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I am an unabashed fan of 1950s musicals and movies. Growing up, the local New York television station — yes, such a thing existed — ran reruns every weekday afternoon, and that often was my after-school activity. My parents collected record albums — yes, such things existed — of the original cast recordings, and those became the soundtrack to my childhood.
Every year at Christmastime, I watch “White Christmas” and think of my father and all the other World War 2 veterans whose experiences are reflected in the film. Its portrayal of women is utterly abysmal by today’s standards, but I don’t care. I still cry a little each time I see it.
Which is why I could not stay away from the latest revival of “My Fair Lady” at Lincoln Center.
The Jewish roots of these artistic treasures are wide and deep. Who else but a Jewish guy, Irving Berlin, could dream of a White Christmas and transform the hit song into an indelible piece of Americana? “My Fair Lady” portrays the epitome of English WASPy-ness, but its roots, too, are quintessentially Jewish. Lyricist Jay Lerner came from a wealthy Jewish New York family. The father of Frederick Loewe, who wrote the music, was a noted Jewish operetta star throughout Europe in the beginning of the last century.
The original director, Moss Hart, was the son of poor Jewish immigrants. I recently learned that the original cast — with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews — rehearsed in a Jewish Community Center in New Haven before hitting Broadway!
So I was in theatre heaven on Saturday night, totally engrossed in watching “My Fair Lady” from the opening melodies until the brilliant, dramatic ending. It was, to my mind, a flawless production. (Even my husband, not one for Broadway musicals, loved it.)
Not only did the show thrill and delight, it taught me something. After all, the language Henry Higgins employs to denigrate women is as offensive as it comes; if some of those songs were heard in isolation today, the #NotMyFairLady twitter campaign would begin immediately.
But lyrics do not exist in isolation. They are surrounded by music, plot, script, character development and therefore have greater meaning. Something that might appear sexist can, with brilliant casting and innovative direction, take on a very modern glow.
I won’t say more because I don’t want to spoil the ending. But as we reevaluate words and behaviors in this #MeToo moment, as we assess whether works of art should remain acceptable when their core messages offend contemporary sensibilities, I hope we don’t discard the real treasures that still have the capacity to touch the heart and soul. Now that would be loverly…
And speaking of Broadway. There were a lot of smiles in the Forward office this morning after “The Band’s Visit” swept last night’s Tony awards. Many here feel a personal connection to this captivating musical, especially after my colleague Dan Friedman, our executive editor, interviewed Itamar Moses, who wrote the book for the play, at a Forward event in March — before the nominations were even announced.
If you haven’t heard: “The Band’s Visit” tells of what happens one night when an Egyptian band mistakenly ends up in an all-but-forgotten Israeli town. Ari’el Stachel, who won the best featured actor award last night, summed it all up when he thanked the musical’s creators “for being courageous, for telling a small story about Arabs and Israelis getting along at a time where we need that more than ever.”
Why we do it. Last week, the Forward broke two significant stories about allegations of sexual abuse in the Jewish community. Ari Feldman wrote about a Durham, North Carolina rabbi who resigned after he had a yearlong, sexual relationship with a woman who regularly worshipped at his Reform congregation. Josh Nathan-Kazis reported on an Orthodox woman who posted a video on YouTube about alleged sexual abuse by a female counselor at her summer camp.
Stories like these are published only after exhaustive work to ensure that we are journalistically, legally and morally responsible. I always ask the reporters and editors: What is the public purpose in exposing these intimate and sometimes confusing stories? It’s not our job to adjudicate potential wrongdoing, but to place these episodes in a larger civic context.
Ari’s story was important because it questioned how much congregations should be told about rabbinic indiscretions, and how such disclosures should be weighed against the accused’s right to privacy. Josh’s story raised the issue of potential abuse in summer camps, especially when those camps serve vulnerable teenagers searching to deepen their Jewish attachment.
If you have more information about these stories, please contact Ari at Feldman@forward.com and Josh at firstname.lastname@example.org Thank you.
Looking forward. Tomorrow I’m going to Washington DC for a discussion of the Pew Research Center’s landmark survey of American Jews, which was released nearly five years ago. Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary and a scholar of American Jewry, will give the keynote address.
The crunching of data from the Pew study continues to this day. Look for a story on forward.com tomorrow with further analysis of Jewish trends in the future.
If you have ideas about the Pew survey or anything else, really, feel free to contact me at JaneEisnerEIC@forward.com. Remember you can always email me with any questions and concerns.
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Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, became editor-in-chief of the Forward in 2008, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward readership has grown significantly and has won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.