On June 20, World Refugee Day, 500 immigrants, refugees, and employees of immigrant aid organizations gathered to watch the acclaimed off-Broadway Yiddish-language revival of “Fiddler on the Roof,” super-titled in Russian and English.
Three days earlier, the President had promised that the US would remove “millions of illegal aliens”; two days earlier, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had called the detention centers on the Southern border of the United States “concentration camps”); and, on the day of the performance, a man in Berlin reported that he had been punched in the face after admitting that he was Jewish.
So perhaps nobody should have been surprised when an evening at the theater ended with an intergenerational Jewish shouting match that took place over the bowed head of a Holocaust-survivor, while non-Jewish immigrants and refugees looked on in confusion.
Shortly before the opening of the acclaimed National Yiddish Folksbiene Theater production, Judith Sanchez, a 46-year-old from Mexico, who has lived in America for 25 years and works for the refugee aid group New Sanctuary Coalition, entered the theater and stared up at the word “Torah,” splashed in Hebrew against the stage backdrop. “I am a person that lives under the shadows — I don’t have a status here,” Sanchez told me.
Sanchez translated our conversation for Reyna Cruz, a 35-year-old refugee from Honduras who, like Tevye and his family, fled violence in her home country for America. Unlike those fictional characters who, settling in New York in the early 20th century, would have gained citizenship easily, Cruz, who came to the U.S. nearly three years ago, has no status. She does not speak English, Yiddish, or Russian, so she had to rely on her interpretation of music, movement, and actors’ emotions to understand the performance.
Near us, Alvin Santiago sat, flipping through a playbill. A 24-year-old who came to the United States from the Philippines as a 5th-grader, Santiago said he was inspired to take his job, aiding human trafficking survivors, because he knows how it feels to be desperately in need of help. But, he told me, if I wanted to meet someone impressive I should speak to his partner. She was in the lobby, greeting her clients from the American Friends Services Committee, who were bonded out of the detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey just in time to see “Fiddler.”
The lights went down. A woman in an overcoat strode on stage, heaved a violin to her shoulder, and began to play. For Reyna Cruz, Judith Sanchez, and Alvin Santiago, this was a first.
But Anatavka was a familiar sight for 91-year-old Harvey Moser, who has seen many productions of “Fiddler” since sailing to America in 1939 on the St. Louis — the escape vessel of 937 Jews on the eve of World War II. Turned away by Cuba, Canada, and the United States, the ship went back to Europe, where nearly a third of the passengers were later killed in the Holocaust. Moser’s family was able to smuggle themselves to France, where his parents were separated from their young children and put into camps. One year later the Mosers, who had lost their family business and their home during Hitler’s rise, arrived in America with ten dollars to their name.
After the first act, families clustered in the lobby, picnicking on soda and beef sandwiches. In one corner, near a tall window that gave out onto 42nd Street, half a dozen women changed dirty diapers, and fed and re-swaddled babies. Sitting with his mother and younger brothers, 19-year-old Jose Morillo explained that because he came to the Bronx from the Dominican Republic at 11, he is not yet a US citizen. His eight and ten-year-old brothers, who were born in the US, are. All three brothers found the first act of the play “very funny.”
Even though it’s not in English?
“Yeah,” said Jose, looking at me sharply. “We can read.”
Kyrone and Anthony, two 30-something Guayanese men, liked “Fiddler” too, though they seemed taken aback to learn that there would be a second act. Both came to the United States in the past four years, and were invited to “Fiddler” by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HIAS, the same group that received the Moser family when they arrived in the US in 1940. Kyrone and Anthony have attended resume and job-finding workshops through the agency, which gave Moser’s family food and housing when they landed in New York.
At the end of “Fiddler on the Roof,” the family has lost almost everything. The parents and their two youngest make for America, though we never learn if they arrive, or the fates of their eldest daughter in Warsaw, their second in Siberia, or their middle daughter, who becomes estranged from the family after marrying a non-Jew. The Folksbiene production, which does more justice to the musical than any rendition I’ve seen on Broadway or off, came to an end. At the curtain call, children, teens, and elderly people jumped to their feet and cheered.
