One evening in late November, I attended a performance of Tom Stoppard’s acclaimed play “Leopoldstadt.” This show examines antisemitism, Jewish assimilation, Zionism, family ties and the Holocaust. It is a raw, powerful work of theater, an ensemble tragicomedy that shows how an extended Jewish family lives within Viennese society in 1899, 1900, 1924, 1938, and 1955.
Some members of the family embrace their Judaism, while others convert to Christianity, hoping to assimilate more smoothly. The opening act features Christmas and Hanukkah mixed together, rather uneasily. The 1938 act takes place during the pogrom-like events of Kristallnacht, with the family shivering from cold and fear; a Nazi storms into the house, insulting and scaring everyone, and they debate what to do. Some cling to the hope that the bad times will fade away, while others realize that they must escape.
The final act, with just three surviving cousins gathering together in 1955, reveals how many of their relatives died in death camps, or by other awful means, including suicide.
Theatergoers are left to ponder the fates of the survivors, and wonder whether others should have fled Vienna sooner, no matter how much they prized their city and its culture, commerce, and comforts-especially when the comforts were fleeting. From the comfort of our seats, we can debate the themes of assimilation versus tribalism, denying antisemitism or dealing with it, moving to Israel, or living in the Diaspora.
Knowing this play was about painful topics, I chose to go solo to the show, but inside the theater, I immediately spotted two people (both Jewish) whom I’ve known for many years; our daughters were childhood pals and we have many common acquaintances. We caught up with each other and then took our seats, in the balcony but at opposite ends.
I don’t know about Eileen and Charles, but it felt odd to me to be sociable at a performance such as this one. On a certain level, that is Jewish history to me: uncomfortable themes mixed in friendships, the painful and the cheerful, good times and bad times.
After the show, as I traveled home via subway train, I decided that the most appropriate thing I could do was daven maariv. And do so obviously, not surreptitiously. I always carry a small siddur in my fanny pack so I took it out and prayed. Even if I prayed silently, without standing nor chanting, I held up that red-covered prayer book, held my head high, and read the familiar Hebrew words.
No one confronted me, and that was reassuring. Then again, this is New York City where practically anything goes. I didn’t stand out by reading (well, maybe I did because I was practically the only rider not gazing at a cell phone). But Praying In Public is not going to get me in trouble and probably won’t be noticed much in NYC. Elsewhere, Praying In Public could be difficult, or even impossible, now and at various times throughout history.
It dawned on me that New York’s Theater District currently features two different yet also similar fictional depictions of Jewish life. On West 48th Street you have Leopoldstadt, a play featuring upper-class Jews who often want to shed their Judaism, or polish its edges to fit in better within secular society; and the revival of Fiddler on the Roof, in Yiddish, the classic musical about poor shtetl Jews in Eastern Europe who scrimp and save, and are cast out of their town, to go elsewhere- especially the United States and pre-statehood Israel. Yet the show that ends on a more hopeful note, undoubtedly, is Fiddler; the Jews are not killed but rather launched out into other parts of the world, hopefully, more hospitable parts of the world, where they might be able to thrive. In Leopoldstadt, most of the Jewish characters are killed, and the few remaining must wrestle with survivors’ guilt and shadows.
It is more than fitting that we can see both Leopoldstadt and Fiddler, in theaters just minutes away from each other, at a time when antisemitism around the United States, and around the world, is growing. Social media platforms are filled with threats, insults, mockery, lies, and worse. Violent physical incidents are on the rise as well, even in New York City. “Jews will not replace us!” is a rallying cry for white supremacists, while a few brazen celebrities mock us and worse.
What is a Jew to do? Assimilate, blend in, hide and deny? Or confront and stand proudly but also as a target? In Leopoldstadt, we viewers can sort through the roles and responses of the characters, and for the most part, we see that being in denial won’t save us from the most rabid antisemites. It seems that we can never fully assimilate because someone will eventually out us as Jews.
Most of the Jews of Fiddler know that they cannot hide, so they leave and pray that they will find refuge elsewhere. Are they more conscious of their obvious Jewishness because they are poor, unlike the Jews of Leopoldstadt, who have servants and grand pianos, university educations …and a Christmas tree?
Leopoldstadt made a strong impression on me, and I talked about it with a few people I know who have seen it. My friend Eunice, who is not Jewish, mentioned to me that “Leopoldstat teaches us to see the good in others and strive to be the same or better. We are all human beings and deserve to fight for the better things in life.” I was touched by this and felt that she was much more optimistic than I after watching the play. A man I know at synagogue, Elliot, said he’d seen the play in London, where it originated; his assessment was “We all knew how awful it would end, from the start.”
On the other hand, as sad as Fiddler can be (especially during “Anatevka”), people love to sing the songs from it. Many of the musical numbers have become larger than life, such as “Tradition” and “To Life” and “If I Were a Rich Man” (or “Traditsye” and “Lekhayim” and “Ven Ikh Bin a Rothschild” in Yiddish). Fiddler is bittersweet, for sure, but also full of joy and jokes. Leopoldstadt had jokes sprinkled here and there, especially in the earlier acts. But for the most part, it is a heavy, doomed piece of literature.
As much as I am appreciative of seeing Leopoldstadt, I cannot embrace it in the way that I have long embraced Fiddler, where the characters are almost all proudly Jewish and want to survive that way. I want Fiddler to be my touchstone in times of antisemitic activity, rather than Leopoldstadt. I prefer to sing and show the world that I’m not afraid to be a Jew, rather than suffer the awful fates of the assimilated Jews of Leopoldstadt.
Ellen Levitt is the author of the three books in the series The Lost Synagogues of New York City (Avotaynu) and 3 other books. She has also written for various online and print publications, including the New York Times and New York Daily News. Ellen is a longtime member of the Flatbush Womens Davening Group. She and her husband and children reside in Brooklyn, NY.