Marriage and exile at 15: Coming of age in a central Ohio JCC production of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’
Editor’s Note: Fifty years ago, on Nov. 3, 1971, the movie adaptation of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ premiered. In honor of that anniversary, this week we are publishing a series of article about the impact of ‘Fiddler’ and its legacy. You can read more of the stories here
That I ended up cast in the role of Tzeitel in a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” at my local Jewish Community Center when I was 15 was the result of a series of accidents.
On the day of the auditions, my mother drove me over to the center, site of once-fraught swim lessons and summer camps. I walked into the theater, stepped on stage, sang my prepared song, and read from the script. My arm shook, which made the text go fuzzy; I could not figure out how to position my body in a way that seemed remotely normal; and then suddenly a chorus of voices was telling me with a note of pity that that was fine, thanks for my time, they’d see me tomorrow.
Consumed as I was by panic, I had not noticed that, in the first of my fateful accidents, the director had slipped out to take his smoke break halfway through my audition. The remaining adjudicators evidently decided it was pointless to continue without him, giving me the unmerited benefit of the much-merited doubt regarding my dancing abilities.
As a rule, community theater callbacks — site of the second salutary accident — never last less than five hours, and always inevitably include a stage manager bursting tearfully through thick doors to announce something that makes sense in terms of its comprising a logical series of identifiable English words, but is actually incomprehensible. Something, for example, like a decree that “everyone who has already read for the male parts but has not yet been asked to sing a line from the second dance call may leave, except for those who were previously asked to read for the part of child prison guard.”
At some point in that lawless evening, a number of resumes and headshots — used to sort auditionees into groups — fell from the stage manager’s table to the ground, and went unnoticed for perhaps half an hour. As a result, a small group of us who were meant to learn choreography with the rest of the would-be sisters were not called to the choreography-learning-place until the choreographer had almost finished teaching the dance. This error meant that when I proved myself incapable of executing the simple choreography, it was considered to be a fault of production logistics, not personal coordination.
As the evening wore on, the director sent people home in waves. First to go were the blondes, because at the central Ohio Jewish Community Center’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” we were nothing if not hyperrealistic. Various other discarded auditionees trickled out through the JCC’s foyer until, eventually, the director lined the remaining contenders for the three oldest daughters across the stage by height, positioning us in various formations.
At the tall end of the stage, I was swapped repeatedly with another woman. It became clear that we were duking it out for Tzeitel. This woman was objectively a stronger candidate for the role, but — as I learned later — was also in the early stages of a pregnancy. I won the role, in other words, by dint of my third accidental advantage: not being visibly with child.
That I was even considered for the eldest daughter — that I could pass for someone who might get married, even within the antiquated norms of shtetl life we sought to reproduce — made me feel weird. I had gotten my period half a year prior; I was a few months into my first romance; I had never been a worse dancer. I did not remotely understand my own body, and felt more incapacitated by its shifting needs and interests by the day.
I wanted to be further down the line with the more petite Hodels and Chavas. I did not like that the other top contender for the role was so much a woman she had made another person. I wanted the part, of course; I wanted every form of validation in every arena available to me at the time. But some small piece of me secretly hoped I’d be placed in the chorus.
At the end of the evening, finally released from callbacks, a group of us teenagers stood around waiting for our moms to take us home. We made exhausted, adrenalized chatter.
It was cold; we wore heavy coats and boots. One girl wore pink sparkly Uggs, which I complimented. Weeks later, another girl in the cast commented to me about how horrible those Uggs were, and I reflexively agreed, and then subsequently spent many months trying to figure out whether or not I genuinely liked the shoes; which version of me was the authentic one, and which the eager to please. I do not know how many times I need to reiterate that I was 15, but I was 15; I was as 15 as you can get.
I loved being in that show. I loved going to rehearsal. I loved the chatty carpool journey across Main Street. I was on my school’s dive team then, and showed up each evening still damp, with that crisp hay-textured hair you get from too much chlorine. The muscle aches and shivering disappeared when rehearsal started. I wanted to stay forever.
The local theater community was lean on Jews, so the cast and production team formed a peaceable mixture of Jews and gentiles, as God and Sheldon Harnick intended. The show’s director was not Jewish; ditto the various ensemble members. The girl who played Bielke, the youngest sister, came from an evangelical family. The man who played Perchik had grown up Mennonite. He had met his boyfriend in a community theater production of “Titanic,” the musical; their meet-cute was, at the time, the greatest love story I had ever heard.
I started to find myself an occasional authority on questions about Judaism, and began to feel a sense of ownership over the Jewish elements of the show. I liked explaining to my castmates how Shabbat rituals were supposed to work. I liked feeling some connection to the story we told, imagining my own shtetl-bound ancestors living a life that looked something like this.
I had grown up in a home that was loosely observant: we did not keep Kosher, though we abstained from pork and cheeseburgers (inexplicably, given that ground beef with cheese sauce was allowed). We blessed the sabbath but did not keep it. I had tried Jewish summer camps; I had whined my way through many years of Sunday school. I grew up with few close Jewish friends. Judaism was crucial to my sense of self, but held no external value. Being Jewish was for inside: internal values, unspoken prayers, private family gatherings, traditions in the home.
