With immigration being such a controversial and politically-charged topic today, it is imperative to remember that “God Bless America” was written as, and should therefore always remain, a love song from an immigrant expressing his gratitude for being given another chance at life.

“God Bless America” was not the only song that expressed Berlin’s profound loyalty to America. The first introduction to “White Christmas,” which became known as a wartime song, came in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn (Smith). While Berlin has explained that “White Christmas” was not intended as a war song, the ability of Berlin to express emotions of so many soldiers far away from their families during the holiday season effectively established the quiet song as one of peace during wartime. Surprisingly, “White Christmas” may actually have been more popular than “God Bless America,” considering Billboard ranked the dreamy melody as the number two song of the 1940s. As author Kathleen Smith explained it, “Irving Berlin may truly have written the most popular song of all times” (Smith).

Berlin composed over 1,500 songs and scored dozens of musicals and films over his almost century-long career. While Irving Berlin’s life may have followed a rags-to-riches success story, the history of his songs and their connection to issues in America at the time make analyzing Berlin’s story more nuanced and complex. As tolerance for minority races and ethnicities declined, Berlin carefully crafted a new, Americanized identity for himself, which began with distancing himself from his very ethnic given name. Changing societal values as well as Berlin’s desire to be accepted as an assimilated American led him to publish some of America’s most poignant and popular music. Jerome Kern may have put it best when he claimed, “Berlin has no place in American music. HE IS AMERICAN MUSIC” (Sears).




by Jeffrey Magee; THE IRVING BERLIN READER by Benjamin Sears.” Theatre

Journal, vol. 64, no. 4, pp. 629–631.

Hamm, Charles. “Irving Berlin’s Early Songs As Biographical Documents.” The Musical

Quarterly, vol. 77, no. 1, 1993, pp. 10–34., doi:10.1093/mq/77.1.10.

Kaskowitz, Sheryl. “’God Bless America’: 100 Years of an Immigrant’s Anthem.” The New York

Times, 2 July 2018.

Kaskowitz, Sheryl. “Irving Berlin’s American Musical Theater by Jeffrey Magee.” American

Music, vol. 32, no. 4, 2014, pp. 477–480.

Root, Deane L. “Reviewed Work(s): As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin by Laurence

Bergreen.” Notes, vol. 48, no. 4, June 1992, pp. 1293–1294.

Sears, Ann. “Reviewed Work(s): Irving Berlin: American Troubadour by Edward Jablonski;

Spreadin’ Rhythm Around: Black Popular Songwriters, 1880-1930 by David A. Jasen and

Gene Jones.” American Music, vol. 17, no. 3, 1999, pp. 357–360.

Smith, Kathleen E. R. God Bless America: Tin Pan Alley Goes to War. The University Press of

Kentucky, 2003.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat: A Fresh Take on an Ancient Story

By Sam Layding

Joseph (played by Donny Osmond) wearing the namesake colored coat

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is a 1972 musical with music written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Music by Tim Rice, performed on Broadway for the first time in 1982 (Wikipedia). The show is based on the Biblical stories of Jacob’s son Joseph in Canaan, the namesake multicolored coat that Jacob gave him, his betrayal by his brothers, and his rise from being a slave to the Pharaoh’s Vizier in Egypt (Genesis 37-47).

The show was made into a movie in 1999 which stars Donny Osmond in the lead role as Joseph. Here’s a clip of two of the opening numbers from the film version, “Jacob and Sons” and “Joseph’s Coat”:

The pair of songs introduces Jacob’s family and establishes Jacob’s favoritism of Joseph, which leads to the somewhat tenuous relationship between Joseph and his brothers and their plot to sell him into slavery in Egypt later in Act I. Joseph is eventually reunited with them in Act II when famine brings them to Egypt to seek food, forcing them to unknowingly beg Joseph for food after he has become the second most powerful man in Egypt. Joseph decides to spend some time playing with their emotions before revealing himself to his brothers, forgiving them for their betrayal: “I shall now take them all for a ride; after all, they have tried fratricide” (Joseph, “The Brothers Come to Egypt”).



Joseph as the Vizier of Egypt in Act II

The story, shared by the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, and the Islamic Qur’an, is one that is fairly well-known in Western culture, if only for this show alone; in Eric Ziolkowski’s review of Loving Yusuf: Conceptual Travels from Present to Past by Mieke Bal, he writes that “today, of Americans familiar with the episode of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, more are likely to know it from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat than directly from Genesis” (Ziolkowski 625).

The way in which the show brings a deeply religious story to the stage through musical theater in a way that is accessible to an incredibly wide audience is noted in the book Playing God: The Bible on the Broadway Stage by Henry Bial, who observes how Rice’s strategy of “restating the biblical narrative in contemporary vernacular language… [lends itself to] humor and self-awareness” (Bial 180). Self-awareness through the breaking of the fourth wall by the narrator and references to contemporary culture, to name a few examples, leads to a show which is entertaining but does compromise on the religious solemnity of the story. Bial previously mentions in his book that “In its joyous communal affect, Joseph… can occasionally envelop the audience in a moment of transcendence, but they are unlikely to experience such a moment as spiritual” (Bial 170). This lack of spiritual awareness of the show’s content is a consequence of making it more accessible to a broad range of viewers, with an assumed precedent that  God is watching over the characters without explicitly making references to God nearly as often as happens in the original story.

Joseph and the Narrator consulting “the book,” the Bible, during “Go Go Go Joseph”

There are a few examples of this self-awareness throughout the show. First, the narrator clearly interacts with the audience and seems to understand that she is part of a play. In the opening number, “Prologue,” the narrator addresses the audience, saying “If by chance you are here for the night, then all I need is an hour or two to tell the tale of a dreamer like you” (Joseph, “Prologue”). In the first musical number with the whole company, our narrator opens with a clearly tongue-in-cheek setting: “Way, way back, many centuries ago, not long after the Bible began” (Joseph, “Jacob and Sons”). In a later song, “Go Go Go Joseph,” she admits her knowledge of the show’s future events by singing “we’ve read the book, and you come out on top,” an obvious allusion to this being a story from a literal sacred text (Joseph, “Go Go Go Joseph”).

Joseph (played by Donny Osmond) and Potiphar’s wife

Toward the end of Act I in the musical number “Potiphar,” we learn the story of how Joseph, now a slave and the leader of the household of a rich Egyptian man named Potiphar, is seduced by his master’s wife and subsequently jailed. During the song, the narrator reminds us in an aside that, despite the audience’s disbelief that these events really happened, “It’s all there in chapter thirty-nine of Genesis” (Joseph, “Potiphar”). In his book, The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible, Jonathan Kirsch writes how “a modern storyteller… makes [these forgotten stories] accessible to a readership that’s forgotten what’s in the Bible… [Webber] feels obliged to reassure us that he did not just make up the half-comical, half-erotic tale” (Kirsch 10).

Joseph and Pharaoh in a 2014 production of the show at Tuacahn Center for the Arts

In Act II, the character of the Pharaoh in several songs is a clear caricature of Elvis Presley, singing and dressing in a style very similar to the King of Rock & Roll. This can be interpreted as a stark contrast between the culture of Egypt and that of Joseph and his kin from Canaan, and more broadly as a clash between popular culture (Pharaoh’s eccentric style) and religion (Joseph and his brothers’ more conservative dress). Not unintentionally, Joseph’s character is able to bridge this cultural gap in the same way that a modern art form like the Broadway musical is able to bring an old religious story to an audience that may not necessarily subscribe to any of the beliefs expressed by the show.

Focusing on the adaptation of a traditional story using a diverse mix of modern music genres allowed Joseph to be incredibly successful and stand the test of time as a religious musical; in the book Andrew Lloyd Webber, author John Snelson tells us how “the way the work adapted pop culture… to a religious tale and with such a fresh sound was innovative. It was not a big stage musical, it was a direct piece of pop” (Snelson 61). By going through significant changes in its musical style in its early development, the show’s “rooting in a pop basis has enabled Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat to remain continually relevant” (Snelson 64). This show has proven to be a reliable staple of Western theater in the forty-six years since its premiere and delivers its classic Jewish story in a manner that appeals to almost any audience due to its family-friendly nature and fantastic mix of musical styles. Joseph helped establish the genre of religious Broadway shows including Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, both of which use similar techniques of adapting a traditional Biblical story through a modern lens and retelling.


