In an interview with The Daily Beast, actor Joel Grey discussed coming out and directing a Yiddish-language version of Fiddler.
Known for his roles in Cabaret and Chicago, Grey is an Oscar, Tony, and Golden Globe-winning actor in his eighty-sixth year of life, who recently came out as gay in 2015.
The award-winning actor is currently directing Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene in New York City. Grey is apart of the first production to perform the musical in Yiddish in the United States. Although the musical is technically considered off-Broadway, Grey is expected to be awarded a Tony for his efforts.
Referring to his production, Grey said, “It’s kind of amazing. Maybe more than three-quarters of the cast doesn’t speak Yiddish, and are under 30. So they’re learning it and being coached, and that’s how they’ve cut the mustard. We’re very fierce about that here. We know the general audience will be on it, and all these young actors and singers are in love with this piece.”
“Fiddler is about today,” the actor turned director added. “I watch the news every day and it’s horrendous, dreadful, ’tis a nightmare. I think it has reverberations of the most serious anti-Semitism there ever was in 1905, when my grandmother came by boat from Russia to America. She was 16 years old, alone, and she and so many others ran for their lives. And here we are.” Grey’s grandmother, who came to the United States by way of Ellis Island, neglected to speak about what she had experienced in Russia or her journey as an immigrant.
Grey also talked about his rather strained relationship with his mother. In his memoir, Master of Ceremonies, Grey notes that his mother rejected him after discovering he was having an affair with a male cantor from his synagogue. “I probably thought I was in love with him,” Grey said. “I had no idea I was being, what would you call it, ‘predat-ed.’ I didn’t know what the world was about. I tried to act like I did.”
Describing his relationship with his mother as charged, Grey continued, “The thing is, I’m understanding her so well now. I have a lot of sadness for her—that she wanted too much and she did not ever get it. Money was short. It was not easy. Out of the five daughters, she was the good-looking one and the ambitious one, and she left when she was 16 practically to have a romance with my dad. She got married when she was 18 and he was 20. Then there was the Great Depression. I feel very compassionate about her.”
Grey also noted that she was very much a product of her time, explaining that “it was a time of intense anti-Semitism and homophobia, it was just accepted. I accepted the way she was.”
Grey claimed that although he realized he was gay at 16, such an identity was not accepted at the time, leading him to marry a woman later on in life. Grey, however, also said that he really did love his wife, Jo Wilder, explaining that everything is not simply black and white.
Grey, who decided to publicly come out in 2015, said that it seemed like the right time politically. “It seemed like the proper thing for a citizen to do,” he said. “Homophobia here and worldwide made me run from doing it once, and then there just seemed to be no point in running. It was a non-issue. I guess I needed to be counted, in that if you don’t say something you’re maybe seen as negative. It seemed at that moment in time that politically it was the right thing to do.”