Rabbi Aryeh Wielgus, the Greater Washington Jewish Student Union director for NCSY, visited James Madison High School’s theater department on March 19 to speak to the cast of the upcoming spring musical, “Fiddler on the Roof.” The 60 students, comprising onstage actors, crew chiefs, and members of the school’s Jewish Student Union, had compiled dozens of questions about practical Jewish customs and how to portray them on stage.
“Fiddler on the Roof,” which premiered on Broadway in 1964, focuses on a small Jewish community (shtetl) in Russia in 1905. In the face of discrimination, fear, and great cultural change, the characters struggle to balance their traditional and beloved values with their changing world. It’s full of references to prayers, holidays, and ancient customs that many students knew nothing about. Rabbi Wielgus took them through the significance of haircuts, clothing, and even pronunciation of Hebrew words.
But the students’ questions went beyond simple traditions. “I was most excited to just learn about the larger themes of Judaism as a whole,” offered Susan Weinhardt, a freshman and assistant stage manager. “To portray a character onstage, you need to truly understand the background they come from.” The students were interested in understanding why Jews rest on Shabbat, as characters in the musical always seem to be frantically and comically preparing for sundown on Friday night. Rabbi Wielgus explained that more than simply resting, Shabbat is a day of peace and wholeness, when everything is right in the home. The students took this feeling to heart as they continued to perfect their emotional delivery of the song “Sabbath Prayer.” “The song is filled with so much peace and beauty, and I love seeing how cast members have taken Rabbi Aryeh’s words and channeled their meaning into the performance,” Weinhardt added.
Many students from the Jewish Student Union expressed excitement that they’d learned something new about Jewish culture too. “What I learned about was which parts of the show don’t represent just Jewish culture, but Russian and Eastern European culture that were adopted by Jews at the time,” Hunter Slingbaum, who plays Yente the matchmaker, remarked. “It was a great feeling to learn new things about a culture I experience every day.” The exploration of cultural development and change offered something for everyone.
Rabbi Wielgus, who normally speaks to groups of primarily Jewish teens, enjoyed the challenge of taking Jewish traditions and discussing how they could be portrayed on stage. “It was an incredible experience for me to be able to share the Jewish experiences found throughout the play with such a diverse group,” Rabbi Wielgus remarked about the afternoon. “Their interest in understanding the depth of our history and culture was eye-opening for me.” And, indeed, there was something incredibly significant in being able to share the intricate history of such a rich culture with those eager to learn. “I really think it’s going to help us perform a lot better and a lot more accurately,” said Zach Spafford, who plays Perchik the revolutionary.
“Fiddler on the Roof” runs April 26-28 at James Madison High School in Vienna, Virginia. Tickets can be found on madisondrama.com.
By Laura Culter