I am converting to Judaism. Which means I did not grow up as a Jew. Which means I have never felt singled out as a Jew, or persecuted for being a Jew – except the one time I was Jew-bashed and almost killed. But that was an anomaly. In fact it was a mistake. And it certainly didn’t give me the feeling of what it’s like to live openly as a Jew.
Right now is one of the best times in history, and America is one of the best places in the world, to live openly as a Jew. And one of the best places in America to don a Kippah (yarmulke) and walk around without fear is in New York City.
So, I wasn’t being a hero when I wore my Kippah to meetings in the Upper West Side and in the Theater District, or even around my hotel in Harlem. And I’ve found the same to be true across the country; rather than singling me out, my Kippah tends to bring out the best in people, and even acts as a friendly conversation starter.
Except when I found myself in a darkened Broadway theater, watching Jesus get hoisted on a cross by Judas Iscariot, surrounded by people with tears and/or rage in their eyes. At that moment, being the only person in the room with a Kippah on his head…made me stand out.
I’m talking about the Broadway musical Godspell, which I went to on a friend’s recommendation. Look, I’m not much of a theater guy, folks, so what do I know? I assumed it was about Jesus, but hey: I figured it would be a bunch of lighthearted singing and dancing – jazz-hands at the worst – not some brutal attack on Jews.
And it was fine for a while. Until the intermission. Walking around in the lobby, then returning to my seat in an empty row in the half-empty theater, I saw people looking at me…differently. Not a lot of friendly conversations were started that night. Not one. Maybe they knew what was coming in Act 2, just like Jesus did. Heck, we all knew that it wouldn’t turn out well for him. What I didn’t know was how the play would radically warp the character and actions of Judas.
Look, I’m not much more of an expert on the New Testament than I am on Broadway musicals but, from my recollection of the Gospels, a spotlighted Judas didn’t personally hoist Jesus onto a cross, pause to hear him scream, then hoist him some more. Pretty sure it was the Romans hoisting Jesus onto a Roman cross.
But it was the reaction of the crowd, and in particular one cast member, that made me feel like the spotlight was on me. The crowd was angry. Not “angry-at-the-rich-people-in-Titanic” angry. Angry. And the rage on stage was not “crocodile-tears-from-stage-actors.” It was real. The clenched fists were real. The tears were real. The rage was real. The room was buzzing with rage.
I could have left the theater. In fact, I almost did. When the light-hearted singing and dancing of Act 1 turned into Jesus slamming Rabbis and Jewish laws, I began looking for the exit.
But I forced myself to stay. Because I had never experienced this as a Jew. I knew what was coming in Act 2. I didn’t know it would be that bad or distorted, but I knew that things would not turn out well for the male lead, which would probably not sit well with the audience.
So I stayed. I took it. I experienced it. As a Jew.
It was just a Broadway play. It was just make-believe. I can only imagine what it must have been like for Jews in another country, in another time.
But I can imagine it a tiny bit more clearly today.