I Want to Hear Jewish Voices Telling Their Own Stories

Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash.

By Malka Fleischmann

Theater is supposed to be entertaining and fun. It is supposed to be an artistic escape from ordinary life that is poignant, silly or deeply moving. Over the summer, my colleagues at The Jewish Education Project and I attended the off-Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish.” The merriment was palpable in our office for days following the outing.

But what happens when the darker politics of theater emerge and bleed into real-life challenges?

Over the summer, a bitter battle over the ways in which Jews are represented on stage rocked the British theater world after a production of the musical Falsettos, which follows a Jewish family in late 1970s and early 1980s New York, premiered without any significant creative input from Jews and did not feature any Jewish performers. British theater director Adam Lenson wrote in The Independent that he wasn’t opposed to non-Jewish actors’ portraying Jewish life, but was dismayed by the cast being comprised of exclusively non-Jewish performers. Lenson wrote that, “…while non-Jews can and should play Jews, (that) doing so in processes absent of any other Jewish voices can lead to misrepresentation, caricature and misunderstanding.”

I have been thinking about Lenson’s words, as well as the title of his article (“With anti-Semitism on the rise, it is crucial that Jewish people are meaningfully included in telling Jewish stories”), and I wonder what the influence of educators and parents might be in this realm. 
If our students are growing up in a world that increasingly misrepresents them and their heritage, how do we encourage them to loudly, proudly and defiantly retell their Jewish stories? There has been tremendous controversy over the representation of Jews in shows like HBO’s “Our Boys” and Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” both in terms of the shows’ content and with respect to the non-Jewish actors often used to portray Jewish characters.
And so, I wonder- what are the best methods to encourage ownership of one’s narrative? Moreover, what must be included in the canon of one’s Jewish education – whether at home, school, or in the synagogue youth lounge – that engenders self-narration instincts and skills? And, when our students and children share their portrayal of Jewish life through Instagram Stories, TikTok videos, plays and movies, in which direction must they point their megaphones? Who needs to hear the Jewish people’s retelling, and how do we reach those who are deaf to it?

As young Jews increasingly identify as global citizens, the stories they tell about Judaism will bear more vibrant and complicated narratives. The multitude of labels they wear will, at certain times, harmonize and, at others, clash. Even their understanding of Jewish misrepresentation or anti-Jewish bigotry may radically diverge from that of generations prior. And yet – or, perhaps, all the more so – it is their right, privilege and, some might argue, obligation to tell the tale of their Judaism. Through self-authorship, we can both preserve and reinvent. We can memorialize or start fresh. We can absorb and inherit or newly endow. Whatever we choose – whatever we and Judaism need in that hour – our voices must know their own power.

Malka Fleischmann is the Director of Knowledge and Ideas for The Jewish Education Project, a lead organizer of the 2019 Jewish Futures Conference, and the author of The Thought Experiment newsletter.