Alexandra Silber is a Broadway star, writer, Jewish educator — and now a newly bat mitzvah’ed woman.
Let’s back up a second. Silber is Jewish; she was raised outside Detroit, Michigan, the daughter of a Jewish dad and a Catholic mom. Her dad passed away when she was 18 years old.
Silber has a long history with Fiddler on the Roof. In 2007 and 2008, she portrayed Hodel (the middle daughter) on London’s West End, and in 2015 and 2016, she was part of the Broadway revival of Fiddler as Tzeitel, the eldest sister. After the Broadway run of Fiddler ended, she went on to write After Anatevka, a novel that imagines what happened to Hodel after the story of Fiddler ends, and White Hot Grief Parade, a memoir about what happened when her father died of cancer.
“After two huge productions of Fiddler and the publication and book tours around each of my books, I met so many people in Jewish communities that sparked, fed, and fueled my interest in knowing more, and finding a peaceful, curious, voracious, and joyful certainty of God,” Silber explained over e-mail to Alma. Becoming a bat mitzvah “was the best decision I’ve made in my adult life.”
We talked with Silber about her bat mitzvah, why she wore her mom’s wedding dress, and her deep relationship to Fiddler on the Roof.
Mazel tov on your bat mitzvah! What made you decide to become a bat mitzvah?
I come from a mixed family — my father’s family being Jewish and both sides of my mother’s family, Catholic. Life in my home was deeply spiritual, religiously informed, but entirely secular. I would say I am definitely a product of a few generations of highly motivated American assimilation — my mother’s cultural background is Irish and Latinx, and her maiden name is Noriega. When and where she grew up in California in the 1950s and ’60s, there was cultural incentives for assimilation that her parents and grandparents gave their lives for.
The same was true for the Silber family. My grandparents came into the prime of their adulthoods during the Holocaust, and though they were far from the European atrocities, their families and friends were not unaffected by the horrors. I will never fully understand their experience, but I can wrap my mind around the cultural pressures to assimilate.
I lost my father to cancer when I was just 18, and the experience charged me with many spiritual life-and-death questions at that tender age. As I’ve grown, those thoughts and concepts have swirled around me, informing so much of my life and work. And of course, professionally, Judaism has been a huge part of my life, and immersing in the culture via the theatre (and subsequently through my books) has been a game changer.
I saw on Instagram that you wore your mom’s wedding dress to your bat mitzvah — why did you decide to do this? What did it mean?
I’m so glad you asked this question. I wanted my mother to feel that she was literally embracing me, standing alongside me and offering a meaningful contribution to the ceremony that might otherwise feel slightly alienating to her culture and faith of origin. My mom Catherine could not be more supportive of all that I do, but I wanted her to feel significantly represented in the ceremony.
My parents were married in 1980 by a generous and beautifully spirited rabbi in Detroit, Rabbi Richard Hertz. The wedding photos of this outdoor Jewish ceremony are integral to my vision of my parents’ origins and peerless love story. It was a simple way for both of my parents to be “present” on the day, almost 40 years later.
What was the process like?
The month after the Broadway run of Fiddler on the Roof ended, Rabbi Larry Hoffman of Hebrew Union College invited me to teach at a retreat for his fourth year rabbinical and cantorial students. It was a three-day experience I will never forget. I used lessons commonly taught in theatrical environments and applied them to the scope of Judaism, and got some of the most memorable feedback and lessons thrown back at me from the group of 16 or so students (that were largely my own age!).
A few students in particular really stood out to me as people I’d love to remain friends with — two being (now Rabbi) Samantha Frank and (soon to be Rabbi) Rena Singer. They had gone about starting what can only be described as a Reform, feminist, totally inclusive, profoundly informative, and all around glorious Instagram account called @modern_ritual. I devoured the content. I identified with it. And before long, I realized that if I was going to engage with this bat mitzvah experience, I wanted to do it with them — with peers I looked up to immensely leading me, in just the way I had led them just a few years earlier.
Rabbi Frank and I made an initial date to meet and discuss the details — my prior knowledge, my goals, and what I truly wanted from the experience, and together we crafted a plan that was personal to me, where I am in my life now as an adult woman. We met once a week (sometimes in person and sometimes over the internet), and not only learned Hebrew and trope (from scratch!) but we discussed all things spiritual, Israel, Torah, history, and culture.
What was the hardest part?
Aside from learning Hebrew (medium-hard — I’m quite adept at languages in general) and trope (almost unbearably hard as a musician and music-reader), the hardest part was the bittersweet moment of saying goodbye to Rabbi Frank after the process was over. She became the only person in my life (other than my partner and my mother) whom I spoke with every day. I miss her!
Totally on a different note from your bat mitzvah, why did you write After Anatevka?
I played Hodel in the ’07-’08 West End production at the Savoy Theatre. Hodel took on a deeper significance for me than any other character I’d ever portrayed, mostly because when I began rehearsing her in London I was coming to terms with the death of my father five years earlier at the age of 18. Hodel’s final scene is not only an assertion of her adult autonomy, but it’s her chance to say goodbye to her father, a chance I was personally lacking in my real life. When Hodel said, “Papa, God alone knows when we shall see each other again,” it was more than a piece of dialogue for me. It felt mythological, primal even.
I suppose I only now see the direct connection between an 18-year-old girl who boards a train to Siberia, and an 18-year-old girl who boarded a plane to Scotland. By exploring and assuring Hodel’s future, and her capacity to endure, I was in some deeper way doing the same for myself.
Did playing Hodel in Fiddler impact your Jewish identity?
Of course. On several levels. The first being that I was playing Hodel in London, and the UK has a much less prominent experience of Jewish culture woven into the mainstream than we do here in the US. That said, in a large cast of 30, I was only one of three (even remotely) Jewish actors, and throughout that experience I learned many things alongside the Judaism novices, as well as feeling charged to be the best ambassador of Jewish culture I could be. I did endless research not only to benefit myself, but to be a more dependable guide for my cast mates. That naturally trickled into my off-stage life.
Second, and perhaps deepening that experience, studying Jewish culture, history, and the faith itself gave me an aperture into my personal genetic legacy — a connection to my father, grandparents, and beyond — all of whom I could no longer connect with on earth in the present-tense. It was a way for me to feel the ancient links that connected me straight back to Hodel herself. A way to feel close to my father.
By the time I arrived to live permanently in America in 2010, the process was well underway even if it wasn’t in the forefront of my consciousness. And by the time I was cast as Tzeitel in the 2016 Broadway revival, if the deal wasn’t sealed already, it was sealed doubly so by Rabbi Larry Hoffman of Hebrew Union College. He served as the Broadway production’s Jewish consultant, and we forged a very special connection that remains alive to this day.
What was the reaction like to your novel?
Largely positive. So many people shared my curiosity about what happens to this family! Of course there will always be dissenters and people who wished I’d crafted the date of their beloved characters in a different way, but I had to remain true to history and to the woman I grew to know Hodel to become.
Jews have such a long history in the theater — why do you think that is?
All of the arts have powerful Jewish cultural parallels: ways of uniting a community, telling stories that make people think, feel, laugh, and change, and providing a way to bear the adversities of life.
What’s your favorite Jewish show?
Aside from Fiddler, I’m a huge fan of Paula Vogel’s gorgeous play Indecent — which chronicles the history of another pivotal Jewish/Yiddish play “The God of Vengeance” by Shalom Ashe.
Image in header courtesy Al Silber.