I’d like to give a shout out to my colleague, Adam Langer, the culture editor at the Forward, for his insightful article in the current issue of the paper, “What If Mike Pence Got Booed at ‘Fiddler on the Roof?’”
It is a great example of a “transplant counterfactual,” a thought experiment in which a historical figure is transplanted from a real historical situation to an alternate one in order to show how what might have happened in history sheds light on what actually happened.
“Picture this: It’s a lovely evening at the Broadway Theater and “Fiddler on the Roof” is nearing its finale. Soon, the little village of Anatevka — beset by pogroms and the disruption of tradition — will be little more than a memory. Some will try to adhere to the old ways, others will try their luck with America and assimilation.”
“The lights go down, then come back up. Applause clatters through the theater, then Danny Burstein, the actor playing Tevye, steps forward and tells the audience that Vice President-elect Mike Pence is in the house. Burstein silences the boos, then reads from a prepared statement:”
“‘We, sir, we are the diverse America, who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir,” Burstein says. “But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.’”
“What would the reaction have been?”
“Would the president-elect have immediately taken to Twitter to call “Fiddler” overrated and to demand an apology from the actors playing Anatevka villagers?”
“Would “Sopranos” actor and E-Street band member Steve Van Zandt have gone on Twitter to censure the “Hamilton” cast for violating the sanctity of the relationship between audience and art and demand they apologize to Pence?”
“Would NeverTrumper Bill Kristol have mocked the “Hamilton” cast’s “lefty self-righteousness and self-importance?”
“Would a #BoycottFiddler movement have erputed on social media?”
Langer goes on to answer all the questions in the negative. He explains that while Fiddler is “a full-body embrace of assimilation and the American Dream,” Hamilton has “the effrontery to present unapologetically a vision of a wholly diverse America.”
He goes on to speculate:
“Still, it’s interesting to think what might have happened if the same scene had played out at “Fiddler?” What if the president-elect had berated the cast and audience of the show for perceived harassment? What if there really was a #BoycottFiddler movement? What if Breitbart News declared the “Fiddler” cast to be “whiny Jews?”
“A new sense of fear would right now be coursing specifically through the Jewish community, the same way it is coursing through African-American, immigrant and LGBTQ communities; it would be the same fear that is both chilling and galvanizing artistic communities throughout the country as we see grim portents arising from a president-elect who demands safe spaces for himself and his followers and none for anyone else.”
“Maybe an uproar over “Fiddler” never would have happened, but maybe we should act as if it had.”
At a time when so much contemporary culture is being politicized (and when we have no idea how the incoming administration will use its powers to try and silence dissenting views), it is time, Langer concludes: “to treat an attack against one work of art as an attack of all works of art.”
For American Jews, Langer’s counterfactual is a timely one. It provides clear evidence of the need for Jews to show solidarity with likeminded groups in the world of the arts. Even if the criticism of Hamilton does not immediately or directly affect Jewish interests, it is in the interest of Jews to see it as doing so.
For the counterfactual past can become the real future.