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At BroadwayCon in Midtown, Jewish actors dish on identity and representation in the industry

(New York Jewish Week) – A woman dressed as Fanny Brice from “Funny Girl” and another dressed as Fruma Sarah from “Fiddler on the Roof” were among the 100-plus people who filed into a Midtown conference room on Friday morning to discuss Jewish identity on Broadway.  

The Jewish fans — whose real names were Jackie and Michelle, and declined to share their last names — were dressed as their favorite Jewish musical characters, and were attending one of the first panel discussions of BroadwayCon 2023. The conference, at the New York Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square, is an annual gathering in the vein of ComicCon that brings thousands of fans and industry professionals for a weekend of celebration, singing, discussion and meet-and-greets.  

The panel, called “Jewish Identity and Broadway,” came together in less than a week, its organizer Ari Axelrod — a Jewish actor, singer and educator — told the New York Jewish Week. He said he organized it in response to the July 11 casting announcement for the national tour of “Funny Girl,” in which a non-Jewish actress had been chosen to play Fanny Brice, a role made famous by Barbra Streisand. Brice, a pioneering Jewish comedian in the early 20th century, struggled with her Jewish identity in her rise to fame.

In the aftermath of the casting announcement, the debate over whether or not non-Jews can play Jewish characters — a term actress and comedian Sarah Silverman dubbed “Jewface” — resurfaced online.

Amid the hubbub, “Somebody had said to me, ‘You should host something,’” Axelrod told the New York Jewish Week. “It was in direct response to the casting.”

While there have been Jewish-focused panels at BroadwayCon since the annual conference began in 2015, the past year has been a landmark one for Jewish stories on Broadway — particularly those that deal with antisemitism, including “Parade” and “Leopoldstadt,” which both won Tony Awards. “Parade,” about the real-life antisemitic lynching of Jewish factory superintendent Leo Frank in 1915, saw a neo-Nazi protest outside of the theater while it was in previews. Michelle dressed at Fruma Sarah, the ghost that Tevye says haunts dreams in “Fiddler on the Roof.” (Julia Gergely)

Michelle (dressed as Fruma Sarah) attends the conference every year, and said she was interested in the event because she is Jewish and became interested in Jewish representation on Broadway during a BroadwayCon panel she attended in 2020.

“There was a rabbi who was an actor. He said that there was a time he wasn’t cast to play a rabbi because he didn’t look Jewish enough,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘He’s a rabbi, how can you get more Jewish than that? It just really made me realize how much of an issue representation is for us.”

Speaking on the hour-long panel was Axelrod, who was named to the New York Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36” (now known as “36 to Watch”) in 2021; Talia Suskauer, who starred as Elphaba in the Broadway run and national tour of “Wicked”; Shoshanna Bean, who was nominated for a Tony Award last year for her performance in “Mr. Saturday Night”; Brandon Uranowitz, who last month won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play for “Leopoldstadt”; Zachary Prince, who has been in several Broadway shows and recently performed in “A Transparent Musical,” based on the Jewish-themed TV show, in Los Angeles; and Alexandra Silber, who played Tzeitel in the most recent Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Moderating the panel was Becca Suskauer, a New York-based Jewish actress. 

The wide-ranging discussion touched on Jewish representation, identity, pride and joy during a period of rising antisemitism. Panelists also noted that the goal of the conversation was to talk about how Broadway actors and insiders can actively uplift Jewish stories as well as those from other oppressed groups.

Suskauer emphasized that people should “listen before you speak and listen before you immediately go to pass judgment on something,” while Bean encouraged attendees to “be introspective” towards their own internalized prejudices if they are nervous to speak out on issues affecting marginalized groups. 

Axelrod — echoing Michelle’s comment — spoke of the double standard that he feels exists within the industry — the idea that Jews are sometimes deemed “not Jewish looking enough” to play Jewish roles, but “too Jewish” to be cast in other roles. He also said there was a perceived double standard in that it’s considered acceptable for non-Jewish performers to be cast in Jewish roles, something that is frowned upon regarding other ethnic groups. 

