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

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.

Read more at Commentary

More about: American Jewry, Broadway, Musical theater

Iran’s Options for Revenge on Israel

On April 1, an Israeli airstrike on Damascus killed three Iranian generals, one of whom was the seniormost Iranian commander in the region. The IDF has been targeting Iranian personnel and weaponry in Syria for over a decade, but the killing of such a high-ranking figure raises the stakes significantly. In the past several days, Israelis have received a number of warnings both from the press and from the home-front command to ready themselves for retaliatory attacks. Jonathan Spyer considers what shape that attack might take:

Tehran has essentially four broad options. It could hit an Israeli or Jewish facility overseas using either Iranian state forces (option one), or proxies (option two). . . . Then there’s the third option: Tehran could also direct its proxies to strike Israel directly. . . . Finally, Iran could strike Israeli soil directly (option four). It is the riskiest option for Tehran, and would be likely to precipitate open war between the regime and Israel.

Tehran will consider all four options carefully. It has failed to retaliate in kind for a number of high-profile assassinations of its operatives in recent years. . . . A failure to respond, or staging too small a response, risks conveying a message of weakness. Iran usually favors using proxies over staging direct attacks. In an unkind formulation common in Israel, Tehran is prepared to “fight to the last Arab.”

Read more at Spectator

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Syria