During the wedding scene in Fiddler on the Roof, Perchik, the student revolutionary, breaks with tradition by crossing from the men’s side to the women’s side to dance with Tevye’s daughter Hodel.
On stage it plays like a breakthrough; even the rabbi joins in the mixed dancing. So each time I see the film, why do I want to yell, “Don’t do it, Perchik!”
I should explain. I am not an Orthodox Jew. I am a committed egalitarian. I belong to a synagogue where men and women have the same opportunities on the bima, in the pews, and in the study hall. I am committed to and have even engaged in — gasp — mixed dancing. I am indebted to the thousands of Perchiks and Hodels who tore down the mehitza.
So who am I to criticize Perchik? I suppose I have absorbed some of the criticism of Fiddler as well as some of the critiques of American Jewry — namely, that in their eagerness to assimilate, Jews caused an irreparable rupture with their own traditions. We traded Anatevke for ennui. The rupture begins, symbolically, with Perchik crossing that once uncrossable line. The next thing you know, “kosher-style” delis in Hallandale are serving pastrami with cheese, and Pew research is leading to reports that “the number of U.S. Jews engaging with Jewish life and religion is plummeting.”
Fiddler is as much a portrait of the era in which it was produced as of the time period it depicts. In the 1960s, most of the religious rituals and folkways in the musical were already seen as quaint and old world. Fiddler was meant to comfort its Jewish audiences for the choices they made, not rebuke them for the customs they left behind.
I had a Perchik moment while watching John Turturro’s current film, Fading Gigolo, which has an unexpected subplot involving haredi Jews. Turturro plays a kindly florist who, at the urging of an elderly bookstore owner played by Woody Allen, allows himself to be turned out as a male prostitute. The incredibly implausible plot is played for whimsy, although, like Pretty Woman, another comedy about prostitution, its lighthearted surface masks a foul reality.
In the film, Allen’s pimp character meets a lonely Satmar widow, Avigal, living in a Brooklyn walkup with her mostly teenage children. Whether Allen senses her loneliness or a business opportunity is not clear. Either way, he convinces her to visit Turturro’s apartment in Manhattan for some unspecified “therapy.”
Creepy, right? I’m a fan of Turturro’s work and honestly don’t know what he is getting at here. His character gives the widow (played by the striking French actress Vanessa Paradis) a gentle massage, nothing more, and comforts her when she begins to weep. Later their professional relationship blossoms into something more, sweetly enough. And later still he gallantly returns the widow to her community, where she is now ready for love with a fellow Hasid.
Perhaps a haredi mother would feel tempted to escape her circumscribed life in Brooklyn for a chaste walk on the mild side, just as a pair of gorgeous society women played by Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara would feel the need to pay for sex from an unremarkable middle-aged florist. What made me uncomfortable was the filmmaker’s assumption that, for a deeply religious woman, liberation is only possible according to the terms of the secular world, and in its most debased form (in some ultra-Orthodox communities, seeking mental health care comes with a stigma. If the movie was a statement on this, it could only have been by accident).
Audience members, meanwhile, are being asked to cheer her emancipation. In the clash between tradition and modernity, pop culture instinctively favors modernity, and implicitly disses folks who lead religious lives.
Granted, it hasn’t been easy lately to feel much sympathy for the haredim. An awful lot of articles report haredim up to no good, from political and religious coercion in Israel, to their leaders’ underwhelming and sometimes obstructive response to charges of sex abuse, to the reluctance of some hasidic movements to abandon the dangerous practice of metzitza b’peh.
But I also know that the haredim are a diverse community with a deep sense of dignity and integrity, and that they deserve better than the treatment they get from the media that depict them as exotics, eccentrics, or anachronisms. Their lives are interesting enough without the sort of voyeurism that borders on ridicule. Recent Israeli films like Fill the Void and Ushpizin squeezed drama and real understanding out of the lives of haredim without forcing implausible encounters with the “outside” world.
That doesn’t explain, however, why I feel so weirdly protective of Orthodox Jews on screen. Maybe it’s because I am protective of Jewish observance. Kashrut can seem silly and obsessive, but it’s my silly and obsessive. When audience members hope a character crosses a line — from men’s side to women; side, from Brooklyn to Manhattan — it’s my line they are crossing.
This is closer to the truth, however: I feel guilty. However distanced I feel from haredim in real life, I sense that they are tending a flame of Yiddishkeit that is sputtering on the liberal periphery. Sitting in the dark, I am a 21st-century version of the character in Delmore Schwartz’s story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” who watches a movie about his parents’ courtship and prays they don’t marry – despite the fact that there would be no him without them. Get back on your side, Perchik! Don’t get in that car, Avigal! I need you to be pious and insulated, because I am not sure our long experiment in modernity is working out that well.