From Anatevka to Pittsburgh…

Weeks ago, when we learned that relatives visiting from California wanted to see a show, my wife and I immediately thought of the Yiddish production of Fiddler on the Roof, currently playing off-Broadway. We saw the production a few months ago, when it was still at the Museum of Jewish Heritage downtown, and fell in love with it. So we bought tickets for our guests and ourselves, along with our children who live locally, and happily went off to see the show again this past Sunday.

As I grow older, I have come to the realization that watching that show- particularly as special a production as that one- has become increasingly painful for me. I am a parent of four wonderful children. I empathize powerfully with Tevye’s and Golda’s pain as their daughters, in increasingly challenging ways, insist that their lives are theirs to live, and their choices are theirs and theirs alone to make. I find myself getting teary midway through the show, and by the end, I’m a mess.

Much has been written about the universality of the angst that underlies the Fiddler narrative. Though the characters and the setting are profoundly Jewish, the theme of separating from one’s family and community norms and traditions is certainly relevant in cultures other than the Jewish world. Chinese parents living here in America, Greek parents, Italian parents, all struggle to keep their “next generations” in the fold, marrying within the community, holding on to cherished beliefs and practices. If Anatevka is fertile enough ground for little Havale to fall in love with Fiedka, how much more so is America, so radically open a society, an endlessly tempting place for our children to go off in directions radically different from how we raised them! They are, to borrow a phrase from another powerful song, far from the shallow insofar as falling in love is concerned.

But as I was walking into the theatre this past Sunday, October 27, the unintentional but nonetheless stunning overlap of the commemoration of last year’s horrific tragedy in Pittsburgh- that very same day- with the classic story of Tevye and his daughters, suddenly descended on me.

I can’t even count how many different productions of Fiddler I’ve seen on Broadway. Invariably, my emotional connection to the story has always been rooted in the family crises that are the critical dramatic mass of the play. For whatever reason, though the unhappy forced exile from Anatevka was certainly horrible and cruel,  it was, for me, always the backdrop to everything else going on.

And then, all of a sudden, I realized how inadequate that read of Fiddler is for these times.

Here we are in New York, in 2019, watching a show based on stories written by Sholom Aleichem at the end of the nineteenth century. To be sure, having to leave Anatevka was the least of the indignities that would be heaped on European Jewry in but a few decades. Yet there was, in that last scene of the Bock/Harnick/Stein production from 1964, the hope that, in this goldeneh medinah of America, Jews could and would be freed from the horrors of the gratuitous anti-Semitism that plagued so much of Europe. But as I sat down in my seat, these words kept ringing in my ears: Pittsburgh, Charlottesville, Poway, Williamsburg, so many cemeteries desecrated with swastikas, so many JCCs, so many Jews in Europe feeling physically at risk, so many synagogues both here and around the world scrambling to find funding to adequately protect themselves and their members from this plague… I couldn’t help but wonder- did we Jews really leave Anatevka, or are we just in fancier, more luxurious versions, facing the same existential uncertainty?

Through the years, as our children, now grown, would share with us the music they were listening to, or the political candidates and causes they favored- some of which we too favored, some of which we did not- my wife Robin and I would invariably look at each other and quote one of our favorite lines from Fiddler- “It’s a new world, Golda.” Or, as the Yiddish-speaking Tevye said to Golda in the current production, Iz a neye velt. I left the theatre on Sunday profoundly unsure of whether or not this is, indeed, a neye velt. In so many ways, it surely is. We are farther away from the circumstances of Anatevka than Tevye and Golda would ever have dared to dream. But in the way that matters the most to me as a post-Shoah Jew, it feels very much like the same old world, with the same old problem when it comes to Jews, and where we are welcomed.

I have spent my entire professional career as a rabbi trying to wean Jews from the sometimes knee-jerk tendency to see anti-Semites around every corner, and under every rock. But now, I am obliged to admit that, even here, the future of our community might well be as fragile as a fiddler on the roof. And to this disturbing realization, I respond as a Jew. As Tevye would have said, May the Lord protect and defend us. But I hasten to add-may we be wise enough, and able enough, and determined enough, to use all the political and social capital that we have at our disposal to protect ourselves, and those we love.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.
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