Henry Bial, Playing God: The Bible on the Broadway Stage

Jonathan Kirsch, The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible.

Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

John Snelson, Andrew Lloyd Webber

Eric Ziolkowski, Reviewed Work: Loving Yusuf: Conceptual Travels from Present to Past by Mieke Bal

Wikipedia, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat


Pasek and Paul

Pasek and Paul: “On The Outside Always Looking In”  American Jews and Cultural Assimilation

 Josh Rashbaum

“Growing up as a Jew in America means growing up as an outsider. Otherness can be debilitating or it can be harnessed and used as an asset. It makes you an observer of culture, people, and behavior, and being forced to look at the world from the outside gives you a unique perspective from which to write about it.”  –Benj Pasek (Barnett) 



Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are the composing team known as Pasek and Paul responsible for the Broadway Musical hits A Christmas Story and Dear Evan Hansen. They won a Tony Award for the Best Original Score for Dear Evan Hansen  in 2012.  In addition to their Broadway Musicals, they won the Golden Globe and an Oscar for their songs “City of Angels” in La La Land and  “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman. Pasek and Paul met as students at the University of Michigan in 2006.(Paulsen)  Benj Pasek is Jewish and Justin Paul is Christian and this brings a unique perspective to their work. In 2012, Vanity Fair magazine called them, “The heirs to Rodgers and Hammerstein,” the duo who gave us Oklahoma, The Sound of Music, and The King and I. Pasek sums it up when he says, “We approach the world from really different perspectives — on what we see and how we view lots of situations  (Rule).”  These ideas lead the interfaith collaboration of Pasek and Paul to give us musicals that feature the universal ideas of family. Their creative work also highlight the notion of fitting in, a “close cousin” of the concept of assimilation, a theme that has consistently appeared in musicals and is clearly apparent in Pasek and Paul’s Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen.



(pictured above  Justin Paul (left) and Benj Pasek (right) just after accepting their academy award for Best Original Song)

 American Jews have “been on the outside looking in” for many generations.  As part of the Jewish experience, they have had to balance assimilation and maintaining identity, the same issues Evan Hansen conquers in Dear Evan Hansen.  As Evan struggles with his own sense of self, he sees the world around him as an outside observer.  Benj Pasek reflects, “The Musical is about finding your identity, about forgiveness and coming to terms with the lies others tell us…” (Musleah).   Since the time they fled from Europe, Jews in America have always had to deal with the sometimes difficult process of assimilation, its attractions, and the impact that it has had on defining Jews as individuals, and as a community.  

European American Jews struggled to maintain their own identity, while being the outsider.  Their “whiteness” enabled them to fit in and assimilate easier than some other ethnic groups, yet their Yiddish culture and religious beliefs still branded them as outsiders.   This idea of cultural assimilation and belonging has a rich tradition in the Broadway Musical. The Jews “worried they might be exposed as dark impostors by suspicious white Americans and forced into the dreaded category of the black oppressed”(Most).  The theater became an area where they could succeed and where they “fit in” and became members of the White American culture. Musical theater is an inclusive environment and Jews remain an integral part of the Broadway theater today. 

Tevye, from Fiddler On The Roof,  provides a classic example of a character that struggled with his desire to maintain tradition, yet assimilate his family into modernity.  Tevye ultimately yields some of his beliefs and ideologies to accept new standards and ways of thinking. He recognizes the importance of educating women including his daughters.  While he opposes, interfaith marriage, he ultimately realizes the importance of maintaining his family. “Tevye becomes the the personification of the Jewish immigrant and the universal grandfather of Jewish America” ( Wolitz 530). Tevye, while he may have been an outsider in his own community, realizes the importance of his family and the community of Annetevka to be accepted. His experiences mirrored millions of Jewish immigrants experiences in figuring out their own place in society. Continual revivals of Fiddler On The Roof prove the enduring nature of the theme of assimilation and belonging.

Newer Broadway shows with obvious Jewish twists like The Producers and Thirteen show us that Judaism has reached the mainstream of American culture.   The more recent show feature “decided Jewish content sometimes including religion, but more of an ethno-cultural nature (Baskind).”  These shows, including Dear Evan Hansen, feature references to Judaism, for example, a bar mitzvah, and do not require further explanation. The greater the number or references to Judaism, the more obvious it becomes that there is cultural assimilation, because they are taking for granted that they will be accepted.

In Dear Evan Hansen,  Evan, as a typical American teenager, battles with his sense of self, and sees the world as an outsider.  The circumstances that lead to his acceptance raise issues about how others’ view him, and reveal questions about his own family life and remaining true to his own identity.  Evan yearns for the normalcy he imagines everyone else is experiencing. “I never had the dad who stuck it out, No corny jokes or baseball gloves, No mom who just was there, ‘Cause mom was all that she had to be…(Levenson 154)”  Rationally, Evan comprehends his situation, yet, he still yearns for the normalcy as presented in social media by his peers. Constant media posts keep him feeling like an outsider. Evan realizes his feelings of isolation are more widespread,  when Cynthia, Connor’s mom, confides, “When Connor started seventh grade, all my girlfriends said, here comes Bar Mitzvah season. He is going to have a different party every Saturday……. He didn’t get invited to a single one (Levenson 85).” Feelings of isolations and the need to assimilate are the same for an individual and as they are for a group.

Pasek and Paul, as an interfaith collaboration team, are able to bring their unique perspective to present shows that are naturally focused on the questions of assimilating and finding a place within a society or culture.  By doing so, they tap into a perennial Broadway theme that has deep roots in the Jewish experience. At the same time, they have succeeded in capturing the modern audience by incorporating current issues into their work. If we are lucky maybe La La Land and The Greatest Showman will be their next collaboration to come to Broadway,  whatever their next show is, one thing we know for sure is it will be a HIT!!!!


Barnett, Molly. “Re: Lehigh Religion Final Paper Pasek and Paul.” Received by Josh Rashbaum, 27 Nov. 2018.

Baskind, Samantha. “The Fockerized Jew?: Questioning Jewishness as Cool in American Popular Entertainment.” Shofar, vol. 25, no. 4, 2007, pp. 3–17. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Most, Andrea. “‘We Know We Belong to the Land’: The Theatricality of Assimilation in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!” PMLA, vol. 113, no. 1, 1998, pp. 77–89. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Musleah, Rahel, and Arlene Mayer. “Music Man: A Talk With Benj Pasek.” Hadassah Magazine, 30 Oct. 2017,

Paulson, Michael. “What It’s Like to Make It in Showbiz With Your Best Friend.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 10 Nov. 2016,

Rule, Doug. “Perfectly Composed: Pasek and Paul Are the Future of the American Musical.” Metro Weekly, 13 Aug. 2015,

Wolitz, Seth L. “The Americanization of Tevye or Boarding the Jewish ‘Mayflower.’” American Quarterly, vol. 40, no. 4, 1988, pp. 514–536. JSTOR, JSTOR,


Fiddler on the Roof: Love’s Triumph over Tradition

Fiddler on the Roof: Love’s Triumph over Tradition

Marisa Ben-Yishay

The extremely popular and highly esteemed Broadway Musical, Fiddler on the Roof, is famously recognized for its overarching theme and focus on Jewish tradition. The plot line of this musical explores and dives deep into Jewish identity, customs and relationships. During this difficult time in history, Jews all over the world were marginalized and persecuted for being who they were. In order to withstand these circumstances and maintain their religion, Jews had to hold on tightly to their traditions and values no matter what obstacles were thrown their way. However, as times were changing, some individuals were beginning to question some aspects of tradition, specifically the process of arranged marriage. While Fiddler on the roof beautifully illustrates Jewish traditions, it also portrays the evolution of established beliefs.

