The immediate weeks post-camp have always been, for me at least, about processing. Processing the laundry, the sand that invariably migrates back home from northern Wisconsin, the new friendships, and all the fun and learning. The processing is accompanied by the raw, oppressive heat of August, tempered by the luxury of air conditioning in cars and buildings, forgotten these last few months up at camp. And then, usually more quickly than we like, we have to return to the rhythms of the year – school and work.
In my own re-acclamation process, part of the return from camp is a return to the popular culture I put on hold for so much of the summer: final episodes of TV series I couldn’t get to in May, catching up on months of magazines and blogs from the summer I didn’t have time to read, getting used to sitting in front of screens all day, a mouse or remote control in my hand.
Earlier this week, moving through my too-full DVR and looking for a slight change-of-pace from my usual series, I finally found the time to watch a documentary that aired on PBS in the Spring: Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy. (Much more information, and the whole show, if you’d like to watch it, available here.)
Camp Ramah in Wisconsin turned me into a musical theater buff about twenty years ago. My friends with siblings in older aidot told me of the recent legendary debuts of Hair, The Wiz, and Les Miserables. I can still remember the first musical I ever sawsitting on the floor of the Beit Am, Beauty and the Beast, and the defining and awe-inspiring performances of that generation of camp musicals: Andy Shulkind and Donna Elyashar as the MC and Sally Bowles in Cabaret, Jon Hoffenberg and Julie Polsky’s hilarious duet in South Pacific, Micah Arbisser’s turn as Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors. I watched my friends wow the camp in Grease, Hair, and The Wiz, and then my campers do the same in Beauty and the Beast, Hair, Pippin, A Chorus Line, Chicago, Mamma Mia!, and Les Miserables. When I finally started going to Broadway shows, as a college student and since, I was shocked to learn that they had elaborate plots, songs that had resonances I never imagined watching them in Hebrew with choruses of eighty or a hundred, and, as new shows came out, I would quickly start thinking and discussing with close camp friends about their suitability to join our stable of 30-ish shows.
As a counselor I came to see the role of the musicals through the camp’s eyes: yes, they are transformative experiences for the aidot, programmatic anchors and indisputable highlights of the summer. Even more than that, though, the musicals allow our campers to stay in touch with their American selves (baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie replaced by Rodgers & Hammerstein, Leonard Bernstein, and Disney) and thus feel not too disconnected from their friends, families, and lives at home while the performance at camp is fully immersed in the Jewishness of Ramah: performed in Hebrew, roles assigned but with universal participation, educational themes pulled from the plot and music for programming throughout the summer.
It was through this lens that I naively began watching Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy. Only minutes in I realized I was watching something with a far more powerful message than I was expecting, one that, perhaps, the first generation of Ramah staff may have known when they began the Hebrew musical project decades ago. The documentary begins with the obvious truth poked fun at by a song in Monty Python’s Spamalot: the New York world of musical theater has historically been populated significantly by Jews, especially behind the scenes. From the Gershwins to Berlin and Bernstein, Hart and Rodgers to Kander and Ebb, the composers and librettists of the iconic American musical have been overwhelmingly Jewish. The antecedent of the Broadway culture itself is none other than the Yiddish theatre of the Lower East Side. And – most surprisingly to me – the musical aspect of musicals traces its root back to traditional Jewish melodies, including, in some shocking moments of the show, to Ashkenazic nusach.
The overarching thesis of the documentary recontextualizes why we might want to do Broadway musicals at Ramah in the first place: Broadway was the place for Jews of the 20th Century to tell their Jewish stories of being different, immigrant, discriminated against, using different characters but immortal Jewish lessons. Showboat and Carousel and Porgy and Bess and West Side Story did not just happen to precede Fiddler on the Roof and Cabaret; they represent different eras of Jewish artists’ comfort levels in telling the Jewish story. And contemporary productions of Spamalot and The Producers take us to the next level of Jews’ comfort in America.
Wonderfully, three of the five musicals we performed at camp this past summer – the aforementioned West Side Story and Cabaret, in addition to Annie – are featured prominently in the documentary’s narrative. And as we revisit additional shows in the coming years, the lessons of Broadway’s Jewish legacy will continue to resonate. It is not just the overtly Jewish moments of the musicals that speak to our Judaism, not just the Hebrew words and lyrics. The lasting message of Ramah is the legacy of generations of Broadway’s Jews: our religious, ethnic, and cultural identity is not something to place in a box but rather something to permeate everything that we do.