Judaism and Jewish culture

Judaism and Jewish culture have always been central to William Finn, writer of a trilogy of short works following Marvin, a homosexual living within the Jewish faith. Falsettoland itself forms the final part of the trilogy whilst In Trousers and March of the Falsettos are the first two instalments respectively. Christianity condemns homosexuality within its faith, therefore, surely Judaism would take a moral stand and condemn any theatrical portrayal of such events? Did the Reform movement which began to grow in America in the 1830s have any effect upon the time Falsettoland was written, and, if so, how was Falsettoland as a music theatre work subject to such effects?

From the outset it is important to define the boundaries within which the term ‘Judaism’ and ‘Reform Judaism’ will be used. This paper focuses upon Judaism (be it Orthodox or Reform) within America and does not focus upon the origins of Judaism in Europe. Although perhaps some beliefs and moral standings were reflected across the Atlantic, for the purposes of this argument this will be negligible.

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When analysing the musical content of Falsettoland it is important that one does not get carried away on the intended meaning, although only suggested as a guide and personal response to the music, the analysis is by no means definite and as the author intended.

We’re free to borrow from both European operatic tradition and American

musical tradition, toss out what we don’t need and invent whatever creature

we want, whatever we choose. And above all else, entertain.1

Jewish life in America changed dramatically throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The majority of Jews being those with a Reform standing. This meant that, as a faith, they rejected the traditional rules which governed dress code, diet, and purity. There was a sense of community rather than a religious longing and yearning to return to Palestine. Reform Jews were considered to be more of a social gain than a religious cult, some even saw the Reform movement as bringing Judaism ‘up to date’. It is difficult to determine the type of Judaism represented in Falsettoland as no explicit references are made, however, throughout the course of this paper, the use of features of both traditional Orthodox Judaism and Reform Judaism suggest that Falsettoland depicts a hybrid of the two.

Judaism in America began growing in the 1830s when the Jews of Germany began to arrive on American soil. An important factor in the Jewish immigration is that these Jews were either Reform Jews or were secular Jews who had, for whatever reason, dropped Judaism altogether. In New York the Lower East Side of Manhattan quickly became the most populated Jewish area, however, the more successful Jew moved to live on the Upper East Side. The founder of the American Reform Movement was Isaac Meyer Wise who himself was a German immigrant. In 1875 the Hebrew Union College opened in Ohio and made history by serving untraditional, treyf food. The German immigrants built Temple Emanuel, the largest reform synagogue in the world and by 1880 (50 years after the influx) there were about 200 synagogues in America alone with the majority being Reform.

In opposition were the traditional Jews; those who were offended by the Reform Movement and so founded the Jewish Theological Seminary to compete with the Hebrew Union College. Solomon Schecter was the head of this seminary, however, it is interesting to note that he was a Jewish scholar from Cambridge. Why, after graduation of such a prestigious university did Schecter choose to emigrate to America and begin to uphold the traditional beliefs of the Torah and the word of God? Perhaps this question could be applied to William Finn and his writing of Falsettoland in that why would Finn, notably part of the Reform movement, choose to present characters of religious ambiguity and of questionable faith in an era struggling against anti-semitsm and, in contrast, health concerns across the world in the form of AIDS?

Before continuing to discuss the Reform movement, let us take stock and analyse the traditional Jewish beliefs. Fundamentally, Judaism lives by purpose; the mere fact of their belief in God subjects Jews to a purpose – a reason for life. However, the main difference between Jewish belief and those of a Christian is the belief in Jesus. Jews reject Jesus outright suggesting that God (the creator) would not subject the human race to any form of mediator or one who shall carry the word of God to man. Some would argue that the key to Judaism is the term ‘Torah’. Most commonly associated as the book of Judaism, the Torah is to the Jews as the bible is to Christians. Although, on closer analysis the term has a broader meaning, extending further to mean teaching and law. Not only is the Torah a combination of the five books of Moses, but is the criteria and properties outlined by which those adopting the Jewish faith should abide. Traditional beliefs are made reference to in the number: ‘Everyone Hates His Parents’ where Mendel, a psychiatrist, gives Jason advice after he states that he doesn’t want a bar mitzvah. In this scene, the verse…

…Everyone hates his parents, that’s in the Torah, it’s what history shows.

