Editor’s Note: Fifty years ago, on November 3, 1971, the film adaptation of “Fiddler on the Roof” premiered. In honor of the anniversary, this week we are publishing a series of articles on the impact of ‘Fiddler’ and his legacy.
It was the afternoon before the opening. Most of the campers had returned home for the day, and the few of us who remained were waiting. Then, in the air-conditioned cafeteria, he walked around, wearing sunglasses and a leather jacket and running his hand through his salt and pepper hair.
We were doing a production of “Fiddler on the Roof”, and that was the last production I was in at summer drama camp. I was the oldest, I was 17 next month; I reached out to grab my co-star’s hand. We stood in a circle, ready to listen.
There is this gag going on in “Fiddler” – the rabbi who lived in Anatevka will come to bless someone or something. He blessed the Tsar (God bless him and keep him – “away from us”) and he blessed a new sewing machine. Our program director had spent the summer teaching us some of her own Jewish traditions. And, that Wednesday, she invited her rabbi to bless our show.
He asked us to form a circle around him. K, the student playing the rabbi, stood closest to him, most excited to meet this spiritual leader. The rabbi told us about tradition, community, love, hope, change and how it all relates to God.
It was the first spiritual experience that moved me. I connected with every sentence, every word he shared. We graciously thanked him after his blessing. Who could have predicted, in mid-August, as I approached adulthood, that I would have decided to convert to Judaism.
It sounds silly when you say it out loud. “I was in a production of ‘A Fiddler on the Roof’ and decided to be Jewish. ” I know that. But my relationship with God and this pivotal moment goes further than that.
How “Fiddler on the Roof” convinced me to convert to Judaism – really.
I did not grow up in any particular religion. I have described my childhood as an “adjacent Catholic” childhood. Certainly, my parents celebrated Christmas, but in the family and business sense. I didn’t even know who Jesus was until I started school. My father grew up Catholic, but found no solace in organized religion. My mom grew up in a spiritual home, but felt more like a private spiritual connection to the earth and a higher power, be it a god, gods, or whatever.
I have never been baptized. My mother firmly believed that when I was old enough I would know and understand my spiritual path, and decide which religion I wanted to practice (or not).
My classmates who went to Sunday school didn’t understand why I didn’t go. I went to church about once a year for the wedding or confirmation of a family member, looking at myself during mass and wishing I had brought a good book.
When I was 10, I joined a performing arts summer camp. I was a shy kid, but I liked the acting classes I took in a small shoebox theater. My mom found camp when she was looking for ways to fill my summer – spending six weeks making “The Wizard of Oz” felt like a dream! I became a sailor in the tornado, a sarcastic tree that threw apples at Dorothy and a witch guard.
I have returned to this camp year after year. I met one of my best friends there, watching “Singin ‘in the Rain” during “Once Upon a Mattress” callbacks. I then joined acting classes during the school year, playing in cabarets where we sang songs from “Hair” or “Funny Girl”, and appearing in productions staged with teenage detectives, soldiers from the civil war and all the Whos of Whoville. I joke with friends that I was “baptized” in a “Godspell” production.
This theater has become my sanctuary. I was safe here to express my fears, desires, and desires. I could be myself – at a time when I was still figuring it out. I lay down on the cool stage floor when I realized I was questioning my sexuality. I went out with cast mates and camp counselors. They kissed me, applauded me, celebrated who I am. I made my best friend participate in the program so that she would also feel at home, so that we could feel supported together. When we were both depressed and on the line between life and death, it was my principal who called the school to make sure everything was okay.
She created this holy place. She shared a honey cake with us on Rosh Hashanah. She was explaining her own traditions of prayer when Golde lit candles or Tevye spoke to God. She spoke of the pride she felt as a Jewish woman, even growing up in a time when people spat at her and cursed her. She wanted to create a place where we all felt welcome and eager to ask questions, whether it was the Mel Brooks movies, her summer stock time, or her chocolate chip scone recipe.
I’m still looking for my way. I slowly learn the prayers and light the candles. When I went to college, I asked a friend to take me under her wing. She explained her own experience and understanding of Judaism. We discussed the classic religious arguments (and excuses) for hatred and oppression. On Purim, she brought me a bag of candy and told me all about Esther’s book (calls and everything).
I am learning, but I know this: my relationship with God is between me and God only. My love and connection is mine. It is growing. It’s true and it’s changing all the time. I pride myself on always trying new things and learning on myself – practicing my own traditions, leaning on my friends when I need to. I may not have understood everything and my Hebrew is poor, but I can’t wait to keep moving forward.
I often think back to that time: holding hands with my family, my community, listening to the words of the rabbi. This is what God means to me: love, security, mutual support in the best and worst times, having hope until the end. I will cherish this moment forever, the lasting grace of youth.
I remember. And next year, I will not forget to thank my manager, and ask her for her honey cake recipe so that I can share it with you.
Maura Lee Bee is a queer LatinX writer based in New York City. Writer in several genres, his work has been featured on Autostraddle, Breadcrumbs and YES Poetry. Her first book, “Peter & the Concrete Jungle” was published in 2017, and her book “Mall goth” was shortlisted for Ghost City Press’s 2021 summer Microchap series. She is currently working on three novels. When not busy dismantling an otherwise oppressive system, she enjoys reading books, baking pies, and meeting new dogs.