Chancellor Eisen on “Fiddler” and July 4th

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.

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