Tevya, a milk man, husband, and father of six, living in the small Russian village of Anatevka, felt extremely strongly about tradition. In fact, he sang about it and emphasized its importance multiple times throughout the play through his famous song, “Tradition.” Tevya never truly understood why tradition was the way it was, however he knew it was something he had to follow, hold onto, and instill into his daughters. Surrounded by a village that felt the same appreciation for Judaism, Tevya’s daughters were raised in a world where tradition was prioritized and widely practiced around them. Therefore, Tevya did not expect his three eldest daughters to choose the life paths that they ultimately do in the musical. To his disbelief, Tzeitzel, Hodel, and Chava eventually conclude that there is an aspect of life that is stronger than tradition: love.

When Tzeitzel, Hodel, and Chava come to the point in their lives where the idea of marriage turns into a reality, the typical match maker style of pairing a couple begins to seem less enticing to the three girls. Tradition says that the papa chooses who his daughters marry and the town’s match maker, Yenta, assists in identifying eligible men. In an article that explores the evolution of marriage, written by University of San Diego’s highly educated and experienced professor Linda Barkacs, it is stated that “Nowhere, is the myth of marriage as an unchanging cultural monolith more exposed than in the popular musical Fiddler on The Roof” (39). The article goes on to identify and explore the three breaks of traditional marriage carried out by the three daughters in Fiddler on the Roof. At the time, their defiance of tradition seems outrageous, however the author argues that, “by today’s standards nearly all of perceived prohibitions (marriage restrictions) would be regarded as archaic, if not absurd.” (40). The point of the author’s argument is not to debate the right or wrong nature of arranged marriages, it intends to show how many marriage traditions have changed and evolved over time. Unfortunately for Tevya, as he strictly abides by tradition, his three daughters recognize that the world around Anatevka is changing and that some normalcies are beginning to become obsolete. Therefore, all three of them put up a determined fight when choosing who they want to be with.

The popular song, “Matchmaker,” sung by the three eldest daughters, marks the first sign of the three girl’s resistance to the match making system. The song begins with Hodel and Chava longing for the matchmaker to find them a husband. They dream of being handed off to a man to take care of them and provide them with love and companionship. However, Tzeitzel, the eldest sister, quickly chimes in to expose the two girl’s naivete. She laughs at her sister’s professions and mocks their desires. By the end of the song, the once optimistic and eager Chava sings “Matchmaker, matchmaker, you know that I’m still very young, please, take you time,” while Hodel sings, “Up to this minute I misunderstood, that I could get stuck for good.” It is clear that by exposing the true realities of the match making system, Tzeitzel has prompted her younger sisters to question and fear the matchmaking process entirely. Therefore, the girls end up very doubtful of tradition and long to find someone to marry on their own.

As seen in the Matchmaker scene, Tzeitzel is the first daughter to show her dissatisfaction with this process and take a stand against this tradition. Being that she is in love with her lifelong friend, Motel, and has made a pledge to marry him, Tzeitzel feels that it is her right to make this decision. She believes that her strong connection with Motel should be enough to get her papa’s approval and she does not care that he isn’t rich or “highly qualified.” In her eyes, their love for each other should be enough, and plus he is still of Jewish heritage. Having already set Tzeitzel up with a wealthy old butcher, Lazar, Tevya greets Tzetizel’s request with much dissent, however he ultimately concedes and grants Tzeitzel and Motel his approval. This moment in the play in a very transitional point as it is the first occurrence of Tevya breaking the rules of traditional marriage.

Next in line comes Hodel, Tevya’s second eldest daughter, who falls inlove with the very liberal and exotic, Perchik. In this play, Perchik is seen to break tradition time after time. First, he comes in and asks to educate Tevya’s daughters. At this time in history, women were meant to nurture their families and take care of the home, not to be educated or literate.  However, Tevya agrees to let Perchik teach his daughters. Shortly after, Perchik breaks tradition again when he asks Hodel to dance at Tzeitzel’s wedding. Women and men touching in this way was absolutely forbidden, however it doesn’t take long for Perchik to break Hodel and gain her love and respect. Not only do Hodel and Perchik end up getting married without arrangement, they inform Tevya that they are doing so, instead of asking for permission. While Tevya is very unsettled with this arrangement, he eventually accepts this union. When Perchik is arrested and imprisoned in a faraway land, Hodel goes off to accompany him and sings a farewell song, “Far From the Home I Love.” In this melody, she explains to Tevya why she must go and expresses her love for her home and the sadness she feels in leaving it. While this transition is not comforting to Tevya, he sends her off with love and support.

Lastly comes Chava, who is an even more unique case. Like her sisters, Chava wants to choose her own companion and avoid the match maker system. However, Chava crosses the line even more than her sisters when she finds love with a Russian, Fyedka. While Tzeitzel and Hodel do break tradition simply by not agreeing to the arranged marriage process, Chava does the unthinkable by adding Non-Jew into the situation. Tevya warns her many times to stop conversing with Fyedka in the village and forbids their communication entirely. Therefore, when Chava expresses her love and desire to marry Fyedka, he simply entertains none of it. Tevya quickly and certainly disapproves this marriage and leaves no opportunity for Chava to argue with him. When she decides to be with Fyedka anyway, Tevya dismisses her from the family and declares her dead. He mourns his daughter through his song “Chavaleh,” but he does not change his mind. While Tevya was able to make concessions for his other daughters, considering that their significant others were of the Jewish faith, he is unable to accept Chava’s complete betrayal of the traditions and values of which he raised her on. In an article written by Keren McGinity, the topic of Jewish women and interfaith marriages is explored in depth. McGinity states that, “Although a hundred years ago Jews who intermarried were viewed as having been lost to Judaism, today there is growing awareness that Jewish women who intermarry are more likely to raise their children as Jews.” Therefore, while Tevya’s concerns are warranted at the time, it is proven that interfaith marriage has not prompted a decline in the practice of Judaism, it has actually done the opposite. Jewish women who marry out of their faith tend to feel more in touch with their Jewish heritage as they know that it is in their hands to maintain it. Therefore, they feel empowered and desire even more strongly to pass their customs and religious values down to their children.

While the main theme of Fiddler on the Roof does appear to be tradition, it is apparent that tradition is not as clear cut as it seems to be in the beginning of the play. As the plot unfolds, and times begin to change in Anatevka, traditions are questioned and adjusted. Tevya, the main follower and advocate of tradition, is tested throughout this play and forced to change his views and standards. Therefore, while it may seem like tradition is the main theme of this play, in most cases, love ultimately triumphs. When choosing their husbands, the three girls choose love over tradition every time. Likewise, in two of the three cases, Tevya chooses to love his daughters anyway despite traditional norms. There is still a line for Tevya, which Chava crosses, but his strictness of tradition from the beginning of the play to the end changes drastically. Tevya too recognizes that the world around him is changing and that adjustments are going to have to be made in order to maintain relationships and values. Also, as the production of Fiddler on the Roof evolved and changed throughout the years, the plot was adjusted according to the time. As stated in the article Following Tradition: Folklore in the Disclosure of American Culture, in the later renditions of Fiddler, “American ideals of individual rights, progress, and freedom of association are assimilated into the Judaic tradition which is presented as a cultural tradition parallel to the American.” Therefore, while it is clear that tradition always sustained itself as the main theme of the play, it is also important to note how certain aspects had to be changed given the time of production. All in all, in all of the play’s various productions, Fiddler on the Roof portrays a wonderful representation of the evolution of tradition and triumph of love.

Caroline, or Change

Renee Reiner

Caroline, or Change is a 2003 musical that focuses on the life of the Gellman family and their maid, Caroline. The Gellman’s, particularly Rose and Noah, interact with Caroline throughout the musical; their relationships with one another form throughout the musical. It is interesting to focus on these interactions, as the Gellman’s come from a Jewish, white background while Caroline is a black Christian. As the plot progresses in Caroline, or Change, it can be seen that the Gellman’s, particularly their Jewish tradition, influences Caroline. Also, Caroline’s background influences the Gellman’s. So, Judaism and Jewish tradition can influence people from other backgrounds and be influenced by those backgrounds to hopefully become accepted.

