Award-winning Broadway shows: Stories of painful Jewish history resonate amid rising hatred of Jews

Discrimination against American Jews was endemic across society, reflecting a broader climate of bigotry, racism and intolerance.

From the Broadway show “Leopoldstadt.” Source: Screenshot.
From the Broadway show “Leopoldstadt.” Source: Screenshot.

“Eight times a week, I watch a Jewish man get lynched on Broadway.” — Parade” actress Micaela Diamond

Two antisemitism-themed Broadway plays, “Parade” and “Leopoldstadt,” both recently won several Tony Awards. They portray how deep-seated anti-Jewish hostility combined with disinformation led to tragic results. Heinous historic acts against Jews serve as powerful reminders of what happens when hatred against Jews is allowed to fester.

Parade” portrays the true story of American Jew, Leo Frank, and the consequences of unchecked hatred and discrimination. He was a factory manager accused of murdering a 13-year-old Christian girl in Atlanta in 1913. The case received sensationalized national media attention. His trial was marred by a biased investigation, a prejudiced jury and a hostile public sentiment fueled by anti-Jewish propaganda. Despite inconsistencies in the evidence against him, Frank was convicted and sentenced to death.

After public outrage, his sentence was reduced to life in prison. Enraged residents believed that “lynch law is a good sign because it shows that a sense of justice lives among the people.” They formed a “Vigilance Committee,” culminating in the abduction and hanging of Frank in 1915. The ringleaders included a former Georgia governor and the mayor of Marietta. In 1986, he was pardoned after a witness came forward and testified to seeing the victim’s body being carried to the basement by an employee.

During the early 1900s, discrimination against American Jews was endemic across society, reflecting a broader climate of bigotry, racism and intolerance. Jews faced various forms of discrimination, including social exclusion, limited employment opportunities and harmful stereotypes.

While the overt antisemitism of 1913 has somewhat diminished, it is resurgent across America. It was on display in 2023 when a small group of neo-Nazis staged a rally outside the Broadway theater showing “Parade,” an ironic display of hate underscoring the importance of these portrayals. Ben Platt, the Jewish actor playing Leo Frank, described the scene as “definitely very ugly and scary, but a wonderful reminder of why we’re telling this particular story, and how special and powerful art and particularly theater can be.”

In a somber tribute, “Parade” cast members gather before almost every performance, stand in a circle and say the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. “It is an expression of community as we tell this hard story,” wrote Diamond, who plays Lucille Frank, the wife of Jewish lynching victim Leo Frank.

Leopoldstadt reveals the devastating consequences of anti-Jewish hatred against individuals and communities. The play by Tom Stoppard is based in part on the experience of his own family. It portrays the lives of a prosperous Jewish family in Vienna and spans the late 19th century to the aftermath of the Holocaust.

The extended family fled pogroms in Eastern Europe and largely assimilated into the local culture; two of them served in World War I against the Allies. None of this mattered when the Nazis took control of Austria to implement Hitler’s Final Solution. Many Austrians enthusiastically supported Nazi Germany and cheered its annexation of Austria.

In the mid-1600s, Rabbi Yom-Tov Lipmann, the rabbi of Vienna, obtained the right for Jews to create a central Jewish community in a Vienna suburb. One hundred years later, the Jews living there were forced to live in a ghetto. Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor, forcefully expelled the Jews and destroyed their community, much to the delight of the locals. The remaining residents thanked the emperor by renaming the area Leopoldstadt, “Leopold’s City.” A century later, Jews returned to the area, before—once again—the Jewish community was destroyed.

Events in Jewish history parallel today’s events. The Tree of Life synagogue mass shooting in Pittsburgh in October 2018 was the deadliest attack against Jews in American history. The shooter is a white supremacist who believes in deeply anti-Jewish myths and conspiracy theories. He regularly shared social-media posts from Jew-hating bigots and Holocaust deniers.

The trial for the Pittsburgh terrorist attack began on May 30. Rabbi Jeffrey Myers testified that a prayer book with a bullet hole in it is a powerful “witness to the horror of the day. One day when I’m not there, this book tells a story that needs to be told.”

Points to consider:

  1. Stories from the past are still relevant today and deserve re-telling.

Broadway plays that delve into Jewish history maintain their relevance today by capturing the timeless essence of Jewish experiences. Whether exploring themes of identity, assimilation or persecution, these plays offer profound insights into the historical struggles of Jews. Unfortunately, the narratives and characters they present serve as a mirror to Jewish lives today, as American Jews are the most targeted religious group. Virtually every day, there are reports about attacks against Jews, including Jewish students living in fear on campus because of their Zionist identity and Jews being assaulted on city streets in broad daylight. The more society changes, the more threats against Jews stay the same.

  • Spreading falsehoods and disinformation about Jews continues.

The Leo Frank story in “Parade” delivers a forceful reminder that spreading intentionally false messages about Jews continues to perpetuate harmful stereotypes and contribute to prejudice and discrimination. The tragic events surrounding Frank’s wrongful conviction and lynching in 1915 highlight the devastating consequences of baseless accusations and the dangerous impact of anti-Jewish propaganda. Disinformation is not new; it was prevalent for millennia—let alone 100 years ago in America—and had the same devastating consequences as today, as seen in the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. The destructive power of false narratives shows why it is essential to promote accurate information and encourage critical thinking to combat prejudice.

  • Historical Jewish stories must not be forgotten.

The multiple Tony Award wins show the power of storytelling and its connection with audiences. The producers, writers and actors deserve credit for tackling these tragic historical accounts to transport hundreds of thousands of viewers—Jews and non-Jews—back in time to better understand the persecution Jews faced. The plays prove that Jews should always be proud of their identity and heritage, and be proud to tell the stories of Jewish people; clearly, audiences are listening. “Parade” director Michael Arden described how Leo Frank’s “life was cut short at the hands of the belief that one group of people is more or less valuable than another.” Arden warned that it is imperative to learn the lessons of the show, “or else we are doomed to repeat the horrors of our history.”

  • Education about the past can prevent future hatred.

Americans must learn about the dark chapters of history, promote tolerance and prevent the repetition of past atrocities. By shining a light on the horrors of the Holocaust and other instances of persecution, the narratives in the “Leopoldstadt” and “Parade” Broadway plays serve as powerful reminders of the consequences of hatred, bigotry and discrimination. Through education and understanding, we can challenge prejudice, foster empathy and inspire a commitment to safeguarding human rights. Sharing these stories not only honors the memory of those who suffered but also encourages us to stand up against injustice in all its forms and create a more compassionate and inclusive society.

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