In fact, God said to Moses: “Moses, everyone hates his parents, that’s how

it is”, and God knew because God hated his…2

…is used to introduce and expand upon Jason’s idea of religion. Although it would be absurd to think that this is infact what God said, Finn and the character of Mendel are simply using religion to explain to Jason that feelings which he is incurring are quite common in life. This perhaps shows the characters in Falsettoland to be of Orthodox and traditional faith, however, when viewed in respect to the musical accompaniment, perhaps there is an underlying story. The accompaniment is that of a typical country style pop song – simple root position chords are used whilst the bass plays on beats one and three. It could be argued that in this case Finn is juxtaposing the notion of Orthodox and Reform (Orthodox being presented through the lyrical content whilst the music, simple and stripped to the bare essentials reflects that of the Reform movement) to dramatic effect.

Religion and music have been likened on numerous occasions – both are universal attributes to the international society and are used by means of communication and are considered when deciding upon our individual social circles. Anthony Storr discusses such ideas by saying…

Some people find that one or other of the great religions provides them

with a belief system which makes sense out o the world… although music

is not a belief system, I think that its importance and its appeal also depend

upon its being a way of ordering human experience.3

In Falsettoland Finn uses both music and religion to argue character profiles and credibility of the presented storyline. Like religion, music also has its own set of rules, its own set of implied material and fundamentally its own followers.

Food and diet play a huge part of the Jewish faith. In Falsettoland there are numerous mentions to cuisine as Trina prepares the food for Jason’s Bar Mitzvah – it is a chance for her to show to the community her culinary skills; a chance, once again for the: ‘If you’ve got it, flaunt it’ phrase which was key to American life in the 1980s. Traditional Jewish foods include: Challah, gefilt fish, cholent, holishkes and kugel. The Jewish dietary laws are known as kashrut and are used to primarily rule over the eating of meat within the Jewish faith. The term ‘kosher’ is used to describe meat which can be eaten by followers of Judaism. It is here where again the Torah dictates upon the criteria by which must be adhered to; an animal must chew the cud and have cloven hooves, therefore meat from a pig would be exempt alongside any bird of prey. Only meat slaughtered by a schochet is permissible. Of course, there are Jews who do not abide by these rules or, for whatever reason, choose on certain occasions to exploit the rules. The term ‘treyf’ is used to describe items of food which are non-kosher such as seafood (particularly clams and soft-shell crabs) and any meat from a pig.

This exploitation is referred to in the musical number: ‘The Baseball Game’ in where Mendel quotes as singing: ‘looking at Whizzer is like eating treyf’. In this instance Finn is using simile to describe Mendel’s observations over Marvin’s inner feelings – the fact he is admiring Whizzer and has feelings for him is something which he feels he should not feel and therefore Finn’s command of Judaism and music theatre writing prevails in clever irony. Musically this passage is in direct contrast to that seen prior. Before this phrase, short staccato chords on F# major are used to punctuate the lyrical content by using syncopation to give the illusion of rushed and confused minds, however, upon the phrase ‘looking at Whizzer…’, the music changes becoming more poetic and more fluid. A conjunct legato melody based upon the E major chord (with the F# from the previous passage being used in the bassline by means of continuity) is used to further enhance the ironic nature of this Jewish reference by juxtaposing the notion of treyf (something seen in Jewish faith as negative) with the melodic, legato and pleasing tonality of the music.

Judaism itself traditionally has strict rules governing the dress of its followers, particularly taking hold over women. Jewish women are primarily expected to cover at least to the elbow and similarly to the knee. Married women are subject to further rules, namely they must cover their hair in the presence of men other than their husbands. Women and their portrayal play a pivotal role in Falsettoland and its relevance is most seen in the musical number ‘Holding to the Ground’. It is interesting to note that this is the only number in which only one female character sings and occurs in the centre of the piece. One must also consider the time in which the piece was written; the 1980s saw a huge rise in female figures, particularly in politics through Sandra Day O’Conner and Geraldine Ferraro. Was Finn trying to imitate the events occurring in the 1980s (by giving Trina a solo number thus reflecting the growing stature of the female) or was he trying to remain true to the expectations of women under Jewish faith?

Musically the number explains a lot about Finns intentions, particularly when looking at the tessiatura and range of the melodic vocal line. The range itself is very limiting – ranging from a low G to a C (C5), thus reflecting a range of an octave and a half, perhaps suggesting confinement or limited expression on Trina’s behalf. This idea is also reflected lyrically in phrases such as: ‘I’m trying to keep sane as the rules keep changing’ and ‘life is never what you planned’. It seems that Finn himself was using lyrical content and musical notation against each other in order to portray the fact that, although America in the 1980s saw women grow in authoritarian positions, Jewish women remained true to the confinements of the Torah and the Jewish faith.

