Harvey Fierstein Gets 'Kinky' and Discusses His Jewish Roots

Broadway Star Says Theater Is His True Religion

Trial by Fierstein: The Tony Award-winning actor and author grew up attending a Conservative synagogue in Brooklyn.
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Trial by Fierstein: The Tony Award-winning actor and author grew up attending a Conservative synagogue in Brooklyn.

By Simi Horwitz

Published April 11, 2013, issue of April 19, 2013.
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You can speculate.

Well, my father had cousins who were communists in the Spanish Civil War. But when you have a kid who, at three or four, wants dolls, you have some time to get used to it.

How have your Jewish roots informed your artistic sensibility?

Every time you sit down at your desk to write you bring everything you know. But I definitely think talmudic teaching and reasoning are somewhere in me. They are so dramatic. You put two rabbis in a room and within minutes one of them won’t believe in God. We study the Torah by picking sides and then arguing that side. These are generalizations, but there is something about the way we study the Torah that’s different from the way other cultures study their stuff that may color everything.

I gather seeing “Fiddler on the Roof” as a child was a turning-point moment.

When the curtain went up — it was 1964 and I was 10 years old — it just opened my eyes. All of a sudden there was a stage full of Jews and I identified with them. Years later, when I played Fiddler, a Hasidic kid who saw the show had the same reaction. He looked at me and said, “Are you a Jew?”

You had some unexpected experiences playing “Fiddler.”

When I went into “Fiddler” I wondered about the response I’d get — the backlash because I’m openly gay. There was none. I toured Canada and America and not one single review suggested that I played the role gay or that I seemed anything but Tevye. The only backlash I got was from the cultural elite — certain columnists from whom you’d expect no backlash. They made jokes about my doing “Fiddler.” “If Harvey is in ‘Fiddler’ is he playing Golda?”

What’s more defining to you, being Jewish or gay?

I was Jewish before I was gay. But I don’t define myself.

How did you celebrate Passover?

It was a sad Passover. It was the first year without my mother. She died in May. But I bought matzo.

I’m sorry about your mom’s passing.

Thank you.

Getting back to “Kinky Boots,” what do you want audiences to walk away thinking and feeling?

There’s a line in “La Cage aux Folles” that says if you’ve done your job right you will leave with more than a folded program. I always want audiences to leave with more. Theater is my temple and my religion and my act of faith. Strangers sit in a room together and believe together. It’s a leap of faith [on their part]. So at the very least I want people to feel more represented, heard and less alone.


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