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April 12, 2013

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PAGE 18A By Rabbi Rachel Esserman The (Vestal, N.Y.) Reporter Can Broadway musicals teach us about changing American attitudes to the Holocaust? In"Echoes of the Holocaust on the American Musical Stage" (McFarland and Co., Inc, Publishers), Jessica Hillman, an assis-" tant professor of theater and dance at the State University of New York at Fredonia, uses eight Broad- way shows to examine how this "unique American art form" has served as a"venue for playing out our cultural obsession with Nazism and the Holocaust." Her focus is on the public perceptions of the Holocaust and how, as popular opinion changed, so did the portrayal of the Nazi era on stage. Three musicals fea- tured--"The Sound of Mu- sic," "Cabaret" and "The Producers'--deal directly with issues of Nazism, with the first two focusing on Germany prior to World War II and the latter on Nazis in the 20th century.One musi- cal, "Milk and Honey," takes place in Israel in the early By Cnaan Liphshiz AMSTERDAM (JTA)-- The dreamy expression of a child at a chocolate factory slowly spreads across Geza Weisz's handsome face as he watches the quivering breasts and buttocks of young black women danc- ing around him at an Am- sterdam nightclub. The scene appears in "Only Decent People," a dark and provocative Dutch-language film that examines the fraught rela- tions between the country's Jews and other minorities and stars Weisz, a Jewish Amsterdammer and a major movie star in Holland. Based on a 2009 best- selling novel by theDutch Jewish author Robert Vui- jsje, the film was the second most popular in Holland last year, drawing 350,000 viewers in more than 100 theatersma substantial number in a nation of 16 million. HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, APRIL 12, 2013 Broadway musicals and the Holocaust 1960s, while the action of the remaining musicals-- "Fiddler on the Roof," "The Rothchilds .... Rags" and "Ragtime"--take place be- fore World War II, either in Europe or the United States. Hillman considers them relevant to her study due to their "nostalgia" for either the Jewish world destroyed by the Nazis or the biblical Jewish promise of a home- land in Canaan. She believes that it's impossible to look at any Jewish-themed work with- out taking the Holocaust into consideration--even when it doesn't speak di- rectly to the events of World War II. While her premise is not always convincing, Hill- man does an excellent job showing how these musicals developed, an analysis that will be greatly appreciated by theatrical historians. After a general discus- sion showing the increased portrayal of the Holocaust in American culture during the latter part of the 20th century and the begin- ning of the 21st, Hillman examines each musical in detail. These chapters fea- ture information about the background and history of each production, a synopsis of the plot for the more ob- scure musicals and, when relevant, biographical infor- mation about the authors, lyricists and composers. What will interest musical theater lovers most is her treatment of the changes made to material, not only during the tryout stages of the original productions, but in revivals. Hillman's premise is best displayed during her discussion of "The Sound of Music." Although the musical is not about Jews or the Holocaust, its plot hinges on the Nazi take- over. of Austria. The author focuses on how the use of Nazi symbols (for example, the swastika) changed over time. In the original produc- tion, although the swastika appeared in uniforms dur- ing tryouts, by the time the show opened on Broadway, they were no longer used. In fact, for most of the musi- cal, the Nazis' presence was offstage--mentioned, but not seen. While the film version used more Nazi symbolism, it downptayed or eliminated the political discussions that had oc- curred in the stage version. Hillman notes that by the 1998 stage revival, though, "th Nazi imagery and at- titude toward the Holocaust embraced a grimmer reality than had been seen in the original productions .... Swastikas were back on Nazi uniforms, and Nazi characters came directly on stage, on several occasions. In particular, during the final concert three large, red shocking swastika banners were the background for the singing" of two songs. What was once considered inappropriate was now nec- essar'y to make the play feel more realistic. According to Hillman, Americans could no longer think about World War II without thinking of the Holocaust. Less convincing is Hill- man's attempt to show how the Holocaust resonates in the musicals she labels "nostalgic." For "Rags" and "Ragtime"--both of which focus on Jewish immigrants to the United States during the early part of the 20th century--she suggests the characters' "suffering could stand in for the suffering of the Holocaust," although she also acknowledges that the future of these immi- grants was far more positive than that Of their brethren who remained in Europe. Her reason for calling the musicals nostalgic is that the time period in which they took place was "part of a 'gentler' time and calls up Holocaust associations in contrast to the relative lease' of the immigrant period." While I've seen neither mu- sical on stage, I am familiar with the cast recording of "Rags" and don't remember making the associations Hillman suggests. However, that may be more a matter of age and temperament. My favorite chapter fo- cuses on the musical with which I am least familiar, "The Rothchilds." It was the least successful of the pro- ductions discussed, perhaps due to what Hillman calls its "Jewish specificity and a dark, sometimes aggres- sively angry tone that even .the creators found trouble- some." If they accurately Jewish rebel pursues interracial romance in a controversial Dutch film But its stereotypical de- pictions of Moroccans, Jews and black Surinamese have drawn intense criticism in a country where the les- sons of colonialism and the Holocaust have