The lights came up and performers made their way back to the stage, where they sat, staring out at the audience. It was the guests’ turn to exhibit. Luis Miranda, a longtime political organizer and advocate for Latin Americans, whose son wrote another rather famous musical about immigrants, roved the theater with a microphone, soliciting discussion. “You either volunteer or I pick,” Miranda twinkled.
“What you saw on stage is literally what is happening right now in America,” boomed a man from Trinidad, who didn’t share his name. “The people who are sitting here are crying,” he said, gesturing around him, “Because they understood what it meant.”
Judith Sanchez agreed. “What I saw in this presentation — it’s really repeating history,” she said.
Miranda asked the group if there is anything they miss from home.
“This is the 21st century,” said Irina, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, who identified herself as a Green Card lottery winner. “You can fly any time.”
“You have a choice, you have a Green Card, you can fly there,” the Trinidadian man shot back. But there are people, he said, who “are not Jewish community,” who don’t have that choice.
Harvey Moser raised his hand. “I would like to speak on a more positive note,” he said slowly, outlining the story of his family’s journey from Germany to the St. Louis, and finally, America. “I learned to experience that this is the greatest country in the world,” despite, he added, the “crazy lunatic” in the White House.
“We have been around for 4,000 years. We now have Israel,” he said, looking around, smiling. “I don’t think we’re going to go under at this time.”
The theater was silent. Then a 20-something woman in the second row leapt to her feet. “Sir, with all due respect!” she gasped, exclaiming that she, too, was descended from survivors of death camps and pogroms.
“I’ve grown up with this story,” she spat. “I went to Hebrew school, I went to Sunday school, and we were taught about this: ‘We, we, we, we, we!’ ‘Land of Israel!’ ‘All this is for you!’ I think especially those here tonight who have my same story — [should] come away from this seeing that this is not just our story.” She proceeded, referencing European colonialism and the fate of the Palestinian people. On the stage, “Fiddler” cast members nodded.
“I just want to echo the same sentiment,” piped a longhaired man in the audience, explaining that he was raised Hasidic. He turned to Moser, who had drawn close to his wife.
“What about all those from Latin America who don’t have Israel?” he demanded. He turned back to address the crowd. “I am appalled [at the refugee crisis,] having been raised in a religious Jewish community where my upbringing was based on the Holocaust and “all they tried to do to us,’” he said. A few people clapped.
“If we are frightened, what do we do?” asked Miranda.
“We connect,” said a gray-haired woman. “This is my story, this is my grandparents’ story…’Fiddler’ was my religious training” she said. “We remember that we were all in this boat at one point in time” she added, gesturing toward Judith Sanchez.
“Well,” scoffed a man sitting behind her. At his Manhattan synagogue, he explained, there is a volunteer clinic where he works with a young Venezuelan man who has seen such unkindness from the world that he was deeply touched when volunteers bought him a birthday cake. He frowned at the other audience members, as if daring each person to reveal the receipt for a Venezuelan refugee’s birthday cake.
“It’s not enough to try to just ‘connect,’” he said.
Millennial and middle-aged Jews glared at each other over Holocaust survivor Harvey Moser’s head, as Luis Miranda and recent refugees and immigrants watched.
A ten-year-old from El Salvador raised his hand, and said that he and his mother came to the U.S. with almost nothing. But since then, he’d learned English. “Don’t – don’t give up,” he said. “That’s my message – don’t give up.”
The room boomed with cheers and clapping. And for a moment it was just like during the curtain call at the end of the play, and we were a single group of people, all relating to the stories of the people on stage. When we were watching people perform, and not performing ourselves.
“This is my story,” members of the audience who hailed from South America, Africa, and Europe, agreed, as they walked out of the theater. Some added, “This is happening to me.” Nobody addressed Harvey Moser, who sat for a while after with his wife in their orchestra row, even though he could have told them how he still remembers the freezing cold of the open cargo ship that transported his family out of Belgium, the same kind of oppressive coldness described by teenage mothers trapped in detention centers on the US border.
On the way out of the theater, I passed a woman in the lobby, who was sobbing uncontrollably. I wondered — is it the play? Her immigration status? Or something else entirely? Family or friends stood around her, speaking soothingly in Spanish.
If only there were subtitles for this, too.
Jenny Singer is the deputy life/features editor for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny