It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s dlevy! Another small Ragtime thought

There’s a clear theme of mobility in the show, which is not the same thing as progress. For all the societal push that happens in the show, only two characters have any kind of mobility: Coalhouse, with his car, and Tateh (and his daughter) with their wanderings.

But not all mobility is upward. Coalhouse’s mobility is the very thing that is threatening to the poor white volunteer firemen who ultimately bring about his downfall. The idea of a black man who’s going places (in both senses) terrifies them, so they crush it. It’s tempting to blame the victim and accuse Coalhouse’s immobility when it comes to demanding justice as the cause of his undoing, but it’s not his demand for justice that drives him over the edge—it’s society’s unwillingness to provide it to him. The society of New Rochelle can’t keep up with the changes Coalhouse represents; he’s travelling on roads that are still under construction.

Tateh, on the other hand, moves more frequently than anyone else in the show: from Latvia to New York to Lawrence, MA to Philadelphia to Atlantic City. Like generations of wandering Jews before him, Tateh stakes his future to an idea rather than a plot of land. Unlike Coalhouse, he attempts humility in the face of degradation, but he finds that a fruitless strategy. It’s only when he, like Coalhouse, fights back (by joining the union battle in Lawrence) that his fortunes begin to change. Unlike Coalhouse, Tateh doesn’t see his battle through to the end. When he sees his opening for further mobility, by jumping on the train to Philadelphia with the departing children, he takes it, and his fortunes change. Ragtime seems to be saying that justice is great, but true greatness is knowing when to get off.

And what of the WASP family at the center of Ragtime? Father departs for Alaska in the first scene—why doesn’t his mobility translate socially? The key is in “Journey On.” While Tateh is “coming to America,” Father is “going from” it, fleeing the force that powers the progress of everyone else in the show. Is exploration no longer part of the American dream? Perhaps, but Father is not an explorer. His initial exchange with Peary makes it clear that Father is a privileged tourist, and when he returns later in the show, we learn he was not allowed to reach the destination. Only Peary and his first mate, Matthew Henson, reach the North Pole. Father merely gets within orbit.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no hope for movement in the family. When things come to a head in the second act, and the balance of power in that family shifts towards Mother, they journey to Atlantic City. This trip plants the seeds to the eventual unraveling of their family’s dynamic, so that it may be reassembled in its final configuration… but not until after Father attempts one more time to journey, this time on the ill-fated Lusitania, another trip away from America that ultimately leads to oblivion.

What does it mean that after all this mobility, Mother and Tateh end up back in New Rochelle while Coalhouse ends up dead? Coalhouse’s choice to dig in his heels for justice rather than move when it became a necessity proved his undoing. Tateh’s arrival in New Rochelle, married to Mother, represents a final step forward for him and his daughter. But Mother is back where she started, in that same house on the hill. Sure, her family looks significantly different, and perhaps she has achieved more agency than she was ever accorded in his first marriage, but has she moved? Or did she not need to move, since it was her decision to take in Sarah and her baby at the top of the show that set the rest of the play in motion?

JewishBoston.com: Don’t Wait to See RAGTIME at the Strand Theatre

Originally posted on JewishBoston.com.

Don’t tell your grandmother, but it’s time to head back to the old country of Dorchester to catch the Fiddlehead Theatre Company’s excellent new production of Ragtime: The Musical now playing at The Strand Theatre. The City of Boston is investing in reinvigorating this storied old theater as a center for arts and culture in the city, particularly for the communities of Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan.

Adam Shapiro as Tateh and Julia Deluzio as his daughter; photo by Matt McKee Photography

Ragtime is a particularly poignant show for the occasion, offering an epic story from the turn of the previous century, just prior to the opening of the Strand itself. With its focus on a segregated society of WASPs, African-Americans, and Jewish immigrants in New Rochelle, N.Y. — and what happens when those groups interact with each other — Ragtime could be the story of the history of Dorchester itself. But the musical, based on the novel by E. L. Doctorow, spins a tale of social evolution and personal assimilation, societal injustice and individual kindness, which explains why this production is sponsored by the ACLU. In the hands of playwright Terrance McNally, lyricist Lynn Ahrens, and composer Stephen Flaherty, though, Ragtime never feels preachy or didactic. It’s simply a great evening of theater.

You know you’re in for something special from the opening number, which skillfully introduces not only 15 characters, but also the social dynamics at play among the three groups, made vivid through Anne McAlexander’s choreography and Jennifer Tremblay’s costumes. Meg Fofonoff’s direction keeps the story moving at a pace that belies the show’s three-hour length, and with a couple of brief exceptions in the second act, keeps the various plotlines clear. The 16-piece orchestra under the baton of Matt Stern is thrilling.

If I’m hesitant to single out any of the performers, it’s only because of the excellence across the board. Damian Norfleet’s rich baritone makes it easy to see why anyone would fall in love with his Coalhouse Walker Jr., making his eventual downfall all the more upsetting. Adam Shapiro as Tateh perfectly balances the pain of a single father repeatedly thwarted in his attempts to find a better life for this daughter with a comedic touch that keeps things from becoming too heavy. Shonna Cirone as Mother presents an incredible transformation over the course of the show, from a buttoned-up housewife at first to a powerhouse matriarch by the time she delivers the final anthem, “Back to Before.”