Judaism is known to influence those from other backgrounds. Due to the three sects within Judaism, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform, people from various backgrounds can find something to relate to. “Jews today can choose from a spectrum of religious ways of Jewish living from ultra-orthodoxy to creative innovation to atheistic Jewish religion. American Jews can find secular ways of expressing their identity, cultural forms of Jewish living, and purely individual and idiosyncratic forms of being Jewish” (Hartman 2006). Jewish identity can be expressed in various forms, causing the religion to be more relatable. For example, people choose to convert to Judaism and influence their religious identity with their ethnic identity. “…different ethnic identities [have] becom[e] co-joined with Judaism, somewhat similar to Italian Catholics, and Irish Catholics… The many possibilities for ethnic/religious fusion or separation or recombination have grown as Jews have been accepted more fully into “diaspora” countries and nation states…” (Hartman 2006). Judaism has become more recognized now that it has spread to other countries, allowing non-Jews to be influenced by its culture and tradition.

Daniel Itzkovitz, an author who explores the relationships between Jews and African Americans, looks closely at how Jews can influence those from other religions. He sees Jews, “…to be the ‘type O negative’ of ethno-racial groups, able to enter the bloodstream of any group and exist there in culturally meaningful ways” (Itzkovitz 2005). Judaism is filled with unique character and history, and many aspects of it seem familiar, allowing those from other groups, such as African Americans, to relate to it (Itzkovitz 2005). Judaism’s culture, which consists of family, food, and tradition, can easily influence others and mesh with different people and cultures.

One main aspect of Judaism and Jewish tradition that has impacted those from other cultures is the food. Jews take pride in their various Jewish dishes such as matzo ball soup, brisket, and stuffed cabbage. The Gellman’s are constantly cooking and eating this type of food, so Caroline has been directly exposed to it. Caroline’s exposure is noticed in the Chanukah scene, where Caroline and two other women are prepping the Chanukah meal. As they are cooking latkes Caroline says, “If you don’t fry em right away they start turning gray” (83). Working for the Gellman’s allowed Caroline to understand Jewish customs because she learned how to cook latkes, a staple Jewish food. So, even though Caroline is not making latkes on her own at home with her children, she is still impacted by Jewish tradition and food because she is able to make latkes for the Gellman’s.

Jews have also always wanted to be seen in a positive light and accepted by those from other backgrounds; this notion can be traced back to the nineteenth century south. When Jews from the south spoke with southerners from other backgrounds, ““They claimed to be descended from the noble and aristocratic Jews of Spain and Portugal, the Sephardim, when in fact very few actually were. This status, they hoped, would allow them to gain acceptance among their non-Jewish peers as ‘southern gentlemen’” (Peck 1987). Jews hoped to gain respect from their non-Jewish neighbors, and felt like the way to do so was to speak about their background. Throughout Caroline, or Change, Rose wants Caroline to accept her and see her as a friend. To start this friendship, Rose thought it would be best to try to help Caroline with her finances by offering her money. “So I guess Mr. Gellman has to learn the rule: he loses any change he leaves and you can keep it, just like Noah’s, you can keep it…”(75). Rose thinks that she is doing Caroline a favor when in reality, this upsets Caroline. “I don’t want it! I ain’t some ragpick. Ain’t some jackdaw” (75). Caroline works for Rose and is considered below Rose because she is Caroline’s boss, yet Rose wants Caroline to accept her, just like the Jews of Spain wanted to be accepted by their non-Jewish peers.


Rose continues to want Caroline to accept her. The director decides to portray Rose as someone who acts like a Jewish mother, a typical Jewish stereotype. Jewish mothers are characterized, “…as vulgar, overbearing, and grotesque, and all too close at hand…In countless greeting cards she appears as a bulk matron…shrill and demanding, proffering not love but greed, not a nourishing plenitude, but oral suffocation (“eat! eat!”) (Zemel 2015). Although Rose does not demonstrate all of these characteristics, she is constantly overbearing when talking with Caroline and constantly demands that Caroline bring home food. “Caroline, there’s extra food: Sweet stuffed cabbage, cooked with brisket. It’s nutritious! Iron! Vegetables! Bring it to your kids” (19). Caroline responds saying, “I can’t use none, Mrs. Gellman, my kinds don’t like it, turn they noses up. The smell…” (19). Rose answers again, “Tell them cabbage is good for them! Make them eat what’s good for them! They’ll get used to the smell…Cabbage boiled, iron beets, it makes them strong, children should be strong, and BIG!” (20). Although Caroline does not start to act like a Jewish mother, she is exposed to Judaism and the classic Jewish mother stereotype by interacting with Rose who insists on Caroline bringing home food. Rose also uses Yiddish words when describing Caroline and her state, indirectly influencing her by showing how Judaism and Caroline do work together. “The Negro maid, she’s making bupkes, how does that look, leaving change in his pockets?” (26). The word bupkes is Yiddish, and figuratively it means having nothing. Instead of telling her father that Caroline makes nothing, she uses the Yiddish word for nothing, weaving Judaism into her thoughts on Caroline’s financial status.

It is clear that the Gellman family has influenced Caroline-they have introduced her to Jewish cooking and have showed her what it means to be a Jewish mother. Although the Gellman family has impacted Caroline, she has agency within the text and is able to influence them as well. Noah is particularly impacted by her. He constantly speaks highly of her, saying, “Caroline is king and Caroline is queen and Caroline is stronger than my dad; it isn’t true, she doesn’t hate it, she’s a lot stronger, stronger than you” (37). In Noah’s mind, Caroline is greater than everyone, even his own dad. His admiration for Caroline becomes more apparent when he purposefully leaves coins in his pocket so that Caroline can talk about him at home with her own family. “That night I leave a dime and nickel in my pants pocket to see what will happen; Caroline finds them” (53). Noah goes out of his way to leave change in his pocket; he is desperate to be talked about in Caroline’s home. Caroline’s ability to impact Noah stems from her personality. She is strong-willed and works hard and Noah is able to sense that. Caroline is also able to influence Noah due to how similar it is to be black and to be Jewish; they are both minority groups with similar social and community contexts. It can be argued that, “…blackness-and especially an appropriation of a black-identified language-becomes a way to be ‘more Jewish’ by providing a New World context for social critique, community, and an understanding of suffering and the ‘human condition’ both social and metaphysical” (Boyarin). Blacks can understand the pain Jews have gone through and can relate to them since they both have a minority status. Although Noah does not explicitly states that Caroline is a relatable character due to the color of her skin, he feels comfortable around her and inspired by her.

Caroline, or Change is more than just a musical about a maid and the family she works for. It is filled with Jewish influences, Black influences, and the relationship between these two minority groups.


Hartman, H., & Kaufman, D. (2006). Decentering the study of jewish identity: opening the dialogue with other religious groups. Sociology of Religion67(4), 365-385.

Zemel, C. (2015). Difference in diaspora: the yiddishe mama, the jewish mother, the jewish princess, and their men. Looking Jewish (104-136). Indiana University Press.

Peck, A. J. (1987). The other “peculiar institution”: jews and judaism in the nineteenth century south. Modern Judaism7(1), 99-114.

Itzkovitz, D. (2005). Race and jews in america: an introduction. Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, 23(4), 1-8.

Boyarin, J. & Boyarin, D. (1997). Jews and Other Differences. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Barbra Streisand – Funny Girl

Barbra Streisand

By: Ariella Silverstein

Funny Girl, a musical drama, presents a story of a young woman, Fanny Brice who is starting her career on the Broadway stage in New York City. Fanny, played by Barbra Streisand, is portrayed as an eccentric, vibrant, and strong-minded woman who will not stop until she achieves what she has set her mind out to do. As discussed in The Way She is: Barbra Streisand’s Career, “Funny Girl is the story of how a little Jewish girl from the Lower East Side in awe of Broadway glamor made herself the most glamorous star of all…” (Vineberg) Funny Girl reveals the struggle to stardom for a woman and shows how difficult it can be let alone as a woman, but as a Jewish woman who does not have the typical Broadway type features. Thus, throughout the Musical, Fanny faced a lot of criticism both on and off stage, including that she was too Brooklyn, too Broadway, too Jewish, too special, too eccentric and too unattractive. This criticism caused her to be extremely hesitant at first in taking the stage. In one of her first numbers on stage, ‘I’d Rather Be Blue’, it can be seen how she starts off hiding her face, not very comfortable in her own skin, while singing very softly and in a reserved manner. She eventually seems much more comfortable on the stage when she realizes that she can be her funny, quirky self and that people receive that well.