instituted a strict standard of political correctness--a standard that some say only a Jewish artist could breach "If 'Only Decent People' were written by someone who was not Jewish or Su- rinamese, it would've have been seen as pure racism," said Bart Wallet, a non- Jewish historian and expert on Dutch Jewry. "It is met with greater understand- ing'because Robert Vuijsje is a Jewish man who has a Dutch Afro-Surinamese partner." In the film, Weisz plays a rebelliou and dark-com- plexioned David Samuels, the only s9n of affluent Jewish intellectuals who endures discrimination because he looks like a Moroccan. Estranged from HANDYMAN SERVICE Handy man and General Maintenance Air Conditioning Carpentry Electrical Plumbing Formerly hanclJed maintenance at JCC References available STEVE'S SERVICES Call Steve Doyle at (386) 668-8960 We are your source for: Inviltatn8 Brochures Leith8 - Envelopes - Busne6s Cords Progroms FIlcs Pcet Cords Forrr Digftol Photogropl * Lobels Direct Moil 1 407.767.7110 ,,,*' www ele an rintin .net ,, . g tp g 0_5 North Street Longwood, FL 32750" :7 both the Jewish community and the wider Dutch society on account of his looks, Da- vid embarks on a quest for black lovers that leads him to witness not only violence and promiscuity among Holland's black underclass, but also the racist attitudes of his Jewish friends. The film traffics freely in racial stereotypes: blacks are lazy and greedy; whites are unhygienic; Jews are slave traders; Moroccans are violent. Such senti- ments, combined with the film's depiction of group sex and borderline rape, helped make "Only Decent People" a commercial success, but tlaey also brought latent prejudices to the fore--bol- stering the claims of critics who h'ave argued that the film fosters rather than critiques Dutch racism. Since its release, Vuijsje has been the target of a death threat and been denounced by members" of Holland's black com- munity. One Mack artist rehashed centuries-old claims of Jewish complicity in the slave trade. "The film's popularity made them feel uncomfort- able in a country which celebrates such messages," said.Anousha Nzume, a black activist and art- ist, referring to Holland's 500,000-member black community, roughly two- thirds of whom are immi- grants from the country's former South American colony of Suriname. Given its strong Jewish credentials--the film was financed by the Abraham Tuschinski Fund, which was named for the late Jewish owner of a chain of theaters in the Neth- erlands-the Jewish com- munity has treated the film as its own. This month, the social action arm of the Dutch Jewish Commu- Geza Weisz, right, and Imanuelle Grives on the set of in Amsterdam. nity, the JMW, organized a special screening for its members, complete with a Q&A session with Vuijsje and Weisz at a Touschinski theater. But the film had a much broader appeal, which may owe to it.s exhaustive exploration of racial rela- tions and class differences in Holland. By following a Jewish resident of a white neighborhood who looks like an Arab and lusts for blacks, the film took audiences into the often unseen precincts of Holland's minority com- munities. "The commotion about the book and the film is partly because they stop short of deconstructing stereotypes," Wallet said. "They go through them, tell them as jokes. Some feel that this affirms the stereotypes and thereby undermines Dutch soci- e.ty's aspiration for greater tolerance." Vuijsje, whose book gen- erated significant discon- tent when it was published, acknowledges that racist stereotypes abound in the film, but argued that re- fraining from portraying black people negatively would have been racist itself, implying that that they're "too weak" to be objects of ridicule. And he notes that in Suriname itself, tickets to see the film reportedly were sold out for weeks. "The experiences de- scribed ithe film and the book are semi-auto- biographical," said Vui- jsje, who lives with his Dutch Afro-Surinamese girlfriend, Lynn Spier. "It's not my diary. But it's a story about what I saw happening around me. I wrote a book about racism; that's very different from writing a racist book." Tlae film also revives unspoken resentments over the role of Dutch Jews in the slave trade. In one scene, the mother of one of David's portrayed the oppression the real-life Rothchlld fam- ily faced in 17th century Europe, the creators risked sounding anti-Christian. They also worried about the backlash thatmight occur by focusing too greatly on the Rothchilds' monetary suc- cess and financial abilities. Hillman suggests that the musical "simultane- ously appeals to wistful memory, while angrily reso- nating with the Holocaust, and rejecting easy calls to nostalgia." While I'm not certain this is correct, it sounds fascinating, which makes me wish I had seen it on stage. Other interesting chap- ters discuss the idealized nostalgia of "Fiddler on the Roof," and the Borsht Belt humor used to ridicule the Nazis in "The Producers." While this is a scholarly work, Hiilman's prose is easy to read, although her writing style is dry and fac- tual, rather than exciting. However, the story of how these works came into being provides its own excitement, at least for those who love the Broadway stage. Topkapi Films 'Only Decent People' last year black girlfriends confronts him over his ancestors' role in enslaving the Su- rinamese. David responds by telling her about their experiences during the Holocaust, resulting in a surreal debate about which was worse. "Of course we know Jews, some of them owned slaves," Vuijsje said. "We see ourselves as victims, but some blacks see us as victimizers." Despite the animosities it addresses and resent- ments it may or may not stoke, for at least one person connected to the film, the production was a rare affirmative-action moment. "I wanted to play the part because I come from a ffackground similar to that of the protagonist, but also because of how often I lose good parts to blond, tall colleagues," Weisz said. "This time I knew they didn't stand a chance in hell against me."