Erica Brown

‘Fiddler On The Roof And Zombies’

Zombies are everywhere lately, a virtual apocalypse in the wait. They’ve even infiltrated a Jane Austen novel. But why only “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?” We invented the golem. We should at least have “Fiddler and the Roof and Zombies.” There, standing on Tevye’s precarious roof, is a frightening man/monster who can’t wait to get his paw on a violin. The Pale of Settlement in 1905 is a perfect landscape. Mute to resistance and driven by supernatural forces of evil, these creatures will move across Europe, destroying everything, as Anatevka falls apart.

Oh, wait. Been there. Done that.

I had these bizarre thoughts as I read Etgar Keret’s memoir, “The Seven Good Years.” There Keret describes what he thought was an unusual prank. A man from Warsaw, Jakub Szczesny, randomly called his cell phone and told him that he saw a narrow gap between two buildings on Chlodna Street. Szczesny decided that he simply had to build Keret a house there. Naturally, Keret did not take him seriously. He filed the interchange in the “Unclear Practical Jokes” part of his brain and went on with his life. Two weeks later, Szczesny came to Tel Aviv to restate the offer for a three-story narrow house. Keret accepted.

Keret’s mother was born in Warsaw, lived in the ghetto, and lost her mother and brother and then her father to the Nazi regime. This loss haunts much of Keret’s writing and surfaces in unexpected bursts of sadness and rage. Ironically, Poland and Germany are two of the three places where Keret’s books fly off the shelves in translation. In his memoir, he shares that his success there was important to his mother, a sort of surprise triumph in a place once hers. She never returned to Poland.

Everything about this encounter sounds preposterous. But it’s true. Szczesny, a Polish architect, presented this artistic concept at the WolaArt Festival of 2009. It took three years to build the world’s narrowest fully functional house. At its widest point it’s 122 centimeters across, about 48 inches, bridging one pre-WWII building and one post-WWII building. It is called Dom Kerete, the Keret House, and is used by visiting writers. Keret was its first guest. Now those who produce art can fill this sliver of liminality, proving that expansive and original thinking can grow in the thinnest of spaces.

Contrast this with a different scene. Many years ago, I led a trip to Minsk, Vilna and Israel. One day the bus let us off in the Lithuanian village of Volozhin, home of the eponymous yeshiva. As we walked through its winding roads, we met a combination of suspicion and warm curiosity in the faces of old villagers intrigued by the sleek bus that disgorged well-dressed American tourists. What was there to see but an old and moldy Jewish building?

Suddenly the music of a fiddle drew our attention to a person in chasidic garb on the roof of a small wooden house. Oh no, I thought. It’s the worst Jewish cliché come to life. The tour operator had arranged for this “chance” encounter with Jewish nostalgia. But instead of a heavy-set middle-aged man, our fiddler was a thin local woman dressed in hat and side curls. I would have preferred a zombie.

We made our way to the yeshiva. I taught some passages of Maimonides on the centrality of Torah study in this now dank and neglected space that was once a packed study hall. In brutally cold winters, its tables and chairs held the best of Eastern Europe’s budding Jewish scholars in many realms: Reb Chaim of Volozhin, Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Hayyim Nahman Bialik, Meir Bar Ilan. We continued to the cemetery where Reb Chaim was buried. It was overgrown with mountains of weeds. We spent a few futile hours trying to clean it up.

I was of two minds. Return Volozhin to its glory. Let people know that what this was still lives on in a robust network of yeshivot in Israel and across the globe, unimaginable in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust. Or perhaps we must end this chapter. We have moved elsewhere.

Then I thought of the world’s narrowest house. It’s a Jewish house. It says we lived here once and occupy a very small place still, nothing more than a reminder, really, to let you know we were here.

Soon we enter the period of the three weeks leading up to Tisha b’Av, our day commemorating Jewish disasters. In Hebrew, we call this period “ben ha-mitzarim” — in the narrow straits. We have learned to live in these narrow spaces. We cannot forget what we’ve learned there. And every once in a while, if we’re lucky, we get a chance to redeem a narrow space. 

Erica Brown’s column appears the first week of the month.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).