“There is this fear amongst the Jewish community that we can be Jewish, just not too Jewish,” Axelrod said. “We have a responsibility to dismantle that entire internalized assimilation within ourselves, because it’s important to show the world who we are. But to show them the world we can take multitudes, we first have to believe in ourselves.”

The “Funny Girl” casting only came up with 20 minutes left in the discussion. And while the actors made a point of noting that the actress chosen for the role, a Latina woman named Katerina McCrimmon, was very talented, they said it was nonetheless disappointing and worrisome to have a non-Jewish person playing Fanny Brice, who was a real person who often played on Jewish stereotypes to garner laughs from mainstream audiences.

An attendee of the panel dressed as Fanny Brice, the Jewish main character in “Funny Girl,” which will end its Broadway run this fall. (Julia Gergely)

“I was so excited for the role of Fanny Brice to be played by someone who is able to live so solidly and steadfastly and their Jewishness and who can bring that on the national tour to places that don’t have a lot of Jews,” Suskauer said. “I got immediately so scared when I heard that someone not Jewish was going to be playing at this Jewish stereotype. She can do this research, she can try to do it as respectfully as possible, but at the end of the day, she’s going to be playing at a stereotype while wearing bagels on her body.” (Suskauer was referring to “Private Schwartz from Rockaway,” a number in which Fanny imagines herself as a Jewish soldier and dances with bagels strung around her body.)

But the panel ended on a positive note. “‘To live is an actionable decision that we get to make every day, and when we say ‘l’chaim,’ we are literally saying ‘to life,’” Axelrod said.  “I think it is imperative to every single person in this room that when you clink your Manischewitz, or your Kedem grape juice, and you say ‘l’chaim,’ mean it. Take those words as a call to action and do it, literally. Go do something that reminds you that you’re a Jewish person who was living your life.”

Rho and Maddy, teenage twins from New Jersey who declined to share their last names, said they attended the panel for the potential to meet Uranowitz, one of their favorite actors. They were surprised at how much the panel resonated with them. “It was really great to hear everyone’s opinions,” Rho said. “I’m so glad I came.”

“Especially as someone who is half-Jewish, there’s a lot of assimilation and sometimes being told and believing ‘you’re not really Jewish,’ or that doesn’t count,” Maddy said. “[This panel] definitely showed me I want to and can be an activist for my community.”


The post At BroadwayCon in Midtown, Jewish actors dish on identity and representation in the industry appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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New Faculty Campaign Aims to Show Solidarity With Jewish Students

Anti-Israel students protest at Columbia University in New York City. Photo: Reuters/Jeenah Moon

Over 1,000 university professors will participate in a new campaign to show solidarity with Jewish students experiencing levels of antisemitism that are without precedent in the history of the United States, the Academic Engagement Network (AEN), which promotes academic freedom, announced on Tuesday.

Titled “KeeptheLightOn,” the initiative comes amid a reckoning of congressional investigations, lawsuits, and civil rights inquiries prompted by an explosion of antisemitic discrimination at some of America’s most prestigious universities. It will see the formation of a new group, the Faculty Against Antisemitism Movement (FAAM), comprising professors from across the US who will pressure senior administrators at their schools to address anti-Jewish hatred as robustly as other forms of racism.

“We have written books, op-eds, and articles, but they are not penetrating the echo chamber of anti-Zionist antisemitism,” Southwestern University English professor Michael Saenger said in a press release. “As with previous protest movements, visual displays are sometimes necessary to get people to stop demonizing marginalized groups. We need to respond to bullying and hate, directed against ourselves and Jewish students, more directly and more personally: by visibly advocating for a university that treats Jews as people, and that treats Israel as a nation.”

As part of the campaign, FAAM professors will leave their office lights on after hours to “publicly demonstrate their commitment to fighting antisemitism.” AEN added on Tuesday that the lights will “also symbolize the faculty’s commitment to ‘light a fire’ under administrators to ensure a better academic year ahead.”

