“Fun Home” and the Continuity of Alienation

Sydney Lucas and Michael Cerveris in Fun Home, with music by Jeanine Tesori, book and Lyrics by Lisa Kron, based on the Alison Bechdel book, and directed by Sam Gold, running at The Public Theater at Astor Place. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

Images: Joan Marcus

I took off 18 months between high school and college. I spent the first year studying philosophy in a French high school and falling in love for the first time. When I came home, I got reconstructive knee surgery, worked in a store selling computers, and made frequent trips to visit my friend at Brown, with boxes of dense homemade cookies that she still mocks. Not having made it to college yet myself, I was living vicariously through her, and I was itching to start my own journey.   

I had no idea what lay ahead; I barely knew what I wanted to study, let alone who I wanted to become. I had no idea that my first roommate would have multiple personalities, or that my next roommate would wear fur coats to class and maneuver other white students out of the anti-Apartheid campaign in hopes that she could shine. I had no idea there were so many ways to be Jewish, or that I would gaze at Mare, a beautiful long-haired butch who sat on the quad with the other lesbians, and try desperately to screw up my courage to talk to her.

And I certainly had no idea that 30 years later I would sit in the Public Theater during the new musical “Fun Home,” book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, music by Jeanine Tesori, and based on the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, and watch the lead character, “Medium Alison,” navigate some of the same waters as I had — coming out to herself, to her new friends, and finally to her family.

Alison (and the Alison I refer to here is the Alison of the stage — not of the book, and not of the flesh and pen) had a cultural heritage that she couldn’t quite grasp. She grew up in a gay culture, even less articulated than the Jewish culture of my own youth. Her father was a deeply closeted gay man who, like the Spanish crypto-Jews following the 1492 Expulsion, practiced the rituals of his gay identity while publicly adhering to heterosexuality. He preened, he decorated, he gardened, and he coveted his young male students, but he stayed married to his wife. And until Alison came out to him as a lesbian, he did nothing to acknowledge or pave the way for the life she was obviously crashing towards.

Except, in a way, he did.

We talk about Jewish continuity. We talk about LGBTQ continuity. We talk about passing along our cultures and our connections to the next generation. But we don’t talk as much about passing along our alienations — that, in fact, alienation can itself be a cultural experience shared between parents and children. As I watched “Fun Home,” I realized that Bechdel had written a book about the way she grew up as an alienated lesbian. But it took Lisa Kron to dramatize the way that I grew up — as an alienated Jew.

I knew I was a feminist before I got to college, and thanks to my feminist parents, along with literature, music, theory, and the campus women’s group, I had no shortage of feminist context and discourse. But while I knew I was Jewish, I barely had language for this. In hindsight, I can say that I came from a Jewish secular home, one generation away from Orthodoxy on my mother’s side, and one generation away from klezmorim on my father’s. But at the time, all I knew was that we were atheists, linked our Jewishishness to our progressive social views, and that my mother fought with her mother in Yiddish. I felt different from the other Jewish feminists I found in college, who came from the private schools of New York City, their banter peppered with Upper East Side Hebrew.

It’s not that I wanted what they had, but I felt left out of it, whatever it was.  The only Jews I knew when I was young were in my own family. Later when other Jewish families arrived in my little Massachusetts town, I didn’t realize. Everyone else probably did, but I didn’t know the clues. A certain last name, a certain look — this all went right past me. I grew up feeling other, while also fairly well-liked and socially active. It never dawned on me to wonder if my certain last name and my certain look had anything to do with my sense of alienation. Or, more to the point, if the alienation I felt was exactly how my parents had taught me to feel — Jewish continuity in the form of never being quite sure if people truly wanted me around.

It took my moving to Portland, Oregon, after college for me to finally experience being a Jew in a culture of belonging rather than alienation. I arrived just after an Ethiopian student named Mulugeta Seraw was murdered by neo-Nazi skinheads. I became active in the anti-racist and anti-fascist movements that were galvanized by the attack, including the organization New Jewish Agenda, which became my first meaningful Jewish home.

But it’s not like a switch flipped, and I suddenly knew how to be a Jew who belongs. I went to shabes dinners where people sang blessings over candles, wine and bread. How did they know the words and melodies?

I went to shul, but in a comedy of manners got it wrong again and again. I had asked a friend what to wear, and she said it could be extremely casual. I showed up in my sweats on Friday night after shooting hoops, and everyone else was wearing skirts and suits. One Saturday morning I dressed up—to find everyone else in their zhlubby weekend clothes.

I started learning Yiddish (which turned out to be my second enduring place of Jewish belonging). My summer course teacher mentioned that she would not be teaching on tishe b’ov. I had only just mastered my alef beys, and I definitely did not know what tishe b’ov was. “Dos iz epes a simkhe?” I asked. Is it some kind of a party? The teacher exploded in anger. How could I not know tishe b’ov? By the end of the class, I still didn’t know what it was. (It’s a day that commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temple in Jerusalem. It’s not a party. You fast.)

I grew accustomed to (and maybe even comforted by?) these bewilderments, embarrassments, and humiliations in Jewish settings. Watching Lisa Kron’s “Fun Home” made me realize that I had been groomed for exactly these alienated Jewish experiences.

As was Alison groomed for an alienated lesbian experience. From a young age, Alison knew she didn’t want to wear the girly clothes her father picked out for her. She knew she didn’t want to sweep her bangs back with a barrette. She knew her world cracked open with possibility when a butch delivery woman sauntered into the diner where she and her dad were eating lunch — a scene which Kron brought to life with the most authentic and delicate ode to butches the world has probably ever heard (“Ring of Keys”).

Alison’s father was there for all these formative moments. Yet rather than give her context for her feelings, he chose to groom her for her own closeted life. Because, really, what other kind of experience did he know how to pass along? His gayness was the stuff of sublimation, redirection and shame.

How did Lisa Kron do it? Did she purposely draw the parallels between queer and Jewish continuity? Did she allow her Jewish knowledge, experience, and sensibilities to infuse the queer story? Did she write the perfect show that allows everyone to see her own experience reflected? How closely did she track the ways that fear caused by homophobia does and does not mirror fear caused by anti-Semitism? I suspect it was a combination of all of the above—preening, grooming, and tending to every detail of her creation, and then making magic with a perfect decorating touch.