We recently returned from New York City. As things worked out, we were too busy for Broadway, but I didn’t miss it. I’d spent my last evening in Israel in the company of a beloved niece, her wonderful sister-in-law and a thousand mainly Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) women and girls who were at the Jerusalem Theater for the Regal Productions annual women-only (that means on the stage, behind the scenes and in the audience!) musical theater show in aid of the halakhic fertility center Zir Hemed.

Little Lord Fauntleroy was my fourth Regal Production; see A thousand and one sheitls for my ‘review’ of last year’s extravaganza. During the show, I was too enthralled by the experience to analyze it.  The choreography, musical arrangements, set and costumes were, once again, spectacular, and the acting and singing were stunning. It’s hard to single out individuals in a group where every member excelled and team-spirit was the order of the day, but Mother Dearest had a powerful stage presence and a heart-stopping voice; Dick’s goofy goodness was pitch-perfect, as was his Clark Kent/Superman transformation into the hero of the day; and whether speaking, singing, dancing, performing acrobatics, or just looking adorable, Cedric/Little Lord Fauntleroy was mesmerizing. Eat your heart out, Harry Potter!

Once I got home, though, I couldn’t help contemplating the relationship between Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) hashkafa (worldview) and secular entertainment in the show we’d just seen.

Little Lord Fauntleroy first appeared as a serialized children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924); she also wrote A Little Princess and The Secret Garden. Cedric Errol, the novel’s young hero, lives with his widowed mother in genteel poverty in New York City. Cedric’s late father, also called Cedric, was a son of the Earl of Dorincourt, an English aristocrat who despised Americans and broke contact when his son had the bad taste to marry one. But when the Earl’s remaining son dies without an heir, he sends his lawyer across the Atlantic to bring Cedric to his ancestral home, where he’ll assume the title Lord Fauntleroy (pronounced, I now know, ‘faunt-le-roy’), and become an Earl in waiting.

The Earl, is a self-centered, hyper-critical, complaining grump. But by insisting on seeing only the good — a classic Haredi aspiration! — little ‘Ceddie’ helps his grandfather to turn himself around. Instead of preparing Cedric to be an Earl, as he anticipated, the curmudgeonly Earl learns from young Cedric how to be a mensch.

Regal Productions’ Little Lord Fauntleroy suggested (to me) intriguing parallels between the English aristocracy and the Haredi world. Both are traditionalist, hierarchical, drawn to ritual and spectacle, resistant to change, and concerned with yichus, noble ancestry. And in both worlds, change, when it does occur, must come from within, appearing as a return to tradition rather than innovation.

As an outsider/insider, Cedric is perfectly positioned to negotiate the tension between tradition and change. From his native America, he brings the notion of equality; all men and women – including those challenged by disabilities — deserve respect. But in the context of his birthright, the English aristocracy, equality is transformed into the responsibility of the privileged towards those less fortunate. Cedric opens his grandfather’s eyes to the daily suffering of the tenants who live on his estate, caused in large measure by his failure to maintain their decaying homes. Together, Ceddie and the Earl repair and restore the system into which both were born.

Cedric’s structural equivalents in the Haredi world are ba’alei teshuva, formerly non-observant Jews who ‘return’ to ultra-Orthodox Judaism. As Jews by birth, they aren’t rank outsiders, but since they were raised outside the fold, they must ‘come back’. In theory, ba’alei teshuva leave their secular baggage at the door when they become Haredi. In practice, though, it’s not easy to unlearn what you once knew. This helps explain why ba’alei teshuva often marry each other; FFB, ‘Frum From Birth’, Haredi families worry that their values will be diluted by external influence.

Regal Productions, by contrast, is a beneficiary of the ba’al teshuva phenomenon. In the Haredi world, the very notion of musical theater is beyond the pale, and the majority would frown upon time and energy spent acquiring the knowledge, expertise, training and experience required to put on a near-professional show like this one.  It’s unlikely that Regal Productions could make it to the Jerusalem Theater, filling the largest auditorium for several nights every year, without significant input from their own outsider/insiders – women who grew up acting, singing, dancing outside the Haredi world and, like Cedric, did not leave the entire contents of their suitcases at the door when they ‘came home’.