“Keep the Light On” was inspired by University of California, Berkeley professor Richard Hassner, who last month held what was widely believed to be the first teacher “sleep-in” protest of antisemitism, AEN said. For two weeks, Hassner lived in his office until administrators agreed to stop an anti-Zionist group’s blockade of a campus foot-bridge which made it impossible for Jewish students to cross without being verbally abused.

Numerous Jewish faculty members at other campuses have also begun stepping up and demanding a change. Some have organized faculty trips to Israel. Others have cobbled their peers together to form groups — such as Yale’s Forum for Jewish Faculty & Friends and Indiana University’s Faculty and Staff for Israel — which have since grown exponentially and will serve as a well of support for FAAM.

“The FAAM initiative is both a distressing sign of the times and a hopeful symbol for the future not only for Jews but also for the academy,” Smith College professor and AEN advisory board member Donna Robinson Divine said. “An academy that has become the core location for an activism promoting social justice cannot sustain its credibility by tolerating hostile attacks against its Jewish student and faculty. Nor can education leaders preserve the legitimacy of the universities over which they preside by ignoring the recycling of this old and dangerous hatred. Rooting out antisemitism in classrooms, lecture halls, and social gatherings is thus as important for Jewish students and faculty as it is for the academy and the nation.”

As The Algemeiner has previously reported, Jewish college students have never faced such extreme levels of hatred. Since Oct. 7 — when Hamas-led Palestinian terrorists invaded Israel, massacred 1,200 people, and kidnapped 253 others as hostages — they have endured death threats, physical assaults, and volleys of racist verbal attacks unlike anything seen in the US since the 1950s.

Many college officials at first responded to the problem sluggishly, according to critics, who noted universities offered a host of reasons for why antisemitic speech should be protected even as they censored students and professors who uttered statements perceived as being conservative. At the same time, progressive thought leaders came under fire for hesitating to acknowledge a swelling of antisemitic attitudes in institutions and organizations reputed to be champions of civil rights and persecuted minority groups. One recent study found that US universities have demonstrated an “anti-Jewish double standard” by responding to Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel and the ensuing surge in campus antisemitism much less forcefully than they did to crimes perpetrated against African Americans and Asians.

The situation changed after three presidents of elite universities were hauled before the US House Committee on Education and the Workforce to account for their handling of antisemitism and said on the record that there are cases in which they would decline to punish students who called for a genocide of the Jewish people. The stunning admissions prompted the resignations of Elizabeth M. Magill as president of University of Pennsylvania and eventually of Claudine Gay, Harvard University’s former president, who would not leave until a series of reporters exposed her as a serial plagiarist.

The US Congress is currently investigating whether several colleges intentionally ignored discrimination when its victims were Jewish. On Wednesday, its focus will shift to Columbia University, where Jewish students have been beaten up and harassed because they support Israel. The school’s president, Minouche Shafik, is scheduled to testify, and the event promises to be a much scrutinized affair.

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

The post New Faculty Campaign Aims to Show Solidarity With Jewish Students first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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Adath Israel and Beth David: a pair of Conservative synagogues in Toronto narrowly decided against becoming one

It was close, but Toronto synagogues Adath Israel and Beth David will remain separate entities after Beth David’s vote on amalgamation fell short of the required two-thirds threshold. Adath Israel, the larger of the two Conservative synagogues by membership and facility size, voted overwhelmingly on April 14 to amalgamate, with 91 percent in favour. But […]

The post Adath Israel and Beth David: a pair of Conservative synagogues in Toronto narrowly decided against becoming one appeared first on The Canadian Jewish News.

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Amid Dimming Hopes That This Year Will Be in Jerusalem, Jews in Ethiopia Prepare for World’s Largest Seder

Jewish women in Ethiopia sort through grain to be used in baking matzot. Photo: Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ)

The Jewish community in the embattled region of Gondar, Ethiopia is preparing for the world’s largest Passover Seder this year, with nearly 4,000 Ethiopian Jews residing in camps and awaiting immigration to Israel expected to attend.

