by Rabbi James Prosnit
Let’s start with a little group participation:
At three I started Hebrew School …. Tradition!!!
To life To life …
Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the Broadway opening of Fiddler on the Roof. If I can gauge from the responses to my musical quiz – it sounds like many of you – were either there, or saw one of the four revivals, or one of the thousand High School, summer stock or summer camp productions. Some of you I know saw Cantor Gilbert’s portrayal of Tevye here at the Temple – not once but twice. Fiddler remains one of the best known, most widely performed musicals – and another Broadway revival is planned for next fall.
The original show won nine Tonys and was the first Broadway musical to surpass 3000 performances ending its run with 3242 establishing a record that would last for another ten years, until Grease came along. By the way in 1964 the price of an orchestra seat was about $10.
I could argue that the three most influential events of the 1960’s on Jewish culture and the American Jewish psyche – were Paul Newman staring as Ari ben Canaan in Exodus, Sandy Koufax refusing to pitch on Yom Kippur and Zero Mostel opening as Tevye the beloved lead character. (At least 2 ½ were Jewish). While some highbrow critics and some of you no doubt may have found the play overly sentimental, lurking under the 19th century Sholom-Aleichem stories turned musical are some themes that continue to be front and center in Jewish life. Alissa Solomon in her book entitled Wonder of Wonders asserts that, “The show remains a platform on which Jews engage, work out, and argue over the significance and substance of their identity.”
So with the precarious fiddler as the back drop let me reflect tonight on some of those themes – on faith and peoplehood; tradition and change and consider what Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye can teach us and maybe what he would have been surprised to learn about who we’ve become.
At the same time that Fiddler was running on Broadway the philosopher Emil Fackenheim suggested adding a commandment to the traditional view that the Torah contains 613 commandments. Fackenheim stated that Jews had the obligation not to give Hitler a posthumous victory and therefore survival was our 614th commandment. He wrote, “We are commanded, first, to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish. We are forbidden, to deny or despair of God… lest Judaism perish.”
While Sholom Aleichem could not have envisioned the genocide that would become the fate of European Jewry, he, as Jewish generations before and after him, intuited the sacred responsibility to keep the story going. The miracle of miracles remains Jewish survival and a strong belief in the faith that has sustained it. Tevye famously rails at God “We are your chosen people, but for just this once can’t You choose someone else.” It seems that questioning God has long been fair game, especially when life throws its weight at us – but while we can be frustrated and bewildered – Tevye, like the philosopher Fackenheim knows he can’t be without God.
That of course runs counter to what an increasing number of Jews are saying today. A widely circulated study released last fall by the Pew Research Center found overall one in five Jews and one in three millenials describe themselves as having no religion. While overwhelming proud to be Jewish, when it comes to faith in God more and more of us are becoming “nones.”
Rabbi Harold Schulweis describes a conversation he had with a young man he called David. “David sits across my desk. When we get around to talking about his identity, he says that he is Jewish with an explanation. ‘I’m not the religious type … I guess rabbi I’m a cultural Jew.’” But Schulweis’s understanding of what a cultural Jewish is, is different from David’s.
To Shulweis, a highly respected rabbi who is now almost 90, a cultural Jew read Sholom Aleichem stories in Yiddish, sang Yiddish songs and read poetry. David’s cultural Jew grew up on Seinfeld and Sarah Silverman and Jon Stewart. Schulweis’s cultural Jew knew what the God he didn’t believe in expected of him. David doesn’t have the vocabulary to engage in the conversation. He eats lox and bagels and is considering going on a birthright trip at some point. Shulweis is concerned about David, “He has no language, no poetry, no drama, no Zion and no God.” David is not a cultural Jew he’s a Jew by genes.”
Our challenge of course is not to be dismissive of David or his counterpart Davida. It’s to open pathways to spirituality in an age of anxious identity and superficiality. David and Davida may not have the time to read or study the classic texts but there may be something about the experience of being Jewish that can elevate their thinking. We just have to adapt our approach and find the right place and time to engage them. More on that a little later.
Adaptation of course has been our survival mechanism. And for some the single most powerful proof for the existence of God is that we Jews are still here despite all that has be fallen us. But we can’t define ourselves based on the lachrymose tearful past. The fictional Anatevka, mirrors the reality of Jewish history and focuses us on the changes and interpretations that push us forward and enable us to survive.
We can leave a Temple behind. We can leave a synagogue or shtetyl – we can leave a place behind because even more sacred than the place, is the book that’s easy to carry and the concept of holiness in time that needs no specific space to be observed. When buildings were set on fire or when Jews left voluntarily because the community had grown or economic opportunity awaited – Jews moved on to new places and were able to carry with them a Torah scroll, the Sabbath and the Holy Days. A book was transportable and candles could be lit and children could be blessed at any place along the way.
The lyricists and composers of Fiddler on the Roof, Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Bock and Joe Stein were like a lot of other post war American Jews. “All three … felt comfortable in this era of growing acceptance and integration. Being a Jew was not the governing fact of their lives. (They were cultural Jews as well) … They would never deny that they were Jews, they just responded to the identity with the quintessential Jewish gesture: a shrug.” But as they found themselves immersed and touch by the Sholom Aleichem stories they started asking questions about their own backgrounds. They learned stories of gefillte fish making, relatives who kept separate dishes and never turned on electricity after sundown.
