Giving a whole new meaning to Oaxacan multiculturalism …
Fiddler in Oaxaca

Tevye with second eldest daughter

May 21, 22 and 23, 2008, might very well be remembered for time immemorial, as the dates when the 1964 Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof was performed by a cast of 51, absent a single Jew. That the theater troupe was comprised of children and youth of mainly evangelists and missionaries through the auspices of Oaxacan Christian School, and directed by two Canadians who had traveled from Vancouver to spend four months organizing, auditioning and coaching, made the production even more noteworthy.

Fiddler Jr. was the first production performed by a brand new theater group, Oaxaca Youth Entertainers (OYE), formed by parents in Mitla and Oaxaca. Most of the “actors” in fact live in or near Mitla.

Watching the performance in a hall in suburban Oaxaca, one would be hard-pressed to be any further removed, ethnically, religiously, temporally, and geographically, from the Jewish shtetl in the village of Anatevka in 1905 tsarist Russia. Yet the quality of dance, music, verse, wardrobe and props were all true to form, right down to tsi-tsi clad Tevye the dairyman cavorting with out-stretched arms flailing while bellowing “if I were a wealthy man,” and the requisite fiddler, yes, on the roof.

While most in attendance appeared to be English speaking missionaries and their families, the balance of the audience comprised their Oaxacan friends, other natives of the city only some of whom understood the English words being spoken and sung (the synopsis of the play and summary of each of the 15 scenes was printed in both languages), and members of the expatriate community … including some Jews.

As per Oaxacan custom, the performance began a half hour “late.” However, even before the curtain rose it became clear that the wait would be well worth while and that we were about to be entertained by a production of professional quality, keeping true to original script, with important historical lessons to be learned. The moderator’s introduction was remarkably moving, as he noted the pain and suffering of Jews throughout history, and that 2008 marks the 60th anniversary of the formation of the State of Israel. He cautioned, clearly for the benefit of those in attendance raised in a non-drinking culture, that there would be scenes of drinking and drunkenness, that the production in no way endorsed this type of behavior, and that they simply portrayed what live was like for some in that era.

Ethnic cleansing’s scourge on society; marrying rich versus poor, and out-of-faith; the importance of family and deferring to one’s parents’ wishes; and of course lessons about Jewish traditions right down to village dress in early 20th century eastern Europe and of the orthodox, and use of the chuppa (canopy) and breaking of the glass at a wedding; were each handled, as dictated by context, with factual accuracy, sensitivity, and in some cases requisite humor.

Justice, however, was not done to the hard work and talent of these youthful actors and the production as a whole, as a result of air conditioning units not functioning as required during the hottest time of the year, the commissary running out of bottled water at the intermission, and most importantly a faulty sound system making many of the lines the stars of the play incomprehensible, to even for those of us with English as our first language and a vague recollection of Topol’s most memorable lines. Viva Oaxaca.

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