Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Why Are Jews Liberal? Part IV

Talking about Tevye before he gets lost.

As Woodstock was not the birth of a new nation but a farewell party for the 60’s, “Fiddler On The Roof” was not the resurgence or reemergence of historical Jewishness, but the wake, funeral, and elaborate gravestone for it. The revivals of the show, then, are a sort of Jahrzeit or Kaddish. I didn’t understand this at the time; not until years later, actually. Only after I had read Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye and his Daughters, the original story that Fiddler was based on, did I even begin to see this. Aleichem’s Tevye is likable enough, but nowhere near as endearing. None of the characters are. The hues are more somber, the poverty and pettiness more apparent; it is all much more foreign. The 1960’s version is a disneyfied shtetl in tsarist Russia.

To those who weren’t connected to the phenomenon – my connection was through theater rather than Judaism – it isn’t easy to describe the peculiar intensity that would pop up around this musical. Everything would be going along as with any other rehearsals, when there would suddenly be a young woman with some schoolchildren, or an older man with moist eyes standing in the back. References to the show among theater people wouldn’t be any different than references to “Man of La Mancha” for 90% of the conversation, and then there would be some Jewish theater person – sometimes someone we had not even realised was Jewish – talking about the importance of the show, and of getting certain details right. Parents would sit their children down and make them watch the movie, wanting to talk about it afterward. When I did the show in 1972, strangers started showing up the last week before opening. Could they make authentic foods for a party after? They had some family objects from the old country they could bring, in case we wanted to do a display of some sort in the lobby. Producers for “Brigadoon” or “The King and I” have to scrounge and badger for such stuff.

Yet the script celebrates the vanishing of that culture. In American musical theater, romantic love is often the god worshiped, so it’s presence in Fiddler as a competitor to Judaism may not be that significant. But the minor gods and goddesses also win out in the end as well. Tzeitel undermines the parental and village authority in choosing her husband. Hodel pushes the envelope further in choosing Perchik. Chava creates the final rip, choosing a gentile husband. The Russians persecute, the rabbi can do nothing, men dance with women, the world spins out of control. But at least, Tevye sighs, we will always wear our hats. Except that Jews don’t wear such hats now, unless they are Hasidim. That world is gone. Fiddler on the Roof is the effort of the older Jews to tell the younger “Yes, that’s all gone and it’s better now. But there were some things worth saving, or at least worth knowing, so you will understand why we are the way we are.” The younger reply “Okay, that looks charming. Which things are worth saving?” To which the final reply is “We don’t know anymore.”

BTW, I was tempted for years to join one of the local productions of Fiddler, but somehow was always too busy. I would have made a great Tevye.


Der Hahn said...

I saw a local theater production of 'Fiddler' a couple of years ago (One of our pastors was Tevye). I'd heard of the story but not seen either the movie or another production. I expected someting more joyous, based on my limited exposure, but it does feel you're watching an Irish wake for the village. I'd like to watch the movie since I think the intimacy of a small theater with minimal staging might come closer to your description of the book.

I watched 'Definance' not long ago, and it's an interesting counterpoint to 'Fiddler'. Though the partisan community is Jewish, I can't recall a single instance in the film where an action is explicitly informed by religious values. They do some things that are Jewish in character but it's more of a cultural tradition (IIRC there is a brief scence where a rabbi is teaching the group).

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Ah, Tevye.

Being one of those parents who sat my child down to watch the movie, I can say that my instruction had a different slant.

The world of the shtetl was not the cultural apex of European Judaic culture; the world of the shtetl was by definition a poor, isolated and culturally impoverished Judaism that was clinging (barely) to life in the face of a persecution unto death.

The cultural center of Yiddishkeit (Ashkenazi Jewry) was not in the Pale of Settlement; it was in the cities of Germany, Poland and Lithuania--especially Vilna in the late 19th and early 20th century. That culture was completely destroyed by the Nazis and then the Soviets.

Finally, although we do know what it was, we can't live it. It is as irretrievably gone as is the richer and more healthy Jewish life of Vilna or of the Golden Age of Spain. We do know, though, what is worth saving from the shtetl. It is the sweetness of Jewish sensibilities, the goodness of Judaism, that comes out in different guises, but is at the core the same, even when lived out on the edge of the deluge.

Jewish history has been lived out in the location of shifting centers of culture. Canaan, Egypt, Israel, Babylonia, Judea, Diaspora, Israel and Diaspora. This is nothing new. Fiddler on the Roof is Kaddish for the shtetl, yes; but just as when we say Kaddish for a grandparent we do not want to live his hard life, so when we say Kaddish for passing of the shtetl, we do not want to recreate that hard life. Yartseit is a remembrance, not a recreation.

On Yom Kippur next week, we will have Yartseit--a service to remember and weep for what is lost. On Sukkot, two weeks from now we will wave the lulav under the full moon and we will sing: Od Avinu Chai, Am Yisrael Chai! Our Father yet lives, the people Israel lives!

Many tyrants have we outlived. And we have thrived where they failed.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Der Hahn: The whole movie Defiance is religious. For those Jews, and all of us, Judaism is us. By making the waters part, by saving lives, by insisting on living as human beings, those people were being Torah.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Elisheva, you give me hope that a recognisable Judaism will survive.