This, finally, was something that felt unconfined. I was making friendships based in Jewishness — either with actual Jews or with people playing them, in which case they deferred to me whenever I knew things they didn’t. People would come to this production to watch me be myself, but different. It was a performance, literally, of my Judaism. For an audience. For the outside. I was so proud.
As the months of rehearsing progressed, the girls grew cliquish. We whispered about our castmates and concocted elaborate inside jokes. After Hodel ran off with Perchik, while the rest of us stayed on stage to be evicted from Anatevka, Hodel sent us pouty dressing room selfies. “Sooo boring here in Siberia,” she would text beneath the photos. “And cold.”
We invented rumors and had sleepovers. Factions developed. It is an inherent paradox to say that there was a cool group among the youth cast in a community theater production of “Fiddler on the Roof” in central Ohio, but if there was, I was in it. It rocked.
Among the adults, the interfaith makeup of our cast — wherein the Jews knew things the gentiles did not — had a stratifying effect. In the theater, actors are usually dissuaded from directing other actors. At the JCC, this rule went by the wayside.
“Circle around him seven times; not three!” people would hiss as Motel and I rehearsed the marriage scene. Grouchy men with paunches were always correcting pronunciations and telling people how to fake-daven.
Once, a severe elderly woman in the cast pulled me aside and told me that she thought I should know what, realistically, would be going through Tzeitel’s mind on the eve of her marriage.
“She’s never had sex, and she doesn’t know how, and she’s expected to go home and do it after the wedding,” she told me. “That’s all she’d be thinking about, that entire night. She would be scared shitless.” I smiled, because this made me nervous. She did not smile back.
Some part of me knew that this was a weird thing to tell a teenager, and also the wrong emotion for the scene. Tzeitel had won the right to marry her true love; she was supposed to be euphoric. And also, more pragmatically, the wedding directly preceded the Act I finale’s pogrom. In order for the latter to feel sufficiently devastating, the former needed to be joyous.
But I follow instructions, so I heeded the woman’s note. I imagined, singing along as the cast lifted me high on a chair, having sex with the man who played Motel. He was one of the nicest people I had ever met, but he was almost 30, practically twice my age. The fear came easily. I gave our show a weirdly somber Tzeitel, grinning but vaguely haunted.
This, at 15, I was coming to understand: when required to dance, I could not move my body correctly; when I sang, I hit the notes with only partial accuracy. What I could sort of do well was make emotions inside of me and then express them.
I took absurd pains to improve my acting. I made copious notes in my script; I wrote extended journal entries examining Tzeitel’s inner life; I even recorded voice memos talking myself through the psychology of certain scenes that I would play back through headphones as I got into character. I paced backstage while the men sang “To Life” — the scene before the one in which I pleaded with Tevye to let me out of marrying Lazar Wolfe — goading myself into a state of panic, so that when my big scene came, I’d be prepared. I was often on the verge of tears before I even walked onstage.
I was aware that my feverish preparations for the role did not match the stakes of our performance, but I had no interest in modulating my behavior. Partly this was because I cared about everything, then; I cared so much I thought I might burst. Caring too much was, in fact, my main personality trait. I like to try hard, I would have told you, if you had asked me why I took myself so seriously. But the intensity with which I approached my acting had another impetus, I think.
I lived a beautiful life in a pleasant corner of a modern liberal society. I had no legitimate cause for fear or sadness and I felt, at most moments of most days, like I was going to fail, and then explode, and then die. Halfway through freshman year, my friendships were in a state of chaos; I worried constantly about my achievements; I was certain everyone hated me. I did not understand my emotions but felt them so intensely it sometimes made me afraid.
The fever pitch of my temperament abated, just a little, in this space where I felt special and liked. And then I went onstage, where I was swept into a blessedly unfamiliar psychodrama; where I got to feel everything, and it was allowed, and ended up okay.
Unlike me, Tzeitel had identifiable, legitimate grounds for distress. First, that she had to marry a gross old man; then, that she had to break the rules to stay with her true love; later, that her wedding was interrupted by a pogrom; finally, that her community was forced into exile. At rehearsal, I pretended to be a person I thought I might have been, once; an earlier version of this same, boring self, except that her worries made sense.
What a relief it was to try on someone else’s bad feelings; to feel deeply, truly distraught; and then to hang up the pinafore at the end of the night and walk home unscathed.
After rehearsal one night, I took a walk with my boyfriend around the neighborhood. Neither of us could drive, and my brother had dibs on the basement, so my boyfriend and I often lurked in clandestine locations like this one so we could make out with mild-to-heavy petting.
We were busily engaged in the alleyway when a crash interrupted us. I turned around and found myself facing our show’s Tevye, who was emptying his trash. Oh my god, I said, I didn’t know you lived here.
He said hello, and I awkwardly introduced him to my boyfriend. Tevye asked, in a way that was not exactly menacing but was not not menacing either, whether my boyfriend had tickets to see the show, whether he planned to bring flowers. I was horrified. I was also a tiny bit grateful to have the mild-to-heavy petting interrupted. Sometimes I did not like how it went and could not figure out how to say so.