Homosexuality is seen as an abomination by traditional Judaism. Although perhaps it is safe to say that the traditional Jewish community would accept homosexual Jews into their society, they cannot condone homosexual behaviour. It is interesting to note that the Torah does not have much to say regarding lesbian relationships, but it is the male which falls in the line of attack on such matters. Having already discussed women’s treatment in Judaism and later in the 1980s, it seems strange that this matter does not affect women. Therefore, going back to the point made regarding ‘Holding to the Ground’ this new discover suggests that women do have some hope and some acceptance in Jewish society. Musically this could be reflected through the chord pattern of the opening 36 bars where Finn chooses to adopt only the tonic, sub-dominant, dominant and relative minor chords. Does this typical pop feature cleverly mirror Trina’s thoughts on homosexuality? Lyrics such as: ‘Very Jewish, very middle class, and very straight’ directly take a stand on homosexuality however the pleasing and typical chord structure seems to go against the stand, perhaps suggesting Trina’s acceptance of homosexuality, but, even though Trina herself is not a lesbian, the harmonic language suggests that, compared to males, female homosexuality is condoned and ‘easy’ to deal with (through ‘easy’ harmony).

The Torah itself sees homosexual relationships as more of a cult rather than a true relationship which would be seen in any heterosexual relationship. The tale of Sodom and Gemmorah is important to Jewish belief and the context of Finn’s writing of Falsettoland. In this story in the book of Genesis, two angels visit the city of Sodom to warn of God’s displeasure with its residents. Lot welcomes the angels to his house but falls victim to an angry group of residents who want the angels sent to the mob. Sensing evil will ensue, Lot offers his two virgin daughters for rape by the mob, to which they refuse. It is widely believed the reason the daughters were refused was due to the fact that the mob and many residents of the city of Sodom were homosexual due to the mere fact they refused virgin daughters. The tale of Sodom and Gemorrah is seen as homosexual however, Jewish tradition sees the sins of Sodom and Gemmorah as a lack of hospitality to the ‘stranger’4 (the angels). Reform Jews seem to view homosexuality and heterosexuality as similar forms, although this does not suggest homosexuality is not set into Reform society, merely providing equality to Jews within the movement. From analysis of the number ‘Unlikely Lovers’ in Falsettoland it would seem the characters presented are that of Reform Judaism due to the nature of homosexuality presented within this scene.

Best analysis of this number is taken from bar 86 to the end as this is where all four homosexual characters sing together. At bar 86 the mood of the number is changed as the characters stray from the subject of love and AIDS with the lyrics: ‘we don’t know what time will bring next. I have a clue, I have too. Let’s look like we haven’t and each say nothing.’ In this case Finn is making political reference to Judaism and its ‘rules’ suggesting that because homosexuality is condoned in Jewish faith, the characters must not make reference to their sexuality, nor to the disease which has taken hold of Whizzer. One must also remember the history of HIV and AIDS at the time Falsettoland is set; he characters are unaware what the disease is, however, dramatic irony comes into play through the fact that audience members are now fully educated regarding AIDS as a disease. Whizzer and other characters are more likely to assume the disease is that of a ‘gay cancer’ (as was originally thought in 1980s America). The music reflects the taboo nature of this subject through staccato crotchets in the accompaniment placed on every beat. Melodically Finn uses the theme of a 2nd as a way of reflecting the common agenda on all four characters’ minds.

This is seen in the intervals between ‘Sky’ (Marvin) to ‘It’s blue’ (Dr Charlotte) and is also seen in the other phrases there after in the subsequent four bars. At bar 94 there is a modulation from E Major to F (a rise in the established theme of a 2nd), upon at which point Cordelia and Marvin sing the melodic line in unison whilst Dr Charlotte and Whizzer fill the harmony, however, all move homophonically to create the texture of a religious hymn, thus forming direct links with music and religion. In this passage the bass line seems to have underlying themes – the fact that throughout the course of bars 94-100 the bass line based on F major (apart from bar 97 where it is C major) seems to comment upon the grounded character of the four lovers; their religion means that they cannot address Whizzer’s impending death nor is their homosexual trait condoned thus reflecting more of an Orthodox setting as opposed to a Reform setting.

Throughout the story of Falsettoland there seem to be two main ideologies or events being portrayed – Whizzer’s fight against the ‘gay cancer’ and the preparations of Jason’s Bar Mitzvah. Bah Mitzvah itself translates to mean ‘son of commandment’ and is used to describe a Jewish boy turning 13 years old. In the 15th century it became customary to use celebration and party to mark the boy becoming a bar mitzvah.

