By Rabbi Jeremy Gerber
A friend of mine invited me to attend the People’s Light staging of The Diary of Anne Frank in Malvern. Having seen The Diary performed many times over the years, I wasn’t sure — to paraphrase the Passover haggadah — why this production would be different from all other productions. Nevertheless, I went, and I am glad that I did.
My friend informed me that the cast would be multi-racial, but I didn’t fully internalize that fact until the lights went up. I must admit, when the van Daan family came out on stage, with two African-American parents and one Caucasian son, all wearing the infamous yellow Jewish star on their coats, I was taken aback. It was different; like walking out into a sunny day after being indoors for a long time, my eyes had to adjust.
Yet I also maintain that, within a couple of minutes, it was entirely a non-issue. This was a fabulous performance by terrific actors, depicting an important and powerful — albeit painful — story. Brittany Anikka Liu, who played Anne, was exceptionally talented, and I was overall impressed with the whole production.
I was also surprised to learn how controversial this staging had become, and how some people took offense at using a multiracial cast to portray these Dutch, mid-century Jews. In particular, Wendy Rosenfield’s March article, “The All Lives Matter-ing of Anne Frank,” on broadstreetreview.com expressed concern, to say the least, about staging Anne Frank this way.
Rosenfield wrote in her opening paragraph: “I know this much: Anne’s story isn’t multicultural; it’s Jewish.”
While I understand where she’s coming from, and I appreciate her references to the original production of Anne Frank in 1955, where “universal appeal” did mean “the antonym of Jewish,” I must disagree with her critique.
First of all, the People’s Light production is incredibly Jewish and still universal. As a rabbi, I can tell you that I greatly appreciated even tiny attentions to detail, like having the two families light the shamash candle for Chanukah with a match, then extinguish the match and use the shamash to light the candle for the first night of the holiday (rather than just lighting both candles with the match), a distinction that would certainly be lost on many, if not most, attendees). This performance was respectful, knowledgeable and reverent, while also making many attempts to include all audience members and draw them in to Anne’s story.
I disagree completely with the critics here because I feel strongly that we want this story to have universal appeal; we need it to. For decades, if not centuries, we have declared that our persecution should be everyone’s concern. The plight of Jews under Soviet oppression was not just a Jewish issue; we wanted our neighbors and friends (and politicians) to care as well.
Anti-Semitism is simply another form of racism. We must band together with other targets of racist attacks because we are always stronger together. If we want them to care, we need to care as well.
When the Gestapo burst onto that stage in Malvern and everyone was marched out with their hands in the air, race didn’t matter. I found that particular moment incredibly powerful and a stark reminder that hate and violence harm us all. I can’t understand why critics like Rosenfield would want to keep people away from this story, why we wouldn’t want them to own it, to feel its pain and to cry along with us.
And while it may be uncomfortable to ask this question, I wonder if these same critics are aware that Anne Frank has been performed across the globe, countless times, and often by casts that were entirely made up of non-Jews. If those productions didn’t bother us, why would this one? And how can we understand this critique as anything but based on the difference in skin color?
At this specific moment in our nation’s history, the messages of the Holocaust, the scourge of anti-Semitism and the tragic fate of the Frank and van Daan families is more relevant than ever. As Jews, we sometimes straddle the line between (white) majority and (religious) minority. We also have the luxury of seeing ourselves represented in TV, movies, literature, arts and sciences, and many other places, far beyond our meager numbers in this country.
It is hard for us to argue, as Jews, that we can appreciate how it feels to not see yourself represented in pop culture. We don’t know what that feels like. We need productions like this one to declare — loud and clear — that our stories are universal, and that violence against one group is violence perpetrated against all of us.
I was disappointed in the headline on Rosenfield’s piece, comparing a multiracial cast of The Diary of Anne Frank with the corrupting intent of the All Lives Matter movement in opposition to Black Lives Matter. This production was powerful, intentional and respectful. It took a story that is relevant and poignant in any era, and made it even more crucial to our moment in time, and to the fight against oppression of all people in all places.
Sharing our history and our lessons with others makes me proud to be Jewish. Seeing a multiracial, multicultural audience engaging with the story of Anne Frank — in part because of this unique cast — was almost as powerful as the performance on stage. Sitting together in the dark, we were all united. And that is as it should be.
Rabbi Jeremy Gerber is the rabbi at Congregation Ohev Shalom in Wallingford.