And both Harnick and the director Jerome Robbins (born Rabinowitz) were told not only how the gentile neighbor came in to light the kitchen stove, but how their grandmothers covered their heads and circled their hands to light the Friday night candles. Robbins writes, “I absorbed it, drank it in and let it sink to a place deep within me.” Alissa Solomon writes, “Now he was not only opening the vault but spelunking into its many caverns, hauling up one treasure after another to enliven the world of the play. Such images led to the memorable scene in which all over Anatevka Jewish families joined Golde and Tevye in offering the Sabbath prayer. I’m certain many neglected silver candlesticks were found and polished and used at least for a little while after a visit to the theater.
May the Lord protect and defend you.
May He always shield you from shame.
May you come to be
In Israel a shining name.
May you be like Ruth and like Esther.
May you be deserving of praise.
Strengthen them, Oh Lord,
And keep them from the strangers’ ways.
On this Sabbath of Sabbaths perhaps while not romanticizing or wishing to re-create the shtetyl of Eastern Europe we too could take pause and learn something of the power of reclaiming certain traditions. There are quite a number of Jewish things we can do to bring meaning and focus to our lives, but perhaps the most notable would be turning Friday nights and Saturdays into Shabbat. Being a Sabbath observer doesn’t have to be burdensome, with a focus on what not to do. It can mean a pause in an otherwise crazy schedule for some personal or family “rejewvenation.” I have spoken before of how too many of us squander the precious gift that is the Sabbath.
And while there’s much that we could learn from Tevye’s love of his religious life the most controversial scene for those of us you who remember either the original stories or the play is no doubt his rejection of Chava, the third daughter who falls in love and marries the Ukrainian Christian boy Fyedka. If a tradition bends too far Tevye says it will break and until the final scene he refuses to even acknowledge the two of them.
How times have changed. I dare say every family here tonight has as part of its inner circle, someone who is not Jewish. And the fact that many of them, of you have chosen to raise your families as Jews – has changed the conversation. At B’nai Mitzvah celebrations I regularly express my appreciation to the non Jewish parent for making Judaism possible for their child and their family.
Of course if there is a concern for the Jewish future it is not the interfaith families that are here or in some other congregation tonight; the concern is for those who are not here. And that concern extends well beyond the interfaith couples; and beyond the millenials who seem to have little time in their lives for Jewish connections. It extends to those empty nesters that lost interest in communal life after their kids have grown and it extends to both Jews without religion and Jews who have chosen to privatize their spirituality in an a la carte manner that works for them, but has no concept of peoplehood or belonging.
And so tonight as I’ve been speaking about tradition and change — I wonder if our institutions, our synagogues and federations are responding to the challenges a foot. At the installation of the new rabbi at Temple Israel in Westport a few weeks ago Rabbi Peter Rubenstein reminded that congregation that synagogues who assume new congregants will automatically come to their doors when an oldest child reaches six or seven, as may have been the case in the past, will do so with considerable peril. It’s not that the ideas of Judaism are being rejected – it’s that the established paradigms of whom to marry, how to educate children, where to pay dues, when to stand up and sit down are on increasingly shaky ground – or in keeping with the theme on precarious roof tops.
But it is not all bleak. If I were to say to a somewhat alienated millennial – what would you thing of carving out one day a week to power off and reconnect and just talk to friends and family without a screen being involved, many would say I like that idea.
If I were to say to them, at bed time would you like to have some kind of end of day moment to encourage reflection on what transpired, most folks would welcome such a formula for themselves or to teach their children.
If I were to ask whether we need more civility in our language and our discourse when we engage in conversation most would agree that affirming dignity and showing respect to another is a value to share and embrace.
If I expressed my concern that we need to affirm hope in a world on fire and do our share to repair some aspect of its brokenness most would readily and eagerly ask to take part.
If I were to express wonder at some connective force in the universe greater than any individual alone, they might well say they have felt it too.
When I term those things Shabbat, a bedtime shema, dereck eretz , tikun olam and shechinah– all core to Jewish tradition we understand that none of these values are being rejected by those who say they are Jewish with no religion. For David and Daivida and the many others, we just need to present it, articulate it, live it in a way that resonates.
Why did Fiddler succeed as it did? First, the struggle between tradition and modernity, between the Old World and the New is a universal struggle. These days the Old World traditions that are breaking down were born in 1960 and the New World is now. Secondly by affirming tradition in a creative way it presented a legacy that could be fondly claimed and celebrated.
And finally, Jewish survival is underlined at the conclusion. The tragic ending, the destruction of Anatevka, becomes also triumphant—for the audience knows that what will follow will be the rebirth of Israel and the amazing success of American Jewry. The wandering Jew will once again find a sense of place and stability in the traditional homeland and in the synagogue communities of America. The Chagall image of the rabbi floating in the air above the village will find new roots and even — new traditions.
My prayer is that here at B’nai Israel we will never be afraid to take the lead in writing the next act of that American Jewish story; That together we’ll endeavor to build a sacred community oriented towards the future, because we, its members know we belong to something that transcends the limits of our own lives. In a changing landscape we will provide meaning and stability to those looking for anchors in an uncertain world. And we’ll talk and think and make the adaptations necessary to ensure that the values we cherish this night will be passed on and on.
That Fiddler provides a good metaphor for the balancing act –between tradition and modernity; faith and culture; community and individuality. To paraphrase Tevye, may we long have the ability to play a meaningful tune — without breaking our necks!
Solomon Alisa, Wonder of Wonders ,Metropolitan Books Henry Hold and Co.2013, p.229
Fackenheim, Emil, Trancendence in Conemporary Culture, H.W. Richardson,ed., Beacon Books, 1969
“A Portrait of American Jews,” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, reframed from a conversation with Harold Schulweis that appeared in Reform Judaism Magazine