To my surprise, the boy did not break up with me and would, a few weeks later, attend the show, flowers in hand. This meant he liked me more than he hated being menaced by a man taking out his trash in an alley. Which I supposed was pretty cool.
In rehearsals, our choreography for “Miracle of Miracles,” the song Motel sings to Tzeitel after Tevye grants them permission to wed, went through a few iterations. The director couldn’t decide whether Motel and I should be allowed to dance together or not.
Privately, I hoped the choreography would include touching. I wanted people to watch me be held, and therefore desired. But I flinched when Motel approached, though I tried not to.
Eventually it was decided: Motel and Tzeitel are the most traditional of the couples, the most adherent to the rules. They wouldn’t touch until marriage. So Motel sang the song, and I watched adoringly from a distance.
I wonder in retrospect, though, if the call was more merciful than liturgical. The director was a kind man, and also, had evidently hoped to cast someone older in the role. Perhaps he sensed the small screaming inside of me at the prospect of feeling an adult hand around my child’s waist.
One evening, a group of us young adults chatted backstage while the director fixed a scene. The girl playing the littlest sister, Bielke, hovered nearby. She was ten or eleven, and she was actively Christian — not just passively WASP-y, or even regular churchgoing faithful — she was a full evangelical. She was homeschooled and her mother came to watch every rehearsal. (Chava’s mother watched rehearsal, too, but she had theater mom energy, which was totally different. Bielke’s mother came to make sure her daughter didn’t get indoctrinated. Or something. We didn’t really know, but we had our suspicions.)
This girl was annoying. She was little and whiny. Of the non-teenage children, she was the only one who wasn’t Jewish. The others were cute, like little siblings (I didn’t have any), or else were canny enough to stay out of our adolescent drama. We liked braiding their hair, helping pin on their head scarves. We did not want to help Bielke. Bielke sucked.
She had tried, over the course of our conversation, to join in. We ignored her. The discussion turned to something Jewish, and now the little girl could not even pretend to have something to say. We continued to chat. She was getting agitated. Someone said something about death, maybe, or Hanukkah. Bielke took a deep breath.
“I’m so sad you guys don’t get to go to heaven with me,” she interjected, weirdly loud.
“What?” someone said. “What does that mean?”
“Because you’re Jewish,” she continued. No one responded. “I’m sad you guys have to go to hell,” she said, and then smiled.
Someone eventually said something like: “cool, thanks,” and our gossip huddle broke up, giggling a little bit nervously, a little bit gleefully. We had already disliked her, but felt bad about it; now we had cause. She was a bigot.
But I didn’t believe that, really. I knew she had no idea what she was talking about. I understood, even if I could not admit it, that she just wanted a response. I could see her desire for attention; it made me hate her more. I knew so intimately this feeling, this desire to be perceived. I knew she just wanted to be included. I was so thrilled to have finally won this prize myself that I could not extend her the grace of letting her in on the fun, too.
Our show began, as every production of “Fiddler on the Roof” does, with a full-ensemble performance of “Tradition.” On opening night, we sat backstage, pinning aprons, tracing on mascara, exchanging pre-show gifts, and then slowly dribbled toward the wings. For some reason, that evening, I managed to get through my preparations with unusual alacrity. Only I and the man playing the Constable had set ourselves in place for the opening number.
This man was a big deal in the local theater community. He hadn’t even had to audition for the part. He was known; he was talented; he was in everything. I got to know him quite well in a later production, but during “Fiddler,” I hardly spoke to him. We waited silently for the rest of the cast to join us.
I paced, sat down, stood back up, increasingly overcome by stage fright. So many things could go wrong. My singing voice might waver. I would surely miss steps in the dances I never really mastered. What if I forgot my lines. I had forgotten my lines. Oh my god; I could not remember a single piece of dialogue. What if the words never came back. What if I went onstage and had nothing to say. What if I spoke in quack noises instead. I didn’t want to but what if I did; what if my brain told my body to do something stupid and my body complied. Oh my god, oh my god.
I turned to the Constable and smiled weakly. He smiled back.
“I’m so nervous,” I said. “Oh my god.”
He nodded sympathetically.
“Can I ask you a question?” I said.
“Sure,” he said.
“Do you get nervous?” I said.
He paused. “Of course I do,” he said.
“Like, really nervous?” I said.
“Pretty nervous,” he said.
“Every time you act?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “Every time.”
I knew he was lying, even then. It helped anyway. It was comforting to be told, it is reasonable to care this much. I am a fully grown man. I will pretend to care as much as you do.
And anyway, I had matured just enough to understand: this was what nice people did. They made you feel normal. They invited you inside.
I went onstage. I acted so hard it hurt. I cried real tears. I pretended to fall in love. I cowered when the Cossacks came, and chastised my match-hungry sisters, trying to teach them to fear adulthood. I hit the middle harmony in “Anatevka” as loudly as I could, my almost-right note mingling with the others, singing of a placelessness I had never known.