Judaism in Falsettoland

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Minsung Kim

Judaism in William Finn's Falsettoland

Judaism and Jewish culture have always been central to William Finn, writer of a trilogy of short works following Marvin, a homosexual character living in the Jewish community. Falsettoland itself forms the final part of the trilogy while In Trousers and March of the Falsettos are the first two installments respectively. Over the course of the musical, Finn hints at the audience the contrasting notion of Orthodox and Reform Judaism through the music and lyrics. Furthermore, Finn not only portrays the standing of Reform Judaism on homosexuality, but also nuances the social expectations of women under Jewish faith. Jewish life in America changed dramatically throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The majority of Jews were those with a Reform standing. This meant that, as a faith, they rejected the traditional rules, which governed dress code, diet, and purity. There was a sense of community rather than a religious longing and yearning to return to Palestine. Some even saw the Reform movement as bringing Judaism “up to date.” It is difficult to determine the type of Judaism represented in Falsettoland as no clear references are made. However, the use of features of both traditional Orthodox Judaism and Reform Judaism suggests that Falsettoland depicts a hybrid of the two. Religion and music have been related on numerous occasions – both are universal attributes to the international society and are used by means of communication and are considered when deciding on our individual social circles. Anthony Storr discusses such ideas by saying, “Some people find that one or other of the great religions provides them with a belief system which makes sense out of the world… although music is not a belief system, I think that its importance and its appeal also depend upon its being a way of ordering human experience” (Storr 187). In Falsettoland, Finn uses both music and religion to argue character profiles and credibility of the presented storyline. Like religion, music also has its own set of rules, its own set of implied material and fundamentally its own followers. Finn contrasts the notion of Orthodox and Reform by presenting Orthodox through the lyrical content and the Reform movement through the music that is simple, upbeat and stripped to the bare essentials. Traditional beliefs are made reference to in the number ‘Everyone Hates His Parents’ in which Mendel, a psychiatrist, gives Jason advice after he states that he doesn’t want a bar mitzvah. In this scene, the verse “…Everyone hates his parents, that’s in the Torah, it’s what history shows. In fact, God said to Moses ‘Moses, everyone hates his parents, that’s how it is,’ and God knew because God hated his…” is used to introduce and expand upon Jason’s idea of religion (Finn 13). Although it would be absurd to think that this is in fact what God said, Finn and the character of Mendel are simply using religion to explain to Jason that feelings, which he is incurring, are quite common in life. This perhaps shows the characters in Falsettoland to be of Orthodox and traditional faith, however, when viewed in respect to the musical accompaniment, perhaps there is an underlying story. The accompaniment is that of a typical country style pop song. It could be argued that in this case, Finn is juxtaposing the notion of Orthodox and Reform to dramatic effect. In Falsettoland, there are numerous mentions to cuisine as Trina prepares the food for Jason’s Bar Mitzvah – it is a chance for her to show to the community her culinary skills. As shown in this case, food and diet play a huge part in the Jewish faith. The Jewish dietary laws are known as kashrut and are used to primarily rule over the eating of meat within the Jewish faith. The term ‘kosher’ is used to describe meat, which can be eaten by followers of Judaism. The term ‘treif’ is used to describe items of food that are non-kosher such as...
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