A tale of two mice

Remember “Somewhere Out There?”

It’s sung by two cinematic mice, Fievel and Tanya Mousekewitz, in Steven Spielberg’s animated 1986 feature, “An American Tale.”

It took me years to be able to say this, but that song makes me cry every time I hear about it. It’s about immigrants, about families being separated, perhaps forever, never knowing if they’d ever find each other again. It’s about the courage that it takes to leave what you know, no matter how horrible it is, and strike out in search of the utterly unknown, with hope and despair and longing and dread in some ever-changing and probably literally unutterable — because how could you find words for it? And in what language would you say them? — mixture.

Yes, it’s about mice. Cartoon mice. And yes, the song, and the mice singing it, are a deeply sentimental image — actively industrial-grade sentimental — and sentiment gets in the way of clarity of thought. But the feeling is human and real and it should be honored.

Now that immigration is on everyone’s minds, it’s a good time to remember that except for the approximately zero percent of our readers who are full-blooded descendants of native Americans, every single one of us is the beneficiary of someone who found his or her way here.

Jews are used to having to run. Throughout our extraordinarily long history, we have had to go into exile from wherever we considered home; there are very few long-term Jewish communities that are flourishing now that did not go through periods when their Jewish populations were vestigial. (Like, for example, Jerusalem; there always has been some Jewish presence there, but for very long periods that presence was small and stressed.) We have always been an immigrant people. Diaspora is as familiar to us as home.

That’s been made clear on Broadway this season, in the new production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” the archetypical musical that seems to go directly from Jews’ ears to our hearts, skipping all the usual stops in the brain — and has a similar effect on non-Jews, or so I have been told. “Fiddler” went through a period when it was considered kitsch, but it has emerged from that to be seen as art, evocative, haunting, funny, beautiful, real.

So according to news reports, this new “Fiddler” production begins with a man on a nearly empty stage, wearing a red parka, staring at a sign with the name of the town, Anatevka — the place where most of the show’s action happen — in Cyrillic letters. He soon takes off the parka, revealing himself both as the lead actor Danny Burstein and as Tevya, the show’s protagonist. At the end, the long line of dispirited people leaving the town and the only life they’ve known ends with Mr. Burstein, again in his parka.

It’s wordless but the modern-day parallels are clear.

We at the Jewish Standard are lucky in that almost all of our grandparents and great grandparents came here before the Holocaust. Most of them left Europe because of the crushing poverty, the lack of hope and possibility there, and the pull of family already on this side of the ocean. They came to a country that might not have been actively welcoming to all of them all the time, but allowed them to settle, establish themselves, and leave their children a better life.

We think of a story Madeleine Albright tells. Ms. Albright is a former secretary of state and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Her father was a Czech diplomat (and her parents were secret Jews who, she said, did not tell their children about their ancestry) who moved his family to America from Czechoslovakia after the Communists took over in 1948.

Her father would say that other countries welcomed refugees. “They’d say ‘We’re sorry you had to leave your country,’” she quoted him as saying. “They’d say ‘What can we do to help? And by the way, when are you going back home?’

“Americans, on the other hand, would say, ‘We’re sorry you had to leave your country. What can we do to help? And by the way, when will you become a citizen?’”

We do not presume to know which immigrants should be allowed into the country, or how many of them, or from where, or how they should be screened. We do know, though, that we all are the descendants of immigrants. We are overwhelmed by their courage, and by our own good luck. We hope that the leaders of our country, and of our communities, keep our own past in mind when they consider other people’s futures.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)