Cedric manages to challenge and enrich the aristocratic family he enters without threatening it. In this respect, he corresponds to an important figure or type in Jewish tradition: the functional, if not actual, child – usually a person of limited education and low status – who ‘grows up’ to teach his teachers. Rabbi Akiva represents this figure par excellence – a poor shepherd rejected by his wealthy father-in-law who ends up as one of the most influential Jewish scholars of all time.

Rabbi Akiva’s humble origins are a likely source of a virtue strongly identified with him: humility. The Earl’s cruel indifference to the suffering of his tenants reflects his limited life-experience. He’s never been poor himself, and has minimal contact with the poor around him; he looks down at his tenants from on high as mere enablers of his opulent lifestyle. All this changes with the arrival of Cedric, who has the manners and dress sense of a nobleman, but who knows how the other half live. His best friends are a grocer and a shoe-shine boy.

As an ideal, at least, Haredi leaders are sensitive to the challenges faced by their followers, great and small. They teach and model chesed, loving-kindness, that’s central to the Haredi lifestyle: visiting the sick, collecting for life-cycle events for the poor, recycling clothes and household equipment for families in need, making matches, giving charity and so forth. The Haredi world may he hierarchical, but it aspires to be connected and caring.

‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’ conjures up for many not a boy but a suit.

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The novel’s descriptions of Cedric’s attire were based apparently on the clothes Hodgson Burnett made for her own sons.

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Vivian Burnett, the novelist’s son

It inspired many imitations, not just on stage and screen, but on the streets of London and New York (or at least in their photography studios!).

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On the streets of Jerusalem, however, it’s not Little Lord Fauntleroy who comes to mind when ringlets and knickerbockers are mentioned.

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Photo credit: Agnieszka Traczewska, ‘Children of Erez Israel’

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Photo credit: Agnieszka Traczewska, ‘Children of Erez Israel’

Even outside Hasidic communities, Haredi children dress more formally than other children in Israel. This is partly a matter of tzniut, religious modesty; from a young age, girls wear dresses with sleeves, knee-length skirts, closed shoes and so forth. But it’s more than modesty. The Haredi passion for matching or coordinating clothes — checks and stripes are very popular! — recalls an era when children were less individuals than representatives of their family’s values.

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There’s a joke that Israel is the only country where old people give up their seats on buses so that children can sit down. What truth there is in this reflects the miracle of Jewish survival after the genocides and mass dislocations of the 20th Century. But children have always been center-stage in the Jewish world. Even before the Israelites left Egypt, God was reminding them to tell their children what happened to their ancestors (Exodus 12:26). The Pesach Seder, arguably Judaism’s defining ritual event, revolves entirely around children. And on some accounts the entire world exists only for children.

Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “Do not touch My anointed ones and do My prophets no harm” (I Chronicles 16:22)? “Do not touch My anointed ones,” these are the schoolchildren, who are as precious and important as kings and priests (Maharsha); “and do not harm My prophets,” these are Torah scholars. Reish Lakish said in the name of Rabbi Yehuda Nesia: The world only exists because of the breath, i. e. , reciting Torah, of schoolchildren. Rav Pappa said to Abaye: My Torah study and yours, what is its status? Why is the Torah study of adults worth less? He said to him: The breath of adults, which is tainted by sin, is not like the breath of children, which is not tainted by sin. And Reish Lakish said in the name of Rabbi Yehuda Nesia: One may not interrupt schoolchildren from studying Torah, even to build the Temple. And Reish Lakish said to Rabbi Yehuda Nesia: I have received from my ancestors, and some say that he said to him: I have received from your ancestors as follows: Any city in which there are no schoolchildren studying Torah, they destroy it. Ravina said: They leave it desolate (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 119b).

The name Fauntleroy is an anglicized corruption of the French enfant le Roi, child of the king. It’s not hard to see the appeal of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s heart-warming story for members of the Haredi world, where babies are welcomed like royalty.

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Photo credit: Diana Lipton, Pidyon Ha’ben, Jerusalem

And every child can be a prince or princess, a king or a queen.

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Photo credit: Agnieszka Traczewska, ‘Children of Erez Israel’

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Photo credit: Agnieszka Traczewska, ‘Children of Erez Israel’

All this is to say that Little Lord Fauntleroy seems to me to have been an inspired choice on the part of Regal Productions; I can’t wait to see what they put on next year. In the meantime, if you’re female and live near Manchester, Gateshead, London or Antwerp, you may still be in time to buy tickets (click here and then again on Europe tour) for this year’s remaining shows.