Stephen Sondheim Wasn’t Very Interested in His Jewishness. But It Shaped Him Nonetheless

Dec. 16 2021

On November 26, Stephen Sondheim, one of Broadway’s most celebrated composers and librettists, died at the age of ninety-one—by coincidence, just as a Hollywood has released a new adaptation of West Side Story, the most famous of his plays. Sondheim, John Podhoretz notes, was part of a generation of Jews that made enormous contributions to American literature and arts; and indeed he finds parallels between Sondheim’s work and that of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. But this leads Podhoretz to the obvious question:

What role, if any, did Sondheim’s Jewishness play in his work? He was raised by a first-generation Lithuanian Jewish mother who had herself been raised in a traditional household but later preposterously claimed to have been educated at a convent. Janet Sondheim (known as Foxy) designed dresses her husband manufactured—which meant that they were basically in the shmatte business. They divorced when Herbert Sondheim fell in love with a Catholic—and after marrying his second wife, Herbert never told his two subsequent sons he was a Jew. Sondheim’s biographer Meryle Secrest reports Stephen did not have a bar mitzvah and first entered a synagogue at age nineteen.

And yet, and yet. From an early age, Sondheim was hungry for entry not into a world of Gentile gentility, but one entirely dominated by Jewish men. And he would spend half a century almost entirely in Jewish company. His collaborators on West Side Story were Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, the librettist Arthur Laurents, and the producer Harold Prince. . . . All in all, in a career spanning 51 years and nineteen shows, Sondheim worked with two Gentile librettists and one Gentile director—and that was it.

But to judge by the subject matter he chose, Judaism and the Jewish experience were of limited interest to him. . . . The same cannot be said of his most distinguished collaborators. Robbins’s greatest triumph came with Fiddler on the Roof, which was produced by Harold Prince. Arthur Laurents’s first Broadway success was a play about anti-Semitism in the military called Home of the Brave. Bernstein was obsessed with Jewish subject matter; among other works, he wrote a symphony inspired by the kaddish, . . . and set three Psalms to music in Hebrew.

And yet, like Sondheim, they were mostly deracinated. The problem for them was that true deracination was not yet really possible. Until the 1950s, socially ambitious American Jews were denied places in country clubs, white-shoe law firms, and upper corporate management, and were subject to strict academic quotas. America was the most welcoming place Jews had ever lived, but Jews were still a people apart even if they never set foot inside a shul or they pretended to have gone to Catholic school.

Indeed, the life story of Stephen Sondheim is a testament to how everything was and is possible in America.

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Read more at Commentary

More about: American Jewry, Broadway, Musical theater

Terror Returns to Israel

Nov. 28 2022

On Wednesday, a double bombing in Jerusalem left two dead, and many others injured—an attack the likes of which has not been seen since 2016. In a Jenin hospital, meanwhile, armed Palestinians removed an Israeli who had been injured in a car accident, reportedly murdering him in the process, and held his body hostage for two days. All this comes as a year that has seen numerous stabbings, shootings, and other terrorist attacks is drawing to a close. Yaakov Lappin comments:

Unlike the individual or small groups of terrorists who, acting on radical ideology and incitement to violence, picked up a gun, a knife, or embarked on a car-ramming attack, this time a better organized terrorist cell detonated two bombs—apparently by remote control—at bus stops in the capital. Police and the Shin Bet have exhausted their immediate physical searches, and the hunt for the perpetrators will now move to the intelligence front.

It is too soon to know who, or which organization, conducted the attack, but it is possible to note that in recent years, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) has taken a lead in remote-control-bombing terrorism. Last week, a car bomb that likely contained explosives detonated by remote control was discovered by the Israel Defense Forces in Samaria, after it caught fire prematurely. In August 2019, a PFLP cell detonated a remote-control bomb in Dolev, seventeen miles northwest of Jerusalem, killing a seventeen-year-old Israeli girl and seriously wounding her father and brother. Members of that terror cell were later arrested.

With the Palestinian Authority (PA) losing its grip in parts of Samaria to armed terror gangs, and the image of the PA at an all-time low among Palestinians, in no small part due to corruption, nepotism, and its violation of human rights . . . the current situation does not look promising.

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More about: Israeli Security, Jerusalem, Palestinian terror