September 25th, 2023

The final song in “Fiddler on the Roof” may be its most moving. As the Jews of this persecuted Ukrainian shtetl disperse — to Poland, to the United States – they sing a bittersweet tribute to their “underfed, overworked” hometown.
“Anatevka” is a crowd pleaser, for sure. And the cast of the current Players Club of Swarthmore performs it beautifully.
For one member of that cast – Joel Rosenwasser, who plays Avram the bookseller – the song has special meaning.
“Every time I sing it, I think of my great grandmother, who came over from Kiev,” says Joel. “’Fiddler’ is my own family’s story. It’s about escape and – for the lucky ones — survival.”
Joel, who is active in the region’s Jewish community, isn’t just in the cast of this show. He also serves as dramaturg for director Theodora Psitos. His primary task is teaching customs, accents and pronunciation to a largely non-Jewish cast.
That means performing all of the Sabbath rituals of candle lighting and blessings of the wine, bread and children during the Sabbath Prayer number. It means saying “ah-mein” rather than “amen.” It means respecting the Jewish wedding traditions of the ketubah, drinking the wine, and the bride circling the groom seven times and the groom stomping on the wine glass as the vows are completed.
“Everyone in the cast is trying to be as Jewish as they can,” Joel says with a laugh. “And I’m proud to say they all got it right.”
“Fiddler” has been part of Joel’s life since he was five and his father bought a record album of the soundtrack. He first saw the play soon after that – performed by students at a Catholic high school.
“It’s beautiful, and it’s also powerful,” he says. “What we know is that the Jews who left Ukraine for North or South America survived. The ones who stayed or emigrated to other countries in Europe had a high percentage chance of perishing within the next 30 years during the Holocaust.”
Later this season, Joel will make his directorial debut at PCS with the gripping drama, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which will run from April 19 – May 4. That, too, is a story of persecution of European Jews – these ones do not escape and survive.
“Anne Frank” is the first show Joel ever acted in, nearly 40 years ago. He portrayed the emotionally complicated Peter, the teenage boy who is among those in hiding with the title character.
Even before that, the theme was close to his heart. At 17, Joel traveled with United Synagogue Youth to nine Eastern European countries and five concentration camps studying the Holocaust. He ended up producing a full-length documentary from his travels and interviews with survivors and other residents of affected towns.
He became a lecturer and, later, a Sunday school teacher. Always central to his teaching was “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
“When the play came out in 1955, just 10 years after the war, it was one of the first introductions most of the world had to the horror of the Holocaust, especially its impact on children,” Joel says. “Anne became the face representing the 1.5 million kids who were killed. “
Joel’s been planning his PCS version of “Anne Frank” ever since the production committee approved it last February. He scouted out the theater while attending other shows – taking notes on staging, sound and the auditorium’s layout.
“I noticed the door on the side of the stage when I went to see ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,’ and I’ve been dreaming ever since of how to incorporate it,” he says. “What would it be like to hear that door pounding – to have the audience feel like the Nazis are about to barge in from the other side of the door? You don’t need to actually see the Nazis to create the fear of Nazis.”
To further his vision, Joel invited 10 actors to the theater for a script reading of Anne Frank on Sept. 12, incorporating sound effects and other small touches. I was fortunate to be among those actors. I can say first-hand that this director has a keen sense of what he wants to produce – and it goes beyond the story itself.
“I want this to be more than just a show,” Joel says. “I want it to be an event. With what’s occurring in the world right now – from book banning in Bucks County to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – it all becomes more relevant. I’ve realized that younger generations – from 40 on down – didn’t get to study the Holocaust as we did. They don’t have the realization of what can happen when people get repressed.”
The Anti-Defamation League of Philadelphia and Holocaust Awareness Museum have signed on as supporters of the upcoming PCS show. They’ll help publicize, sell tickets and host one of the post show talkback sessions. Joel is hoping the collective effort helps reach potential theatergoers in northeast Philly, Delaware and New Jersey – especially young ones.
“We got a letter from a seventh-grade teacher who asked whether we can perform a weekday matinee so that she can bring her class,” Joel says. “I’m hoping we can.”
Joel’s own background is a fascinating story. He grew up in Chicago and attended the University of Texas, where he had a scholarship in aerospace engineering, in hopes of becoming an astronaut.
As you may have ascertained, Joel never walked on the moon. But he did earn a double-major degree in artificial intelligence and computer science. He worked for a time in the family’s sixth-generation jewelry business in Chicago, moved to Philadelphia (where his wife is from) and eventually combined his skills to create a business that specializes on laser engraving on gemstones and jewelry.
“I know diamonds and I know computers,” he says. “So I found a way to combine the two.”
Actually, he knows a lot more than that. Turns out he’s also a hell of a soccer player, who somehow wound up playing for Colombia in the 2022 Maccabi Masters over-55 Men’s team. Ask him the story – it’s a great one, right up to the “Hoosiers” gold medal ending. If you go into the PCS green room, his Colombian team’s championship photo is hanging over the couch.
Joel made a whole new set of friends on the team, Jews from around South America. Recently, he brought it all together, shooting a video of the iconic bottle-dancing scene from “Fiddler on the Roof,” with the PCS dancers wearing the soccer jerseys he had collected from Colombia and Argentina. One dancer, Andrew Staub, is even wearing Joel’s gold medal.
“My friends down there, some of who don’t speak English, were moved by this,” Joel said. “It was just a way of bringing cultures together, of creating more understanding.”
That’s really Joel’s brand. You can see it in the current run of “Fiddler on the Roof.” And you’ll see it again next spring with “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

(Written by Glen Macnow)

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