The Jewish Dancer Who Went From 'Terrorist' to 'Fiddler'

A year ago, Jesse Kovarsky was infuriating some Jews by appearing in the Met's controversial production of 'The Death of Klinghoffer.' Now he’s delighting them by playing the titular role in 'Fiddler on the Roof.'

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Jesse Kovarsky stands center stage as the titular character in "Fiddler on the Roof."
Jesse Kovarsky as the titular character in "Fiddler on the Roof."Credit: Joan Marcus
Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer

To get into the mind-set of a terrorist, Jesse Kovarsky put an AK-47 rifle around his neck. “I felt its weight, its power, and its significance,” he wrote in an essay on Gawker last year, “and began to convince myself that everything I did from that point on was for a higher cause.” Then he went onstage and shot a wheelchair-bound Jewish-American in the Metropolitan Opera’s controversial production, “The Death of Klinghoffer.”

On Sunday, a violin became the physical embodiment of cultural significance when Kovarsky, 27, made his Broadway debut as the titular musician in the latest revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

It is another wordless yet highly symbolic role – albeit one on the opposite end of the Jewish community’s approval spectrum.

The experience of portraying such diametrically opposed characters was, in many ways, a mere coincidence, although it was one Kovarsky actively sought and positioned himself for. He was living in London when he was invited to audition for “Klinghoffer,” which ran at the London Coliseum without the opposition it generated in New York.

According to Kovarsky, his generically ethnic look and ample facial hair landed him the role of Omar, the Palestinian hijacker who shoots Leon Klinghoffer in John Adams’ dramatization of the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship.

When he heard that “Fiddler” was returning to Broadway this season and would be choreographed by Hofesh Shechter, he knew he needed to be in it. It was a way, as he puts it, to “balance out” the experience on “Klinghoffer.”

Alan Opie, playing Leon Klinghoffer, right, and Jesse Kovarsky's silhouette, left, in John Adam's opera 'The Death of Klinghoffer' at the ENO in London, February 23, 2012.Credit: Reuters

Kovarsky admits he “did everything” in his power to get into ‘Fiddler.’ That meant scanning his network for a connection, convincing an agency to represent him, and writing to the show’s director, Bartlett Sher ... who didn’t respond. Unperturbed, he found his way to an open audition.

It wasn’t until the end of a two-week workshop over the summer that Sher finally cast him as the fiddler, though apparently it wasn’t meant as any kind of post-”Klinghoffer” statement. “I didn’t choose Jesse for that reason,” Sher tells Haaretz, say the casting is merely coincidence – although he admits to finding it “ironically hilarious.”

However unintentional, the role has made Kovarsky think deeply about how Jewish stories are told onstage, and about his own connection to the community.

Kovarsky grew up in “a liberal Jewish household” in the suburbs of Chicago. As a sophomore at Highland Park High School, he played Avram the bookseller in a production of “Fiddler.” He studied dance at school and then pursued a professional career, which took him to London for several years, when he landed the “Klinghoffer” role. It was his big break – but imagine explaining that to your Jewish parents.

“I casually told them I got this part, that I’m going to play a Palestinian terrorist. It was definitely a shock to them,” he recounts. “I don’t think Jewish parents are used to hearing their son say that.” But they were supportive and came to the show, he says, adding, “They trust my decisions.”

The rest of the Jewish community was less enthusiastic, however. When the Met announced “Klinghoffer” as part of its 2014-2015 season, the clouds of protest gathered. On opening night, hundreds of people demonstrated across the street from the opera house, some comparing Met director Peter Gelb to Hitler. During that performance, a man interrupted the performance by shouting, “The murder of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven.”

Demonstrators protest against the Metropolitan Opera's "The Death of Klinghoffer," outside Lincoln Center in New York, October 20, 2014. Credit: AFP

At the time, Gelb insisted the opera was not anti-Semitic and did not glorify terrorism.

The vitriolic reaction to “Klinghoffer” caught Kovarsky off guard. He witnessed how the show had unleashed an “extremism in parts of the [Jewish] religion, which was surprising to be exposed to,” he says.

As a performer, Kovarsky says his job is to understand his character, even if he can’t fathom his character’s choices. “Who wants to humanize a terrorist?” he asks, “especially nowadays. But they are human.” In portraying a terrorist, he says, he is not justifying or condoning the actions, but rather trying to comprehend them. “If we don’t understand, we’ll never get out of this conflict.”

Jesse Kovarsky takes center stage in the Broadway revival of "Fiddler on the Roof."Credit: Joan Marcus

Of course, when he told his parents he had been cast in “Fiddler,” “they were so proud.” And so was he. “Being the fiddler and being part of the show, and being part of the Jewish community again, has given me faith in humanity again, because it brings me closer to people,” he notes. In September, he attended Yom Kippur services for the first time in five years.

He also enjoyed the company of a Jewish family who invited him for Thanksgiving last month. “They were so honored that the fiddler was eating dinner with them,” he smiles. “Then I slipped in that I was the terrorist [in “Klinghoffer”] and there was a severe pause. Some of the people there had been protesting.”

Kovarsky seems to take great pleasure in that duality, and the insight it offers. “What’s amazing about this community is that it’s rather complex,” he reflects.

The fact that the same performer can signify all that is sacred and all that is profane to the American-Jewish community is something Kovarsky takes great pride in: “I’m happy to give a voice to these different extremes.”

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