“Back to Before” may be Mother’s final anthem, but it’s not Ragtime’s, and therein lies one of the few problems with the show. The score, while beautifully reminiscent of the best Americana music, is overstuffed with anthems, from “Wheels of a Dream” to “‘Til We Reach That Day” to “Make Them Hear You.” While each song is worthy, all that declaration of purpose gets exhausting. Still, each carries an important message that resonates today, whether it’s about the pursuit of justice, the direction of progress, or the power of the American Dream. This is a show that will leave you not only humming the songs; you’ll also be discussing their messages. At least you will once you wipe the tears away.

On second thought, Ragtime may be the perfect reason to grab your grandparents and bring them back to the part of town they likely haven’t visited since their families fled to the suburbs in the fifties. Have them show you where they used to live and which churches used to be synagogues, and then after the show, talk about the issues raised by the performance and what we can do about them today.

RAGTIME runs at Dorchester’s historic Strand Theater, 543 Columbia Road in Boston, through October 7, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. and Thursday, October 4, at 7:30 p.m. Ticket prices: $45-Orchestra, $39-Mezzanine, $35-Balcony, $32-Seniors and Children, $25-Students. For tickets or more information, please call 866-811-4111 or visit www.fiddleheadtheatre.com. For more information and group sales (10 or more), please call Show of The Month at 617-338-1111.

Photo of Adam Shapiro as Tateh and Julia Deluzio as his daughter by Matt McKee Photography.

JewishBoston.com: Judaism 101: Sukkot and the Opportunity for Change

Originally published on JewishBoston.com.

Most of our holidays commemorate specific events: Passover recalls the exodus from Egypt, Hanukkah the rededication of the Temple following a military victory against the Greeks, Yom Ha’atzmaut the founding of the modern State of Israel, and so on. But Sukkot is different. Sukkot reminds us of the time between the Exodus and our ancestors’ entry into the promised land of Israel.

created at: 2010-09-21Jews remember this time of wandering in the dessert by building temporary dwellings, little booths called “sukkot” (singular: sukkah) from which the holiday draws its name. As with most Jewish practices, there’s wide variety in how people interpret what it means to “dwell” in the sukkah during the week. Some people eat big meals in their sukkot. Others will only eat in a sukkah and refrain from eating anything more than a snack outside of one. Some people will sleep in their sukkot as well, which can either be super fun or cold and miserable depending on your location and the vagaries of the weather.

Because the holiday is eight days long (including its concluding days of Simchat Torah and Shemini Atzeret), there are lots of other rituals and customs for Sukkot. There are the “four species,” aka the lulav and etrog, the former being a palm frond lashed together with a willow branch and a myrtle branch, the latter being the lemon-like fruit better known as a vodka flavor. Each day of the holiday (except Shabbat), these plants are held together and waved in all directions (north, south, east, west, up and down) during services in a rite that feels as old as religion itself. On the sixth day of the holiday (known as Hoshanah Rabbah), the willow branch is removed and beaten to a pulp in an act symbolizing beating our whatever last remnants of sin made it through Yom Kippur.  Continue reading

JewishBoston.com: Shamefully Simple Tzimmes

Originally published on JewishBoston.com.

tsimmes, photo used under CC license from Flickr user Edsel LittleTzimmes is an Ashkenazi specialty generally associated with Rosh Hashannah due to its sweetness. There are as many variations on tzimmes as there are Jews, but the common threads are that it’s a sweet dish made from carrots and whatever else you want to throw in. A common version is “tzimmes with flanken,” featuring short ribs to add a meaty savor.

Tzimmes has a reputation for being a big pain in the neck to make — so much so that the phrase “to make a tzimmes” is synonymous with “to make a big deal” out of something. But my family’s recipe is so simple, it’s almost embarrassing to call it a recipe. Even so, it’s delicious and is always a hit when served at holiday meals and potlucks. Better yet, it freezes well and reheats even better.

And since my tzimmes relies on sweet potatoes, an autumnal vegetable if there ever was one, it’s perfect for Sukkot, our fall harvest festival. But honestly, I serve it year-round.

2 large (29 oz.) cans of cut sweet potatoes or yams
2 15-oz. cans of carrots (I like canned whole baby carrots)
1 frozen kishke, thawed (feel free to substitute vegetarian kishke)
Maple syrup and cinnamon, to taste
Optional: raisins, prunes or other dried fruit

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Drain most of the liquid out of the cans of vegetables, then mix the vegetables in a casserole dish. If you’re including dried fruit, add it now. Add liberal amounts of maple syrup and cinnamon. Toss to coat. Slice kishke, laying rounds across the top of the casserole to cover. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the kishke is browned and the casserole is bubbling.

Tzimmes photography used under Creative Commons license from Flickr user Edsel L.

JewishBoston.com: Stuffed Cabbage (aka Holishkes): Edible Torahs for Sukkot

Originally published on JewishBoston.com.

