I had the chance to watch the superb new documentary Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles,
shown this week at a local Jewish Film Festival
. The documentary explores the numerous ways this immortal musical touches on key aspects of the human experience – from parental love to the fear of displacement – exploring its resonance for Japanese and Africans as well as for Jews. Contrary to the claim that the show is dated, overly nostalgic and kitschy, a closer look reveals layers of depth worthy of Shakespeare. There is nothing kitschy about it.
The documentary premiered in August, but it was completed well before President Trump asked the White House operator to “get me Zelensky” on the now infamous day of July 25. No one had yet heard the names of former Ukrainian Jews named Vindman, Fruman and Parnas. Yet, Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles concludes with a scene that now appears uncannily ironic and strikingly poignant in our post-July 25 world.
the musical’s final scene, the documentary closes by zooming in on the little Ukrainian shtetl
of Anatevka. In Fiddler
times, when Shalom Aleichem wrote his Tevye stories, Ukraine (then called “the” Ukraine) was the epicenter of the Pale of Settlement
, where nearly a million Jews were allowed to reside during the latter part of the Czarist era. There shtetls
flourished – for a time – and the Jewish population ballooned.
But the documentary shows in it’s final scenes that, astoundingly, Jews are returning to Anatevka and rebuilding there
. Jewish refugees from the contested eastern provinces are constructing a new town in a very old place. We are returning to Anatevka! And that is where the documentary ends.
But that’s not where this story ends. We all have seen over the past few weeks just how much the Ukrainian and Jewish narratives inter-mesh, and how it all comes back to refugees – people like Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman,
the Ukrainian-born Jew who came to America at age three with his dad and twin brother. He came by way of Italy, following the over-ground railroad that the Soviet Jewry movement created to bring Jews to freedom. He was three at the time and he has grown into an exemplary American, like so many Soviet-born Jews I’ve been proud to know. His journey is briefly described in a video clip from a Ken Burns documentary unearthed this week, featuring Vindman and his twin brother as children.
Why Anatevka? The Forward reported last week that the video was posted to a Facebook group for American Friends of Anatevka. American Friends is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit on whose board Parnas and Fruman serve. As the Forward states, “The charity’s job is not, as one might suspect, to bankroll productions of Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock’s opus, but to support a real-life Anatevka built near Kiev.” JTA gives more details on the project, highlighting the role of a Ukrainian rabbi Giuliani has befriended. Reading about these characters makes me wonder whether Tevye’s grandkids – were they real – might be suing to extricate their hometown’s reputation from the putrid swamp of Parnas and Fruman.
That Anatevka is very close to the real Hnativka, the real shtetl that was fictionalized by Shalom Aleichem, the place that has sparked hope over the past half century in the eyes of millions who have found themselves displaced, evicted or simply lost in an increasingly untethered world. No wonder it is such a short verbal jump from Hnativka to Hatikva.
While Lev and Igor are supporting a vision of Anatevka as a haven for Jewish refugees, their associate Rudy has been doing his best create lots more of them, by strengthening Putin’s hand in the east. Meanwhile, Vindman has displayed particular sensitivity to the need to stabilize that eastern frontier against the brutal territorial ambitions of Russia. See p.3 of Vindman’s Opening Statement
, on the geopolitical importance of Ukraine. He asserts that American steadfast support for Ukrainian independence is the only thing preventing a much larger humanitarian crisis on that same border. Far from being the manifesto of a dual-loyalist, as some crackpot conspiracy theorists have asserted, that testimony comes directly from the heart of a former refugee, a Jewish refugee, one who cares about the stranger because he has seen Egypt. He has known slavery and he has known what it means to bask in the shadow of Lady Liberty.
We even have the Ken Burns footage to prove it.
The fact that Zelensky too has Jewish roots has essentially turned this whole Trump-Ukraine episode into a Jewish morality tale writ large.
Reviewer Peter Stein write
s, regarding the Fiddler
documentary, “The shtetl
of Anatevka has come to stand in for every homeland left behind.” Jewish history has made us into experts on leaving places behind – and occasionally returning – but always caring for the wanderers. That expertise is coming to the fore once again during this decisive moment for Ukraine and America.
Nancy Pelosi may well be right that “all roads lead to Putin.” But if they do, they intersect in Anatevka.