Days Six and Seven of Hanukkah
Author Yaakov Astor states,
“Chanukah ideally is meant to instill in us an image of what we can be — no matter how far from that image we may begin.”
I thought back to high school, a time when all I wanted to be was an actor.
I have a confession to make. (Another reason to love Judaism: no confession, and thus — no penance!) The summer I was 16, I had my first job working the concession stand at “Live at the Lakehouse,” an outdoor summer stage that featured free musical theater six nights a week. Confession #2: I saw the play Fiddler on the Roof 36 times as a result. Let me repeat this: I saw Fiddler on the Roof thirty-six times. If there is such a thing as a “born-again Jewish experience” I had it, circa 1988. Though the concession stand closed after intermission, I always stayed. I broke my ten-thirty curfew and climbed up the hill in Washington Park to find a spot under the stars to watch Act Two.
By the end of July, I knew the lyrics to all of the songs and volunteered to help backstage. I was invited to cast parties with Yente, Golde, Fruma Sarah and Fyedka, Hodel and Perchik (I had a huge crush on Perch; another confession), most of whom were Equity actors from New York City; being in their presence was certainly the coolest thing ever to happen to me. The only time I “fit in” while in Catholic school was as an honorary Jew during summer break; my “clique” was the cast of Fiddler. Had they gone on tour in September, I would have dropped out of high school to follow them, no less dedicated than the most devout Deadhead, happily schlepping nosh from Albany to Anatevka given the chance.
“Do your parents know you’re here?” asked the actor who played Rep Tevye, always in character as the protective papa. It was late one night at one of the bars near the actors’ apartments. “Not exactly,” I said. I wasn’t going to lie to the sacred milkman, though I had lied to my parents. (Confession #3, yikes.) I told them that I could earn extra money “to put towards college” if I stayed after all performances to clean the bathrooms. After a few weeks, they started to question my rigorous “cleaning” schedule when I got home around 2 a.m. via my Schwinn 10-speed. I had a litany of justifications prepared: “It’s a three hour play; we don’t even start cleaning until midnight!” Or, “This is a non-profit organization, Dad. Don’t you believe in keeping free theater alive in a capitalistic society?” The later I stayed out, the bigger the lies became. One Saturday night I got home at 3 a.m. and my father threatened to call my boss: “I didn’t want to betray his confidence, but Lazar Wolf has a serious case of irritable bowel syndrome. Do you really want details?”
My father soon found out that I wasn’t cleaning the bathrooms, but out having way too much “sababa” and drinking more than seltzer. (Confession #4 — so help me, God of love and mercy.) After Labor Day, I was grounded until Christmas, and sought refuge in my bedroom listening to the soundtrack and writing letters to my new haverim, now back in New York City, the promised land.
But the story doesn’t end here. Three years later, it was the fall of sophomore year. After I moved to New York to start college, the theater troupe at Fordham was holding auditions. And miracle of miracles, the annual musical was going to be Fiddler on the Roof. Oh, happy day!
At the audition, I belted it out “Matchmaker” as if my life depended on it, because at the time, it did. While I would have gladly taken any part, (I still knew them all by heart,) the one I most wanted was Chaveleh (“little bird”) the book-loving middle daughter who is disowned by Tevye when she marries Feydka, a Russian gentile.
I sang well enough to get called back for a second audition to play Chava, and I couldn’t sleep, eat or concentrate in class thinking about it. I tried not to think about the fact that I could not dance. At all. And Chava had a dance sequence in the play, during which Tevye sings “Little Bird, Little Chaveleh / I don’t understand what’s happening today / Chaveleh, Chaveleh…”
The memory of myself trying to “fake” doing a ballet sequence in public — is indeed a traumatic one. I should have followed Hodel’s lead and moved to Siberia, because I was mortified on the Bronx campus in the aftermath. I didn’t get the part — or any role except “props,” which I respectfully declined. The girl who got the part was everything I wasn’t: blond and a professional ballet dancer; the “little bird” to my Big Bird. I thought about the lyrics in “To Life,” “God would like us to be joyful / Even though our hearts lie panting on the floor,” while feeling sorry for myself and missing a week of class. This was not good; I was on scholarship my first two years of college and had to maintain a 3.3 average or was out. “It’s one thing to fail out of Fordham,” said a friend, “but how are you going to explain failing over Fiddler on the Roof?”
I never auditioned for a musical again. A few years later, when I auditioned for the title role in Anne Frank, it finally dawned on me that perhaps the reason I wasn’t getting cast in these plays wasn’t because I wasn’t Jewish, but more likely because I wasn’t very good.
“Chanukah is meant to instill in us an image of what we can be — no matter how far from that image we may begin.” I’m grateful, on this seventh day of Hanukkah, that the image I once had of what I wanted to be has changed quite a bit. The candles on the menorah speak to this image of starting over; each night, a new one is added; another light appears. The living room is illuminated differently than last night. In this light, the world starts to look a bit brighter. In Hanukkah, there is hope.