If you don’t mind the personal indulgence, I’d like to reflect on something wonderful that happened to me, many of my high school classmates and the people of my Massachusetts hometown 50 years ago this month. It was a high school production of the great musical, “Fiddler On The Roof,” something that by now has occurred thousands of times in schools, colleges and community theaters around the world. While I can’t boast anything unique about our 1972 production, I will say this: It opened my eyes and the eyes of a large cast of students at East Bridgewater High School to Judaism and the story of Jews over time.
East Bridgewater was a white, Christian town in Plymouth County, with Protestants and Catholics and only a few Jewish families. My personal knowledge of Jews was only what I had heard from my father — that a Jewish man who owned the foundry where he worked in the 1930s and 1940s had been extremely kind and generous to him when my father suffered disabling back injuries on the job. His name was Mr. Berger and he pretty much kept my family fed in rough times, more than a decade before I was born.
That was about the extent of my knowledge of the Jewish presence in East Bridgewater — until I got to elementary school and we were required to recite the Lord’s Prayer each morning.

Cindy Goldman, our classmate, did not recite the prayer. She was Jewish. It wasn’t until 1962 that the Supreme Court ruled that requiring kids to recite the Lord’s Prayer, the No. 1 hit on the Christian Top Ten of Prayers, was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

I doubt I fully understood that in second grade, or how the daily Christian prayer made Cindy feel left out. I came to appreciate it later in life, just as I came to learn of other Jews in my town: The superintendent of our public schools, the pharmacist, the owners of a lumberyard and a hardware store and Dave Katz, one of our coolest high school teachers and coach.

Dave Katz and Deborah Cohee

I was mostly a jock in high school — tried to be, anyway — but the Fiddler production of 1972 opened my eyes and ears to the robust enthusiasm that existed around me for musical theater. We had girls who loved to sing, boys who were eager to learn the famous bottle dance. One of my best friends, David Fuller, has had a long career in theater in New York, and he got his start as Perchik in the Michael J. McCarthy Auditorium 50 springs ago.

After curtain on the opening night of “Fiddler,” Mr. Berenson, the town pharmacist, came back to the classroom we had used for dress and makeup. He asked to see me. I had a smiling buzz from the shocking audience ovation, having just come offstage after playing Tevye to Mary Jane Pearson’s Golde and Cindy Goldman’s Yente. Mr. Berenson was in tears, and I was not ready for that. While I cannot recall his exact words, he spoke of his Jewish ancestors and the troubles they had experienced under the czars. He was deeply moved that a bunch of mostly Christian teenagers would tell the story of Jewish traditions, but also the horrible pogroms and the eviction of Jewish families from their Russian village. Until that moment, I did not appreciate that long history.

There’s an explanation for that: We were not taught that history — not in high school, certainly not in Catholic Sunday school. We learned of the Holocaust from television shows and, briefly, history class. But it is fair to say that the boys and girls I grew up with were, at the least, sheltered from that story. At the worst, they might have been instructed to believe negative things about Jews, though I swear I never heard anti-Semitic remarks from any of them.

My first synagogue visit was during the runup to Fiddler, when we were in rehearsal under the direction of Deborah Cohee, an inspirational drama instructor we were all eager to please. Cindy Goldman arranged a trip to her synagogue and, again, it was an eye-opener — to see and hear, for the first time, worship that did not involve Jesus or the eucharist or a sermon about sin. Though I’ve never publicly credited my role in Fiddler, it stands strong in memory as a time of genuine discovery that gave me an appreciation for Judaism throughout my life.

And so, this Passover and the Easter season, I am thankful for what happened in April 1972, beyond the wonderful memories created by my classmates and friends, the teachers and musicians who helped us put on a show so good that we were asked to stage encore performances. I feel great love for all those people from the past, who created one of the wonders of my life. I am thankful for the old story of Tevye, his wife and daughters, and how a musical, at once joyous and sad, could tell a story I otherwise would not have known as I set out from my small town for college and the world beyond.

20 thoughts on “‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and an April of discovery

  1. Dan – This is a wonderful reflection. Thank you. It evoked memories of my childhood growing up in a multi-racial, multi-religious public housing project in NYC and my job as a youth worker in a community center in a diverse neighborhood in the Bronx, where I organized programs that tried to link meaningful events in various religions’ history to contemporary life. Have a wonderful holiday.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dan, a great story. I grew up in East Bridgewater, and was involved in the drama club in the early 80’s. I was a reader, and learned about Judaism through books. Met my Jewish husband, and learned a lot through the stories. We raised our kids Jewish, and I converted when they were early middle school. Their school did Fiddler in Hebrew, impressive for a group of kids in k-8. Later, my youngest had a lead in Joseph and the Technicolor dream coat, again in Hebrew.
    Happy Easter, as we get ready for Passover!