Over 80,000 matzot have been baked by members of the community over the past several weeks in preparation for the holiday, Jeremy Feit, the president of the Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ) aid group, told The Algemeiner. A smaller Seder, with almost 1,000 attendees, will take place in the capital of Addis Ababa.

The Jewish holiday of Passover, which celebrates the Biblical story of the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt, will begin next Monday evening and end the following Tuesday.

A portion of the 80,000 matzot for use during Passover in Ethiopia. Photo: Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ)

Past Passover Seders in Ethiopia have provided attendees a rare opportunity to partake in the traditional feast, offering some their first ever taste of meat — a luxury they could not otherwise afford. But according to Feit, food price hikes of 50 percent to 100 percent have meant that this year’s feast will largely consist of potatoes and eggs.

“With the extreme price increases and the resulting hunger, the community will feel the intensity as they pray to celebrate the Seder next year with their families in Jerusalem,” Feit said.

The Seder comes on the heels of an airlift of medical supplies for the beleaguered community, facilitated by SSEJ. Ten pallets of aid were delivered to a medical clinic established by the group a year ago in Gondar, serving 3,300 children and 700 elderly. The aid was dedicated in memory of former US Sen. Joe Lieberman, who served as SSEJ’s honorary chairman and who passed away during the weeks-long airlift operation.

SSEJ, which is based in the US  and entirely volunteer-run, is the only provider of humanitarian aid to Jews in Ethiopia. The group aims to mitigate some of the hunger ravaging the community by providing more than 2.5 million meals per year, prioritizing very young children, pregnant and nursing women, and students at a local yeshiva, who Feit said were often “so hungry they would faint in class.”

SSEJ and its leaders have assisted around 60,000 Ethiopians immigrate to Israel, more than the total number brought to the Jewish state during its storied military operations in 1984 and 1991.

Jewish men in Ethiopia need the dough that will be baked into matzot. Photo: Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ)

According to Feit, some 13,000 Jews still remain in Ethiopia. Recent years have seen several hundred Ethiopian Jews immigrate to Israel at a time, especially during periods of violent civil strife, but even that trickle has dried up following the brutal Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on southern Israel.

“The average person in Gondar and Addis Ababa has been waiting to make aliyah for 20 years,” Feit said, using the Hebrew term for immigration. “They left their villages with the thought that Israel was going to bring them in. And they’ve been left since as internally displaced refugees.”

Feit said the decades-long wait is especially painful for those with first-degree relatives in Israel, and is further compounded for those with relatives serving in the Israeli military.

“Jews in Ethiopia are extremely concerned about their [family members’] welfare as the IDF [Israel Defense Fores] battles Hamas terrorists” in Gaza, he explained. “They are especially concerned given the vastly disproportionate number of Ethiopian Jewish soldiers killed in Israel during the current conflict.” Jews in Ethiopia, he averred, comprise “one of the most Zionist communities in the world.”

Since Oct. 7, there has been no indication as to how many Ethiopian Jews will be brought to Israel and when. Those with relatives in Israel were struck with another blow when Israel’s economy took a hit following the Hamas onslaught, and many of those who rely on remittance from their loved ones in Israel stopped receiving money.

“This has left the Jews in Ethiopia in a dire situation, with food and medical care hard to come by. Living in squalor, without access to clean water, electricity, or even bathrooms, the malnourished Jews in Ethiopia suffer untold horrors,” Feit said.

Despite the grim depiction, Feit struck a more positive note about the upcoming holiday.

Ethiopian Jews eating matzot in synagogue last year. Photo: Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ)

“Given that most of the year they’re feeling despair at their lack of redemption, at least Passover is a time to celebrate the possibility of redemption and reunification,” he said. “Being able to celebrate with thousands of their friends and family members in a joyous celebration of Passover is a welcome relief.”

The post Amid Dimming Hopes That This Year Will Be in Jerusalem, Jews in Ethiopia Prepare for World’s Largest Seder first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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