Streisand was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1942 with a strong and influential Jewish upbringing due her grandfather being a cantor as well as her father being very religious. She attended a jewish day school, Yeshiva University for a few years before transferring to Erasmus High School. However, despite this upbringing, Streisand did not consider herself to be religious in the slightest way. Nevertheless, she was still an influencer for many Jewish actresses to come despite her personal relationship and feelings towards religion. This ties to today’s times where many people identify as being culturally Jewish but not completely religious. Streisand is quoted discussing her Jewishness as a cultural phenomenon rather than a solely religious entity which is an extremely prevalent mindset both then and in today’s day and age.St reisand faced many struggles in her coming to fame while she was pursuing her career in Manhattan. She was often told that she was not pretty enough or was “too special”.

Critics and fans alike agree that Barbra Streisand was the perfect woman to be cast as Fanny Brice. They are both unapologetically themselves no matter where they are. Like Fanny, Barbra received much criticism towards her looks, personality, style, and how she presented herself both on and off stage. Funny Girl came out in 1968 when civil rights were being challenged as well as women’s rights. Funny Girl as well as Barbra Streisand worked hard to challenge many common practices for women at the time. The song in Funny Girl entitled “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty”, delves into just that. Both Barbra and the character of Fanny Brice were deemed not pretty enough to be in a chorus line, on stage, or any theatrical place. In the article Stars by Gary Carey, he discusses how Streisand’s personal and professional  life bore many similarities to those of Fanny Brice. “ Miss Streisand, like Fanny Brice in her time, has had much play with her ugly-duckling image. Streisand, however-and this was also true of Miss Brice-may be basically sort of ugly, but she is endowed with innate elegance and has acquired an imposing chic that has made her, if not beautiful, a handsome woman.” (Carey)

Like many Jewish stars at the time, Streisand fought Jewish stereotypes of all kind. In the Journal entitled “Cutting Off Your nose to Spite Your Race”: Jewish Stereotypes, Media Images, Cultural Hybridity, Bernice Schrank discusses how these stereotypes affected women in the spotlight of stardom. He discusses how nose jobs had become so standardized in Hollywood both in Jewish and non-Jewish actresses. He believes that by blending in with the culture and standards of how women were told to look, Jewish women had their Jewish identities erased. However, unlike most Jewish women on Broadway at the time, Streisand never got a nose job. “The Streisand nose epitomizes the stereotype, yet Streisand has never felt the need to deconstruct her ethnicity. Indeed, her theatrical and film persona depends on it.” (shrank 36) However, unlike Jewish women who did not get a nose job like Streisand, did not get a nose job and were stuck throughout their entire career being cast under strictly Jewish roles, Streisand stood out. Schrank compares Barbra Streisand to Fanny Brice, who did get a nose job, and how getting one did not necessarily make her rise to stardom quicker, easier, or more successful than Streisand. “Streisand’s Jewish roles show a range that Brice’s never did. Nor has Streisand been limited to Jewish roles.” (Schrank 36) This shows how Streisand standing her ground and not getting the nose job that many producers, directors and colleagues urged her to, actually worked in her favor and became a part of who she is and what she stands for. “Notwithstanding, Streisand is able plausibly to stretch ethnic boundaries to fit the contours of her secular, non-Jewish women roles” (Schrank 37)

Streisand has always been known for being one of the few Jewish stars who refused a nose job. In an article from The Times of Israel, they discuss how Streisand was often put down and told that her nose would  a downfall in her career. “Streisand was told she had no hope of succeeding in Hollywood unless she had a nose job.” However, despite the critics, producers, and stigmas standing in her way, Streisand prevailed. “Streisand skillfully turned the stigma of her awkward looks and “Jewish” appearance into a powerful message of acceptance, making  her a voice for the marginalized that defined her career that has spanned six decades”. The Times of Israel discusses how rather than allowing the physical features that she was born with hold her back, she embraced them and allowed her to be a symbol of change in the societal and cultural norms that existed in Hollywood. Not all women who were bullied for how they looked or how they acted would be strong enough to push past all of the hate and make their dreams come true. Streisand showed strength, courage, and perseverance by letting the criticism fuel her fire, rather than bring her down. “Yet that tough upbringing only fueled her desire to leave the borough and make it big in Hollywood, she said.”  In an interview posted below, Streisand discusses her reasons for not getting a nose job, and how that decision ultimately affected her.

Streisand’s struggles as a Jewish woman in the entertainment business reached far beyond her Jewish looking nose. As Stacy Wolf discusses in her article Barbra’s ‘Funny Girl’ Body, Streisand had to overcome many critics that disliked her jewishness. Her marked portrayal of Jewishness in body (her nose), voice (frequent yiddishisms), and behavior (aggressiveness) run counter to the ideal of “The Feminine” in American culture.” (Wolf) She goes on to discuss how these Jewish features and character traits, although hindered her at first, eventually helped her define herself in the world of Broadway and pave the path for an infinite number of Jewish stars to come. “Streisand, as a singer, stage actor, film actor, director, and “person” redefines the very meaning of celebrity and produces a new category of representation of Jewish women that is, simply, complexly, tautologically “Barbra.””. (Wolf)

Both Streisand showed her true colors and allowed herself to shine by playing the role of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. From her first moments on stage saying “hello gorgeous?” into a mirror, throughout the entire production, she presented herself with grace and poise, making her a true star. Streisand has and continues to be an inspiration for Jewish woman across the world, whether they are performers, peers, or just Jewish children growing up and struggling to fit in and find their place.


Vineberg, Steve. “The Way She Is: Barbra Streisand’s Career.” The Threepenny Review, no. 31, 1987, pp. 12–15. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Schrank, Bernice. “‘Cutting Off Your Nose to Spite Your Race’: Jewish Stereotypes, Media Images, Cultural Hybridity.” Shofar, vol. 25, no. 4, 2007, pp. 18–42. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Boyarin, Daniel, et al., editors. Queer Theory and the Jewish Question. Columbia University Press, 2003. JSTOR,

Carey, Gary. “Stars.” Members Newsletter (Museum of Modern Art), no. 2, 1968, pp. 9–10. JSTOR, JSTOR,


Harnick and Bock’s Collaboration in Fiddler on the Roof

The musical Fiddler on the Roof, which details the life of a Jewish family living in the Pale Settlement of Imperial Russia, is one of the most recognizable names in Broadway show history. First performed in 1964, the show attained international success and was the first musical to be performed over three thousand times. The musical dominated the 1965 Tony Awards and the 1971 film was nominated for an impressive 8 Oscars, winning three including best score.

The show succeeded for many reasons; the characters were relatable (and loveable), the topic matter was interesting, and the show’s plot was dynamic. But perhaps the most intriguing part of the show was its combination of music and lyrics. The show’s lyricist Jerry Bock and composer Sheldon Harnick collaborated to create amazing and memorable songs. The unique combination of Bock’s dynamic music and Harnick’s complex lyrics enabled the songs’ melodies and rhythms to incorporate the character’s cultural backgrounds while simultaneously giving further insight into the character’s communities and lives. This musical synergism served to further develop the narrative of the show.

(Click below to play “Tradition” the opening song of Fiddler on the Roof)

The show begins with a famous number called Tradition sung by the show’s main character, Tevye. It outlines what life is like in the small Jewish village of Anatevka and sets up a central theme of the show: staying true to tradition without question. The song’s melody changes throughout based on which group of characters is singing. Each major group, the papas, mamas, sons, and daughters are all given a chance to sing about their lives and the background music changes accordingly. However, the song always rebounds back to the same central tune providing unification and balance. The song’s central melody is unmistakably Jewish; as explained by Phillip Lambert in his examination of Bock’s melodic choice: “The chord progression found in Bocks’ creation, rocking back and forth between G minor and C major harmonies. Such resemblances help amass a rich essence of Russian-Jewish musical sensibility” (Lambert 168). The song’s off-key tune has flavors of Yiddish melodies and reflects the culture of the villagers of the time in which the story is set.

