Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Dance of the Sugarplum Interfaith Fellow

I have a confession to make. I love "The Nutcracker," the short ballet written (and some say, disavowed by) the great Russian composer Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky, which has in the last half-century become one of the hallmarks of the holiday season, especially in the United States. The music in it is so much a part of the popular ethos that it's been appropriated by TV commercials and even Duke Ellington. (The image at the right is the backdrop for the second act, set in the Land of the Sugarplum Fairy, from the original production.)

I've been thinking about Nutcracker a lot lately because it arouses a lot of emotions in people, ranging from warm feelings of winter afternoons gone by to "ugh, I hate it." For me, it's a touchstone experience because I see it through the eyes of someone who is "interfaith" -- a theme which I'd like to begin exploring in this blog.

By interfaith, I don't mean "ecumenical" -- in other words, including people of many faiths in dialogue, particularly with issues that are important in modern society. These days we often hear about interfaith approaches to healthcare, or AIDS, or the war on terrorism. I mean something that I and many other families have direct experience with: the work involved in creating a family in which one spouse is of one faith (usually Christian), another spouse is of another faith (often Jewish), and the children, it is hoped, grow up with at least an appreciation for both.

"Nutcracker" resonates for me here because my experience with is is very much interfaith. I grew up Jewish, in a family that was, on the one hand, very assimilated. We didn't keep kosher or go to synagogue regularly. But Christmas was often an isolating time in our house, in the sense that we didn't participate in any of the secular elements of the season. To this day, some in my immediate family are openly hostile to the holiday, resisting going to Christmas parties or dinners if invited, turning of holiday music when it plays on the radio, and so on. A recent blog posting by the JCC here in Washington talked about one parent's ambivalence about "Nutcracker."

My mom, who still takes ballet class, first took me to the ballet when I was about five to see "The Nutcracker." If I hadn't wimped out at the last minute, I would have been in my elementary school's talent show as a kindergartener dancing around to soldier music from the first act. This year, I bought a copy of the wonderful ABT production with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland to play for my daughter, who is the same age that I was when I first saw it.

To my mind, "Nutcracker" is wonderful. It's a story that only begins with a Christmas party, but that deals more with the imagination and joy inherent in childhood. A little girl dreams that her toy nutcracker comes to life and takes her to a magical land. That's it. It's based on a short story by the German writer ETA Hoffman, brought to life by a Russian composer, and now part of the cultural zeitgeist of postmodern America. So when I approach it it's not as a Jew, or as a Jew married to a Catholic, but as a human being of one particular background living in a diverse, modern society. The joy in watching this little ballet comes from the dancing, and the music, and reliving the joy I felt seeing it for the first time in seeing my daughter do the same thing.

I'll explore in later postings what exactly being interfaith means to me -- but for the time being, it's back to dancing with the sugarplum fairy.

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