Most Ashkenazi Jewish food traditions can be summed up with the sentence, “Our ancestors were poor, and this is what they could afford to eat.” Even so, it’s pretty incredible how creatively our forebears were able to construct themed dishes for the holidays that worked on a tight budget.

Stuffed cabbage — known in the shtetl as holishkes — are one such dish. They get paired with Sukkot in part because cabbage is in season now, and in part because two holishkes placed next to each other on a plate look a bit like Torah scrolls, and Sukkot culminates with Simchat Torah, our holiday celebrating the yearly cycle of reading our central text.

Previously on JewishBoston.com we’ve featured a vegetarian, Passover-friendly recipe for stuffed cabbage. For Sukkot, we offer a variation that’s not quite traditional, in that it eschews rice and ground beef, but offers a poultry and whole-grain version as one might expect in 21st-century liberal Boston.  Continue reading

Jewschool.com: When Images of Mohammed Showed Up in My Facebook Feed

Originally published on Jewschool.com

Today has been a frustrating day on many levels, and surprisingly, at the top of my frustration is two Conservative rabbis who are Facebook friends of mine who have chosen to share an Islamophobic cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohammed. I’m not going to link to it here because I don’t want to have a hand in further distributing the cartoon.

I wrote to each of them

I am disappointed to see the rabbis of my generation circulating a cartoon that flagrantly disrespects someone else’s religion, not to mention perpetuates harmful stereotypes. Is this the spirit in which you hope to enter 5773?

And to my surprise, instead of saying something like, “You’re right, I got carried away. I’m frustrated but this wasn’t the right way to express it,” both dug their heels in and defended their right to mock Islam in a way they both know specifically insults Muslims.

One of these rabbis is a chaplain with the US armed forces. The other holds a significant post in the Conservative Movement in the United States.

I have spent too much time and far too much emotional energy engaging with them and their followers, pointing out over and over again that both our tradition and common sense says that one does not achieve anything by inflaming the fires of hate or provoking those with whom we disagree. They refuse to hear me. Part of me wants to just unfriend them and be done with it, but I don’t want to contribute to my own retreat further into a bubble of people who share all my opinions. But I won’t back down because I believe this is an important discussion to have, and I know Jewish tradition expects us vigorously pursue justice. The quote from Mishnah that I’ve plastered on my social media channels today sums it up for me: “In a place where no one is behaving like a human being, be the human being.”

I have long since disavowed any affiliation with the Conservative movement that was once my home, but incidents like this confirm for me that I’ve made the right choice. I know, I shouldn’t judge an entire stream of a religion based on a couple of vocal leaders, but, well, you see the irony there.

It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s dlevy! Vagina by Naomi Wolf

Originally published on It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s dlevy!

 

I’ve started reading Vagina by Naomi Wolf.

Toward the end of her introduction, she offers something of an apology for her handling of the book’s subject matter entirely from a heterosexual point of view. She suggests that it was not a matter of heterosexism (although she doesn’t use that term) as much as it was an acknowledgement that lesbian and bisexual women’s experience of their vaginas (in general) and sex (in particular) merit their own handling rather than being lumped together under one rubric.

I understand what she’s saying here, but I’m not sure if the argument that by lumping them together, lesbian and bisexual women’s experiences would necessarily become the afterthought is accurate. They become the afterthought because the author privileges the heterosexual experience. Is lesbian and bisexual experience of body and sex and sexuality so different that the book would balloon beyond a reasonable scope should they be included? I’m certainly not the one to say.

But even if you accept her argument, I’m not sure that it should give her the free pass to write the rest of the book as though lesbian and bisexual women certainly don’t exist. I am fairly certain that a responsible author can cordon off a section of the topic as out of scope without pretending it doesn’t exist. The heterosexism of the language is incredibly off-putting for me, and the apology in the introduction intensifies my feelings rather than mollifying them.

Wolf’s complete erasure of transgender people (who, surely, have a lot to add to a conversation about vaginas) is further troubling, since she doesn’t even acknowledge their existence. I can absolutely understand why the myriad was vaginas and embodiment in general for transgender people—those of various genders who have vaginas as well as transgender women who don’t have vaginas—interrogate, challenge, and threaten Wolf’s hypotheses. But simply writing them out of existence without so much as a half-assed apology makes me angry, and it makes it difficult for me to read the rest of the book without their absence informing my reading.

I am not the target audience of this book by any measure. I’m only a few chapters in, and it’s already clear that this book is written for the same audience that made Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues a hit. Things that I take for granted as obvious parts of the human experience (e.g. “Women’s bodies are different from each other, so one woman’s experience of her own vagina might not match another woman’s experience of her own vagina.”) are presented as great revelations. Maybe there are a great deal of women in America who just assume that their own experience of, well, anything, can automatically be generalized to all women everywhere ever. But I thought by 2012 we had all moved past that.

There a lot of book left to devour, so stay tuned for further updates. After the first page or two I tweeted that it’s hard to read this book without live-tweeting the experience, and I wasn’t kidding. Whether I’m frustrated or intrigued, this is the kind of book that calls out for the reader to say to anyone who will listen, “would you believe this?!” And isn’t that what Tumblr’s best at anyway?