When creating the show’s music Bock cited two major sources of inspiration. His first source of inspiration came from recordings of early 1900’s Jewish Folk music. When describing these sources of inspiration Bock explains, “melodies were borrowed from traditional Jewish music […] and set in contemporary fashion”. This modern spin on classic Jewish tunes is discussed in The Americanization of Tevye; “the Western/American elements comingle to create a ‘Jewish-American’ sound” (Wolitz 531). His second source of inspiration was Yiddish songs sung to him as a child by his grandmother. Knowing these two sources of inspiration is important for understanding how authentic and culturally accurate the melody of Tradition and the rest of Fiddler’s songs were. Bock’s decision to have the music accurately reflect the culture of the villagers at that time allows the show’s songs to more effectively set up the play’s setting and empathize with the villagers, thus furthering the narrative of the show.

Not only does the music itself incorporate the village’s culture, but the song’s lyrics also play an active role in explaining what life in the village is like. The song is central to setting up the play’s plot, each group explains what their role in the village is but more importantly, how tradition keeps them all “balanced”. This is crucial to the plot’s development for two main reasons. First, each group can very clearly outline what their role in the village is. This enables the audience to quickly understand the relationship between all parties involved in village life. Secondly, the song sets up the show’s major theme, the struggle between old and new and their changing relationship with tradition. The song’s importance was explained by Harnick on an NPR Fresh Air segment:

“what you have to write is a number about traditions, because we’re going to see those traditions change. And that’s so important in the show. Every scene or every other scene will be about whether a tradition changes or whether a tradition remains the same. So instead of a song with the mother and the daughters getting ready for the Sabbath, he wanted us to write a song about tradition because he thought that’s what the show was really about” (Fiddler lyricist tells his story NPR Fresh Air April 30th 2014)

Harnick’s remarks on NPR give great insight into how Harnick and Bock viewed their songs within the context of the show itself and further emphasizes how their songs were used to develop the show’s story.

(Sheldon Harnick (right) with the late Jerry Bock (leftare shown above. Click here for a link to Harnick’s NPR interview)

In the late 1950s and early 1960s when the show was written it was common for songs within musicals to be somewhat superficial. Songs within musicals did not necessarily play a central role in a show’s plot development. Songs more regularly served as frills added to the play to entertain the audience. However, Bock and Harnick had a very different attitude towards the songs they created. They believed that every song they wrote and composed should play a role in driving the narrative of the show. As explained by Alisa Solomon, “They [Harnick and Bock] concurred on a core principle: that songs served the show and shouldn’t be written as stand-alone commodities” (Solomon 97). By understanding Bock and Harnick’s attitude towards their music, one can better understand how important the song’s lyrics and melodies were to driving the development of the show’s plot.

(Click below to play “Matchmaker” the song Sung By tevye’s daughters from Fiddler on the Roof)

          The use of songs to further develop the show’s plot is further emphasized by the song Matchmaker. The song is sung by Tevye’s daughters together when they’re doing chores outside their house. The song explains the role of the matchmaker in the village and the general process of matching a man and wife. The lyrics further explain that this process is generally seen as a happy affair but it is not always the case. Although it’s done in a humorous way, the song illuminates that tradition demands one must accept the matchmaker’s recommendation, no matter one’s own personal feelings. As sung by Tzeitel, “Have I made a match for you, he’s handsome, he’s young! All right, he’s sixty-two” (Stein 18). Tzeitel goes on to explain that none of the daughters should await their matches with too much anticipation as they are from a poor family and that “Whatever Yentel [matchmaker] brings, you’ll take” (Stein 18). Eric Goldstein explains the somewhat veiled and transactional nature of the matchmaking process: “most matchmakers (shadklonim) […] concluded deals and marketed prospective brides and grooms in the same way others negotiated business transactions” (Goldstein 62). Without this song, the entire matchmaking process might only be seen as a positive experience. Without this song, the audience would not understand the angst with which Tevye’s daughters entered into this process. Thus, Matchmakers’ lyrics, just like those of Tradition, play a crucial role in further developing the narrative of the show.


The songs within Fiddler on the Roof play a central role in the development of the story and advancement of the show’s narrative. Lyricist Sheldon Harnick and composer Jerry Bock utilized their unique skills to create songs in Fiddler on the Roof whose melodies accurately reflected the culture of the show’s subjects and lyrics built upon the show’s dialogue to further expand the show’s plot. This extraordinary combination created just one more aspect of Fiddler that propelled the show to international success and a place in Broadway history.


Bock, Jerry, et al. Fiddler on the Roof. Crown Publishers, 2014.

Goldstein, Eric L. “Beyond the ‘Shtetl’: Small-Town Family Networks and the Social History of Lithuanian Jews.” Jewish Social Studies, Volume 24, 1 Nov. 2018. Project Muse.

Gross, Terry. “At 90, ‘Fiddler’ Lyricist Tells His Story.” Fresh Air, National Public Radio, 30 Apr.2014.

Lambert, Philip. To Broadway, to Life!: the Musical Theater of Bock and Harnick. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Solomon, Alisa. Wonder of Wonders: a Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof. Picador, 2014.

Wolitz, Seth L. “The Americanization of Tevye or Boarding the Jewish ‘Mayflower.’” American Quarterly, vol. 40, no. 4, 1988, p. 514., doi:10.2307/2713000.

Jerome Robbins

Jerome Robbins

By Kevin Graff

Often described as an American creative genius, Jerome Robbins was a famous director, choreographer, and producer that helped to shape Broadway into what is is today. Robbins was born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. At the time, the Lower East Side was known to be a predominately Jewish area and home to the Yiddish Theatre. Even though all of Robbins surroundings were Jewish in influence, Robbins wanted to assimilate into American culture and move away from his Jewish heritage and upbringing. This is exemplified as Robbins changed his last name from Rabinowitz to Robbins. Robbins even saw the action of learning ballet as a way of distancing himself from Jewish Culture. Even though Robbins wanted to assimilate away from Jewish culture he held onto many of its values. Robbins went on to find success in many different musicals, one of the most famous being Fiddler on the Roof. In each of his musicals Robbins used his personality and values stemming from Judaism to shape song, dance, and the overall production.

Image result for jerome robbins

Before the musicals Robbins worked on even began rehearsal, a lengthy casting process was conducted. Robbins was very specific in his vision of the right actor or actress for each role. In Alisa Solomon’s Wonder of Wonders, she describes the casting process behind Fiddler on the Roof. She discusses how Robbins wanted to understand their Jewish characters and know Jewish traits but at the same time not appear stereotypically Jewish or bring the presence of the Yiddish Theatre to Broadway. Fiddler on the Roof is known for its emphasis on historical accuracy and Robbins wanted this to be seen through the song and dance within the play itself and not viewed as historically accurate due to the way the cast looked. Interestingly enough, he wanted his cast to understand the values and culture of Judaism but to be assimilated, similarly to the way he felt about himself and his own outlook on Judaism.

Robbins was not only meticulous in the casting for Fiddler on the Roof but spent months researching the accuracy behind each scene. In another piece written by Alissa Solomon, Jewish American Performance, she discusses the work conducted by Robbins before the show debuted. Robbins began his work by reading the script of Fiddler on the roof and pointing out its strengths and flaws. Robbins wrote in a note on the script “The wedding scene is going to be wonderful I think” (23). Solomon shows how influential Robbins was on a production by stating “In the original Sholem Aleichem stories on which the musical was based, the actual wedding between Mod the tailor and Tevye’s daughter Tzaytl is just a throwaway line but Robbins would turn it into an elaborate yet dignified production number” (23). Robbins genius took an originally meaningless scene and turned it into one of the most famous scenes in the musical. Without Robbins’ love of song and dance he may have not been able to see the potential for greatness in such a minimal aspect of the original script.