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  3. Great column, Dan Rodricks, and one that I wish could be read by people all over the country, especially at this time of rising anti-Semitism and similar irrational hatreds being spewed and encouraged by right-wing loonies almost everywhere one turns. Your “personal indulgence” clearly demonstrates how fortunate you were in your upbringing in that Massachusetts home town.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. BRAVO! I have has similar experiences covering a wide range of subjects and the one thing that still resonates in my later years: Ignorance is not bliss!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Dan: I read your touching article just minutes before my husband and I watched a virtual Good Friday “service” at our Catholic Church here in Annapolis Maryland. Your words brought forth memories of my own experiences growing up (up until 9 years) in a NJ Jewish neighborhood. Like you, while growing up, and even through my adult life, I never knew about the eternal persecution of Jews. However, I have shared a seder meal with my Jewish friends, learned about their wonderful traditions and good food, appreciated their special sense of humor and just treasure great friendships — regardless of our religious beliefs — or, because of them. I just sent my family and a bunch of friends your POST about your 1972 experience and ended with this wish:
    HAPPY EASTER on April 17, and
    Learn more here about the Passover: https://www.chabad.org/holidays/passover/pesach_cdo/aid/871715/jewish/What-Is-Passover-Pesach.htm

    I guess this message is too long. But, you touched my soul, and I appreciate you sharing your reflections and lessons learned at your young age. All my Best and Happy Easter, Connie Robinson
    ps. We have learned so much about the persecution and resilience of Jewish people through the stories of William Gates on the TV show “Finding Your Roots.” So many of his guests are of Jewish descent, so we gain history lessons from his research into their ancestors.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Both of my brothers were in this production with you, and I remember sitting in the auditorium, being utterly moved by the whole experience. Still one of my favorite plays.

    I also had the experience of being friends with our family dentist’s family, and was privileged to be invited to a bar mitzvah. I felt very worldly for a little E.B. Girl!

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  7. Great article Dan. As a former School Committee member, having 4 children go through the system, education was a priority there with the arts and athletics right up there. You’re one of EB’s most renowned alumni

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  8. Great story Dan. I have raved about our little schools production for years. The talent that emerged from that production was amazing. Everyone that performed truly shined and have left an everlasting footprint on many of us. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  9. I agree that Fiddler on the Roof is a wonderful musical and teaches us so much about the Jewish story. I also believe that high school drama productions are great experiences for all involved. The teamwork and camaraderie are unforgettable. That, and the lessons learned from the play itself can truly have an impact on one’s entire life.

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  10. Thank you Dan, for the memories, of all that were involved in this amazing performance. My brother (the beggar)and I (the Rabbi’s Son), still remember the excitement of the show and what it stood for, for others.

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  11. Beautiful story! Four of my five are EB graduates, and Scott appeared in “once upon a Mattress! I have seen Fiddler done in many small venues and thoroughly enjoyed each and every one!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Dan, great article. Funny, just yesterday my brother who is Catholic, married to Jewish girl, told me he was doing Skype with his elderly in-laws for the Jewish holiday. His Jewish family appreciates his humor…he said he has to be sure his 2 kids watch the 10 commandments movie, the Fiddler, an at least one Barbra Streisand movie preferably Funny Girl. His Jewish in-laws are never offended, both kids raised both Catholic and Jewish. But he had me rolling on the floor.

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  13. Dan, I was out of high school by the time Fiddler came along, but, like you, I was blessed to have musical theater experiences that should have been beyond our years to accomplish: I was the Captain of the Pinafore in a ninth grade production of HMS Pinafore (in which my character was required to swear onstage —“Damme, it’s too much!”, and I got to bestow an onstage kiss on Ado Annie as Ali Hakkim, the Persian peddler in Oklahoma, when I was a senior in high school. My younger sister Sally played Annie Sullivan beautifully as a high school senior in The Miracle Worker. In these public school productions in Hamilton, Ohio we were graced to have directors who thought these roles were perfectly appropriate for adolescent actors. What a gift to have been entrusted with such art at such a young age. Thank you for your memories and for refreshing mine.

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  14. Dan: Certainly did not mind the personal indulgence. Actually, with the confluence of Passover, Easter and Ramadan, your column reminds me that we are so fortunate to live in a place where people of different ethnicities and backgrounds can live together, work together and play together.

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