“Fiddler” and the Fourth

Posted on Jul 01, 2019

When the Fourth of July coincided with a minor fast day of the Jewish calendar one summer in the late 19th century, a leading Reform rabbi used the occasion to pose the question of identity that still preoccupies many 21st century American Jews. Should the holiday be devoted to “wailing over Jerusalem’s sad fate,” he asked, or “given over to joy and thanksgiving?” Were Jews more closely bound to the Holy Land where the ancient Temple had once stood or to the “Holy Land of Freedom and Human Rights” in which they now lived?  “Which are we,” he asked in effect, “Americans or Jews?” More precisely: as American Jews (or, if one prefers, Jewish Americans) are we still subject to the fate that held our ancestors in thrall for so many centuries?  Is America different—so fundamentally, blessedly, joyfully, different—that Jews can engage in unbridled celebration, the perpetual wanderings of our people safely behind us?

I was reminded of these questions as the curtain came down one evening last week on the haunting production of the Yiddish-language Fiddler on the Roof now playing on Broadway. The show, consistently entertaining and well-acted, was more moving than I remembered it from years ago—and much sadder. It might have been the resurgence of anti-Semitism in America that caused me to feel that way; or the failure of so many events of recent history to fulfill the promise with which the world had greeted them; or the fact that I (like most of the audience that evening) am well past the days of youthful idealism and naïve hope that the future will be unambiguously bright. Even before the curtain falls on Tevye and his family, we know that things will not end well for them, certainly not as well as their children had expected. The audience too has been through enough in life to “hope against hope” when it hopes that things will somehow be okay. We identify with Tevye far more than we might have done were the current period of Jewish (and world) history brighter than it is.

There was another factor in my reaction, I think: experiencing “Fiddler” in Yiddish connects the audience viscerally to East European Jewish ancestors in a way that the English script and lyrics do not. Those were my grandparents and great-grandparents up there on the stage, not just the sort of actors I watched perform My Fair Lady or Carousel.  Many of their words and gestures were literally mame-loshn to me: my mother (one of five sisters, like Tsaytl and Hodl) used to utter them. Vu shteyt es geshribn? she’d ask with Golde. “Where is it written?” My grandfathers both made their living like “the tailor Motl Kamzoyl.” My Dad was a salesman: the mid-20th century American equivalent of East European peddlers such as Tevye. The cadences, humor, and gentle sarcasm of the lines that Tevye and Golde recited were familiar to me from my parents’ home, just as  I—like many members of the audience—know and love the religious rituals and prayers that are highlights of the performance.

We understand too that we would not be the people we are, would not enjoy the blessings that are ours (Tevye’s “rich man” fantasy has for most of the theater been fulfilled and surpassed), had millions of Jews like him and Golde not traded the Anatevkas of Eastern Europe for the welcoming ports of America. We know without any doubt that that move was ultimately for the good, certainly for our good. The tragedy on stage was real, and we can never forget that worse tragedy was to follow—but for us the terror has in large part been transmuted into nostalgia.  Tevye is heartbroken at the loss of his home, and we feel for him—but who among us would not prefer to exchange Yente the matchmaker for true love, or “Tradition” for Freedom, or piety for opportunity? Thank God they got out of there and came here!

And yet… And yet… 

Lest we forget for even a moment what is at stake in the exchange of Tradition for Freedom, the backdrop of “Fiddler” features a single word, printed in giant Hebrew characters: “Torah.” I think the show’s attitude toward the Jewish religious heritage is by and large the one held by the majority of American Jews today. Tradition is something to be sung about and celebrated.  It is nice to have, a privilege even, especially at moments of painful or joyous transition. Most Jews in the audience (and many non-Jews too) know the wedding-scene from experience. They have danced to these rhythms, sung these tunes (including “Sunrise, Sunset”). Many American Jews, religiously observant or not, light candles Friday evening just as Golde and Tevye did, bless their children with similar words. One thinks to oneself, watching Tevye converse good-humoredly with God, as he bears the cruelty life metes out with dignified determination: “I wish I could summon that kind of faith when it’s most needed; I wish I could know the kind of wholeness that Tevye knows even in his broken world.”

Most of us can’t, of course, and, truth be told, we don’t really wish we could. I doubt American Jews could enjoy “Fiddler” otherwise. It would be too close for comfort. The Yiddish that brings us close also serves to keep us at a safe distance: our grandparents may have spoken it, but we have left the language behind, or study it anew in college. We quickly remind ourselves, the minute serious nostalgia for the Jewish past sets in, of all Tevye missed out on because of his ignorance, his poverty, and the backwardness of his culture. America has not only given us indoor plumbing, birth control and air conditioning—comforts and conveniences that count for a lot when measuring quality of life. It has also given us democracy, the rule of law, and open doors to achievement that have afforded Jews a degree of safety that our ancestors never enjoyed. What is more, our minds have truly been enriched by the study of history, literature and science; exposure to the ideas and knowledge of the big wide world has changed us forever, leaving no room for simple faith. All of this contributes to our genuine celebration on July 4th. Jewish gratitude to America runs deep.

And yet:  in 2019 it is hard to believe as that rabbi did in 1885 that American Jews have left Jewish history and destiny completely behind us, just as it is harder for many of us to believe now, as so many Jews did then, that Judaism’s God was a mere figment of Tevye’s shtetel imagination, unworthy of our gratitude and devotion. I certainly felt that way, watching “Fiddler.” I was struck by the number of audience members who, like me and our male ancestors, covered their heads. About 40 percent of contemporary American Jews are members of synagogues, and the overwhelming majority arguably understand that what happens in Israel, or to Jews elsewhere in the world, affects them directly—as does oppression of other groups in America.

I know I was far from alone in identifying with Tevye and his story far more than I would have wished. America is different, but it is not entirely exempt from the course of Jewish history—and it seems different today from what it was only a few short years ago. One can fully appreciate the many blessings our country affords—and still feel a twinge of anxiety, Tevye’s and Golde’s anxiety, when antisemites on the left and right give new voice to ancient hatreds.  Can we in 2019 America, as the rabbi urged in 1885, “recognize in the Fourth of July the offspring of the Sixth of Sivan [Shavuot], [and] behold in the glorious sway of man’s sovereignty throughout this blessed land the foundation stone for the splendid temple of humanity we hope and pray for?”            

Yes and no; may it only be so—speedily, and in our days, Amen.