Image result for fiddler on the roof wedding dance

Robbins went a step further to ensure that the wedding scene not only became such a critical and theatrical part of the play but historically accurate. Again Solomon states “Robbins prepared for Fiddler by conducting extensive research into the daily lives, beliefs, rituals, and folkways of Eastern European Jews at the beginning of the 20th century. He expressed an emotional connection to the material” (23). This helped to ensure that the entire nature of the production was true to Jewish history. He then honed in specifically on the wedding scene by experiencing an actual Hasidic wedding. “Beginning at least six months before rehearsals for Fiddler were to start, Robbins conducted what he called “fieldwork”: he visited Hasidic weddings and holiday festivities and brought
other company members with him” (26). This clearly shows Robbins attention to detail as he spent months researching and experiencing the culture and events he was going to use in the production of Fiddler on the Roof.

Robbins personality drastically influenced Fiddler on the Roof. As a person, Robbins is meticulous, intelligent, and strict yet at the same time creative and a visionary. He put actors and actresses through multiple rounds of auditions for a single part and looked for a very specific type of actor for each role. He did extensive background research on Jewish culture and history in preparation for the creation of the musical. While this does not typically evoke a sense of art in a person’s mind, Robbins uses what he learned to fuel his creativity and vision as he turned an otherwise “throw away” aspect of the musical into a fun and exciting scene. Without Robbins personality and influence Fiddler on the Roof may not have become what it is today.

While many see Robbins influence on musicals in a positive manner, there are some that criticize his way of directing as well. In Bill Harpe’s piece, Jerome Robbins: The Avant-Garde Diplomat, Harpe criticizes the way Robbins influences the final version of a musical. Harpe focuses on criticizing how Robbins uses too much intellectual influence and does not let himself experience a full freedom in creativity that allows may other producers to have more success in the creation of musicals. He discusses how with such an emphasis on intellect, emotion falls to a secondary importance. “Whatever Robbins’ intentions may be, his “big” moments do not take hold of us emotionally. When Robbins moves us, it is frequently more incidental than basic” (411). He goes on to say “Robbins’ work is at its best when it is not planned, as suspect of the dummy episode. I would go further and say that his work is at its best when he is not thinking” (412). It is clear that Harpe feels that Robbins personality has a negative influence on his productions. Robbins places such an emphasis on intellect and bringing social issues to the forefront of musicals that some of the creativity and emotion is lost. It seems that while Solomon thinks that Robbins’ intellect enhances his vision due to extensive research catalyzing creativity, Harpe feels that Robbins’ intellect limits his imagination.

Harpe moves to discussing how Robbins is unique in his ability to bring a social conscious to his productions while maintaining some personal expression and vision in his dance numbers. He also praises Robbins knowledge of ballet but finishes his chapter by saying how Robbins was not as influential as many think. “Robbins is the hard-working professional choreographer and man of the theatre. He is not avant-garde. He thinks more than Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire, but not yet to much advantage. Perhaps basically? certainly at this moment? he is the middle -brow hero. Let us respect him as such” (419). Its very interesting to see a completely different view on such an influential member of the Broadway community. Molly MQquade seems to have a combined view of Solomon’s and Harpe’s ideas that are displayed in her short piece, Robbinesque?

McQuade talks about how Robbins had a very unique way of conducting himself and creating a musical. She names uses the word Robbinesque to describe his process. Throughout the piece she touches on themes that both Harpe and Solomon touch on. McQuade says “in dances by Robbins, feeling is found in form, not in feeling.” This idea parallels with the ideas put forth by Harpe in that due to Robbins need for precision and attention to detail, emotion is lost. However, McQuade does not completely dismiss Robbins ability to provoke emotion as, like Solomon, she states that the same precision and attention to detail drives creativity, which evokes emotion. She later states the same idea when talking about casting specific dancers. “he destroyed you in order to make you into what he wanted you to be. More affirmatively, a Royal Ballet colleague put it, “he didn’t want you to bring who you thought you were” a very wise idea.” Again McQuade acknowledges the fact that Robbins takes the individual personality away form his dancers and almost replaces it with his own but then finishes the statement with a very wise idea.

Image result for jerome robbins choreography

It can be seen by analyzing the work of many scholars, regardless of if one thinks Robbins influence on a musical is for the better or worse, it is clear that Robbins shapes the musicals he works on with his own personality. He emphasizes an attention to detail, intelligence, and rigor but at the same time fosters creativity and vision. He uses his heritage in influencing his decisions as well in his quest for creating the best musical possible. Judaism tends to emphasize certain characteristics that Robbins seems to emphasize in his musicals. Judaism emphasizes being thoughtful, and studious but also hopeful in the sense that anything is possible. Robbins displays these traits in his attention to detail, studying of the history and culture behind each musical, and his creative visions to turn what would otherwise be minimal scenes into masterpieces. Robbins has helped to shaped Broadway into what it is today and Judaism has helped to shape Robbins.


Harpe, Bill. Jerome Robbins: The Avant-Garde Diplomat. The Johns Hopkins University Press.

McQuade, Molly. “Robbinesque?”

Solomon, Alisa. Balancing Act: Fiddler’s “Bottle Dance and the Transformation of “Tradition””. The MIT Press.




William Finn- Falsettos

By: Taylor Strype

William Finn was the writer and composer of the musical Falsettos. Falsettos was incredibly successful, winning the 1992 Tony Award for Best Original Score along with the 1992 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. Finn grew up in a conservative Jewish family in Boston, Massachusetts. He attended Hebrew school and then Williams College as music major, aspiring to be a musical theater writer. Finn is able to draw from his own experiences he faced as an openly gay Jewish man throughout his musicals. Falsettos contains two acts, “March of the Falsettos” and “Falsettoland”, which showed a progression of character development as each character struggled to find themselves. Falsettos is set at the beginning of the 1980’s in New York City during the AIDs epidemic. The musical begins with a Jewish father, Marvin, leaving his wife Trina for another man Whizzer. Even though Marvin leaves his family, he still strives to maintain a close relationship with his son, Jason. During this time of significant social change, each character struggles to cope with tolerance and acceptance of a new family dynamic. Throughout Falsettos, Finn examines a what was thought as a nontraditional family unit. Finn explores how as a young adolescent, Jason is confused about his father’s homosexuality and his struggle to connect with him. He also demonstrates the impact that the AIDs epidemic had on the gay community.

Despite leaving Trina for Whizzer, Marvin still wants to maintain a traditional family dynamic. During the song “A Tight Knit Family” Marvin sings, “But I want a tight-knit family, I want a group that harmonizes, I want my wife and kid and friend” (Act I Falsettos). While Marvin aspires to have a tight-knit family, he is having trouble achieving it. Throughout the musical he was conflicted about wanting to be part of his family but also being with Whizzer. Trina and Marvin try to reestablish a family unit but continuously fight over the role of their significant other. Many people believed that the traditional Jewish family included a Jewish man and women with biological children actively involved in the Jewish community. Falsettos challenges what a traditional family was due to the new societal changes such as divorce, remarriage and same sex spouses during this time. While many people believed a Jewish family should be a nuclear family, “Conflicts between communal values and individual desires, intermarriage, and the difficulties posed by a single parenthood, divorce, and women working outside the home were all problems addressed by the historical tradition” (Biale 134). Although family related issues were becoming more prevalent during the 1980’s, they have always been an issue. While nuclear families are glorified, they have not always represented traditional Jewish values. Falsettos brings this misconception to light by contradicting what a traditional Jewish family was thought of as.

Jason found it difficult to come to terms with his father’s homosexuality. He was worried that since his father was a homosexual that he would be one too. Trina also felt responsible for Marvin’s homosexuality. She was distraught over the divorce and begins to have a breakdown. In the song “Breaking Down”, Trina admits to her family falling apart. Trina expresses her animosity toward Marvin and Whizzer’s relationship. Both Jason and Trina struggle to cope with Marvin’s sexuality. In order to unite the family, Trina and Jason will need to accept Marin’s homosexuality. Homosexuality was not accepted during this time. In the 1980’s, a gay Jew was upset with David Novak for speaking against homosexuality in his synagogue. Novak responded by saying “…that Judaism cannot agree with the point of view of homosexuality activist and their sympathizers that homosexuality is as acceptable a moral option as heterosexuality” (Novak 1). The Jewish community did not accept widely accept homosexuality at this time. Novak believed that it was a sin to be both homosexual and Jewish. Due to the intolerance at this time, Jason and Trina had a hard time coping with Marvin’s sexuality.