The earliest bar mitzvah celebrations consisted of giving the bar mitzvah

boy an aliyah, calling him to bless and/or read Torah on the Monday,

Thursday or Sabbath after his 13th birthday. Some bar mitzvah boys also

lead part of the prayer service.5

This quotation reflects Falsettoland perfectly in that Trina and Marvin are keen to have Jason lead prayer. This fact is established in the second musical number: ‘Year of the Child’ which opens with Jason singing to his walkman the words: ‘Baruch, Baruch atoh, Baruch atoh adonai’. Noawadays, Bar Mitzvah celebrations usually involve lavish parties where the boy receives presents as though a birthday and this is certainly the planned case for the characters presented in Falsettoland. Jason’s choice at the end of the piece to have his Bar Mitzvah at Whizzer’s bedside perhaps suggests that the characters fall into a more Reform Judaism category – the rejection of a typical Bar Mitzvah by such a young child is not only humbling and heart-wrenching but also perhaps is subtly telling an audience that Jason and his family are not as religious as perhaps was first thought and are more concerned with preserving their ‘community’ and savouring emotion than having such a huge and lavish celebration, thus entering the realms of Reform Judaism.

In critical analysis of Judaism and its impact on America and subsequently Falsettoland, one must not overlook anti-semitic actions within America in the twentieth century. Earnest Volkman, an American journalist described anti-semitism as…

Anti-Semitism, then, is hatred of the Jews as a people. It should

be distinguished from anti-Jewish feelings. People who do not like Jews

or one reason or another are not necessarily anti-Semites; there is no

compelling reason for Jews to be universally liked, any more than

Americans, Chinese, Catholics or Buddhists are to be universally liked.

Voltaire, that great humanist, plainly did not like Jews (he regarded them

as odd and superstitious), but took pains to note that he thought burning Jews

at the stake was uncalled for. Anti-Semites, however, progress over that

critical step beyond dislike to pathology, hating Jews for being Jews6

Anti-semitism in America did parallel that of Europe and Russia, however, the main difference was that the atrocious fatal consequences which were seen in Europe and Russia due to anti-semitic hatred were not seen in America. Despite this difference, there were some atrocities, particularly seen in 1913 in Georgia when Leo Frank, a Jew, was accused of the murder of a young Christian girl. At this time there was huge segregation of the black race particularly in the south, however, when put on trial, Frank’s testimony was disregarded for that of a black man (the man who infact was the true murderer of the girl). Frank was found guilty and sentenced to death but the governor of Georgia disbanded his sentence as he was convinced Frank was innocent. However, the anti-semitic feelings were so strong that Frank was kidnapped and lynched. This seemed to ear-mark the formation of the Ku Klux Klan in the late 1920s which continues to persecute Jews to this very day.

The musical number, ‘Something Bad Is Happening’ could now perhaps have a double entendre: not only is Finn commenting upon the nature of Whizzer and his disease but perhaps Finn is commenting upon the anti-semitic feelings of some American people. Musically Finn achieves a sense of uneasiness by using alternating time signatures, and particularly through the addition of the 2/4 signature at bar 25. The modulation at this point into the sub-dominant (Bb to Eb) giving the illusion again of uneasiness and instability. The rhythmical use of syncopation is again a feature in Finn’s writing, used in this instance to punctuate the word ‘bad’ whilst also exploiting the tri-syllabic ‘happening’ adding a robotic feel to the melody. Harmonically the grounded bassline is still present (on the tonic of Eb) whilst the accompaniment shifts from Eb to Db/Eb. The effect of this is that the dominant seventh (the note of Db) is added, which, when viewed in respect to a major feature of blues and jazz music seems to make reference to the black/anti-semitic culture of America in the 1920s. In bar 29 the staccato theme of crotchets on the beat is repeated as was seen in ‘The Baseball Game’ and is used to draw parallels to the reference of treyf food (and its surrounding connotations) and thus expanding on the ideologies behind the presented story of Falsettoland.

In conclusion it seems William Finn drew on many historical, social and religious references when writing Falsettoland, however, the divided America in terms of Orthodox and Reform movements meant that Finn could alienate parts of the audience if ideologies and particular beliefs were not adhered to, or, if omitted. By taking the Reform’s view on homosexuality and presenting a series of characters who reflect this, whilst also carefully constructing musical numbers which deconstruct theories and ideologies of the Orthodox movement, Finn has successfully ensured that Falsettoland is as universal as possible whilst cleverly commenting upon the history of Judaism and its application in more modern society. The characters presented are neither Orthodox nor Reform, they are merely patrons of American society, the ambiguity of religious belief in ‘Unlikely Lovers’ contrasts with the firm grasp held by Trina in ‘Holding to the Ground’ to provide contemporary music theatre with a timeless work which deserves international appraisal.


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