Lecture addresses role of Jews on Broadway

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Warren Hoffman, the Executive Director of the Association for Jewish Studies, hosted a lecture on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018 in Williams Hall. His lecture was focused on the history of white immigrants, in particular the Ashkenazi Jewish people, trying to make a place for themselves in America. (Courtesy of Lehigh University Website)

Warren Hoffman has worn many hats as an educator, playwright and literary manager.

Now, he is the executive director for the Association for Jewish Studies, an international organization based in New York City. His latest book “The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical” discusses how racial politics and other cultural facets have influenced musicals over the years.

Hoffman gave a lecture,  “Jews, Whiteness, and the Broadway Musical” at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 13 in the Global Commons in Williams Hall. The lecture was organized by Jodi Eichler-Levine, a Berman Professor of Jewish civilization and a professor of religion studies.

Eichler-Levine teaches a class called “Jews and the Broadway Musical” in which her students read Hoffman’s book as a part of the curriculum.

“The Berman Center for Jewish Studies sponsors programs on campus that have Jewish studies content, and so this was just the perfect fit for him to come out and visit while I was teaching this class,” Eichler-Levine said.

During his lecture, Hoffman touched upon the history of white immigrants, particularly the Ashkenazi Jewish people, trying to make a place for themselves in America. They were able to find their place through performing.

To help illustrate his points, Hoffman used four well-known musicals as examples: “Show Boat,” “Oklahoma!,” “Annie Get Your Gun” and “West Side Story.”

For each show, he briefly spoke of the historical background, chose songs to play for the attendees and analyzed the lyrics in the frame of the lecture’s themes.

The audience laughed when Hoffman revealed a part of a script from the original iteration of “West Side Story” entitled “East Side Story,” which was meant to be a show about Catholics and Jews on the East Side of New York during Passover and Easter time.

Those in attendance were able to interact with Hoffman throughout the lecture and during a Q&A session at the end.

Tara Coyle, the coordinator for the Berman Center for Jewish Studies, took notice of the audience reactions.

“It was interesting to see the generational differences in response to the older theater styles, and I think it is so great that the younger generation was exposed to these styles,” Coyle said.

Some of the students in the audience are enrolled in Eichler-Levine’s course and were able to hear Hoffman when he visited their class. The students read a chapter from Hoffman’s book on “West Side Story” at the beginning of the course. 

“The class is wonderful and takes a lot of passions we all have and incorporates them into a more academic setting,” Sarah Federman, ‘19, said.

When Federman attended the event, she was amazed by the diverse group in the audience.

As a member of the class, she was surprised she didn’t recognize more audience members and said she was impressed with the turnout of students and adults from the Lehigh Valley. She said it was refreshing to see community members attending an event at Lehigh. 

Coyle said the event garnered a large crowd for a weekday night.

“It’s great that we have a university where we’re able to have programming like this,” Eichler-Levine said. “The history of Jews, race and the Broadway musical is a really complicated topic.” 

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