Finn was able to show how AIDs impacted the gay community. During a game of racquetball, Whizzer collapses. Whizzer is admitted to the hospital with an unknown illness. During this time, young gay men are arriving at hospitals with a mysterious illness. Although it is not explicitly stated, Whizzer has AIDs. During the song “Something bad is happening”, Dr. Charlotte, sings, “Something very bad is happening! Something stinks, something immoral! Something so bad that words have lost their meaning!” (Act II Falsettos). Although Dr. Charlotte does not know what the disease is, she is aware of the ramifications of it. She begins to see a pattern among the illness and implies that Marvin might be at risk as well. Whizzer illness brings the entire family together. Unfortunately, Whizzer illness is terminal and he dies. Due to the lack of response to the AIDs epidemic by the federal health system, the gay community sparked activism. They wanted to “…attain the same standards of medical treatment, data collection, and research for AIDS as for people afflicted with other types of illness is connected to the activist, cultural, and community-building processes of gay men and lesbians throughout the decade” (Fetner 51). Since AIDs was primarily impacting the gay community, it was not a priority to find a cure. Finn establishes in Falsettos that the doctors did not know or have the resources to combat the disease. By exposing how much the doctors were inept to deal with the disease, Finn was able to show how AIDs impacted the gay community.

Finn was able to create a groundbreaking musical that exposed the struggle of the gay community during the AIDS crisis. He shows the development of each character throughout the musical. Jason grows up and realizes the importance of his family and his religion. Marvin and Trina come together to support Jason and Whizzer at his death. Marvin and Jason mend their relationship. Falsettos challenged many of the cultural Jewish norms during the 1980’s. Overall, Finn emphasized the importance of creating tolerance and acceptance within society no matter a person beliefs, sexual orientation, or family dynamic.

Works Cited

 David Novak. On Homosexuality: To Robert Schwartz. Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Ideas. Eugene Borowitz.Nov 14 1980: 3-5. #

Fetner, Tina. “Organizational Development through the 1980s.” How the Religious Right Shaped Lesbian and Gay Activism, NED – New edition ed., vol. 31, University of Minnesota Press, 2008, pp. 44–63. JSTOR,

William Finn, Falsettos, Act 1 (M arch of the Falsettos).

Finn, F alsettos, Act II (Falsettoland).

Isherwood, Charles. “Review: ‘Falsettos,’ a Perfect Musical, an Imperfect Family.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 28 Oct. 2016,

Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, Volume 14, Number 4, Summer 1996, pp. 171-174 (Review).


Matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof


by: Natalie Levine

Matchmaker is a song in the first act of Fiddler on the Roof sung by Tevye’s daughters—Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava. This song is about the jewish tradition of arranged marriages and in this case, the town’s matchmaker, Yente. The matchmaker’s main job is setting up marriages between Jewish men and women. She doesn’t necessarily look for individuals who will make each other truly happy and that will love each other but rather looks for individuals who are“suitable” matches financially. Many times a young women would be setup with a much older man, if he was in need of a wife and was financially stable. Matchmaking in this time period wasn’t about happiness but rather stability. For example the daughters sing, imitating Yente, “Hodel, oh Hodel, Have I made a match for you! He’s handsome, he’s young! Alright, he’s 62. But he’s a nice man, a good catch, true? True” (Stein 18). This shows the matchmaker, in this instance Yente, wasn’t concerned with finding a match that the female would be interested in. She was more concerned with just finding a match to ensure the female gets married. In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye’s daughters, especially Tzeital, are in no rush to be matched, as they know their potential matches won’t be similar in age to them and may even be abusive: “He’s handsome, he’s tall, That is from side to side. But he’s a nice man, a good catch, right? Right. You heard he has a temper. He’ll beat you every night, But only when he’s sober, So you’re all right” (Stein 19).  They know they won’t be match on compatibility, but on financial security. All three daughters sing, “Plan me no plans, I’m in no rush, Maybe I’ve learned, Playing with matches, A girl can get burned” (Stein 20). They are very aware they may not like or be attracted to their spouse and they are in no rush to be married off to who Yente picks for them.


According to On Changing Matchmaking, Marriage, and Fertility in Israel, the degree to which arranged marriages, like the ones Yente set up in Fiddler on the Roof, have declined overall. Among oriental Jews arranged marriages have declined significantly but, “in the Arab population traditional matchmaking and marriage arrangements have remained the same and, indeed, even been strengthened and intensified” (Matras 366). The turning point for this change, declined use of matchmakers and arranged marriages seems to have taken place after WWII. Age of marriage increased and rates of education increased relating to the decreased use of matchmakers. Matras clearly stated, “the downward changes in proportions marrying at early ages are presented here as indexes of the decline in the early marriage norms in these communities, of the diminished pressure to arrange marriages, and of the additional mate-selection options opened up simply by less pressure to marry early” (Matras 374). However, “large minority of Kurds and Indians who married in Israel also indicated “arranged marriages,” that is, the traditional marriage arrangement persists to considerable measure among some Oriental Jewish groups” (Matras 378). This shows that while overall the use of matchmakers has declined, it does still persist in some areas.


According to Gender and Jobs in the Jewish Community, “The women of my [Green] generation were brought up with the notion that mothers do not work (even when ours did and we were proud of it). The Jewish woman was “princess,” wife, mother (a life-cycle progression not)” (Green 42). This corresponds with the notion in Fiddler and the song Matchmaker that women don’t work, so their value is derived from the success of their husbands. One occupation that was available to Jewish women was being a matchmaker, so as seen through Yente. A woman without children could pursue a“career” in matchmaking as there weren’t many opportunities for work for women in that time period. This article analyzed the history of Jewish women and how and if they worked. Most, at least those who were married, did not work. This further supports the meaning of the song Matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof. If women did not or could not marry then they lacked someone to derive their value from, as typically women derived their value from their spouse. This connects to the lines “Because you’re a girl from a poor family. So whatever Yente brings, you’ll take, right? Of course right’ and “Did you think you’d get a prince? Well I do the best I can. With no dowry, no money, no family background Be glad you got a man” (Stein 18-19). Tzeital, Hodel, and Chava are very cognizant of the fact that the matchmaker will try to find them the most economically stable match, as their worth will forever be derived from the worth of their spouse, as most women didn’t work in this time period.


The study, Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Can You Make Me Match? Predicting Liking Between Two Unacquainted Persons by Andrea Chapdelaine, David A. Kenny, and Kathryn M. LaFontana examined how successful a person can be at determining the likelihood of two individuals liking each other. Matchmaking involves anticipating behavior. Subjects in the study struggled to successfully predict which individuals would like each other. The researchers explained,In Fiddler on the Roof (Stein, 1964), Yente, the matchmaker, was asked to select a compatible spouse for one of Tevye’s daughters. Our subjects were given a conceptually similar task. Both the matchmaker and our subjects did not fare very well. As expected, we found that persons were not able to predict very accurately the extent to which two unacquainted persons would like each other” (Chapdelaine et al 88). This study supports that not only was Yente’s choice of Lazar a misjudgment of liking and of compatibility, but also that matchmaking as a whole is incredibly difficult to do successfully. This further supports the meaning of Matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof, that matches aren’t made based on who was thought likely to have good compatibility, but rather on the economic stability a spouse could provide.


Bock, Jerry, et al. Fiddler on the Roof. Limelight Editions, 1964.

Chapdelaine, Andrea, et al. “Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Can You Make Me a Match? Predicting Liking between Two Unacquainted Persons.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 67, no. 1, 1994, pp. 83–91., doi:10.1037/0022-3514.67.1.83.

Green, Nancy L. “Gender and Jobs in the Jewish Community: Europe at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.” Jewish Social Studies, vol. 8, no. 2, 2002, pp. 39–60., doi:10.1353/jss.2002.0007.

Matras, Judah. “On Changing Matchmaking, Marriage, and Fertility in Israel: Some Findings, Problems, and Hypotheses.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 79, no. 2, Sept. 1973, pp. 364–388., doi:10.1086/225551.