Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"

All Roads Lead to Anatevka

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.
It was, however, strangely comforting to learn that the first reviews for Fiddler’s initial Detroit tryout were horrible – or they would have been had the local newspapers not been on strike that week, keeping that bad buzz off the streets and giving Jerome Robbins time to make numerous improvements.  Once it got to New York, opening night reviews were also far from perfect (though the New York Times called the character of Tevye “one of the most glowing creations in the history of musical theater”).
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.
Like Fiddler 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.
Shalom Aleichem was born in a cluster of Ukrainian shtetls that included a very real town called Hnativka – just about 20 miles west of Kiev (or, as it’s pronounced these days by savvy correspondents, Keev).   The expulsion of early 20th century Jews from Anatevka has gained new relevance to Ukrainians who are now being forced from their homes in the east, where Russians have been waging war for the past several years.  Refugees are refugees, and the message of Fiddler has become increasingly universal at a time when Putin-inspired ethnic cleansing has become all the rage, from Syria to Crimea to an America envisioned by Trump.
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.
On the other side of the spectrum, some Jews with Ukrainian roots have not lived such model lives – people like Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman.  As news of their indictment spread, so did a video of them carousing with their buddy Rudolf Giuliani, with Fruman crowing that “Anatevka is the best place in the world.”

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 writes, 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.
About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times and the upcoming book, "Embracing Auschwitz." Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2018, he received an award from the Religion News Association, honorable mention, for excellence in commentary, for articles written for the Washington Post, New York Jewish Week, and JTA. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as About.com's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Chloe, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: rabbi@tbe.org (203) 322-6901 x 307
Related Topics
Related Posts
Comments