Yiddishkeit for Assimilated Jews

9 Feb

Finally got my musical-loving son to watch “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971 movie) and he absolutely loved it. However, by the time it came out, it was idealizing a world that was already foreign and lost for Jews.

The movie takes place in Russia sometime around the turn of the century (pre-1905 Revolution) in the imaginary village (shtetl) of Anatevka. Even though my family could immediately recognize the ceremonies of Shabbat candle-lighting, Jewish weddings, and prayer services, the tension of the plot–the world changing from their traditions to modern practices–was completely alien. Since it was a hundred years ago, it makes sense. After all:

‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’

L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1953)

Of course, when Sholom Aleichem, the pseudonym for probably the most famous Yiddish writer of all time, wrote the Tevye stories (which the musical is based on), he was already addressing a readership for whom those Russian villages was already a memory. He lived in New York City, he wrote to Jewish immigrants to America, and in 1894 when his book came out, he was telling them about a world they (or their immediate relatives) had just left. There was a great nostalgia for a home they could never return to.

The musical came out 70 years later (1964) and ran on Broadway for almost 20 years. By that point, most of the people who read Sholom Aleichem were dead, their kids wanted to forget their Yiddishkeit (Yiddish culture) and assimilate as Americans, but their grandchildren wanted to remember. Why? Because in 1967, there was a little dust-up called the Six Day War. Israel defeated four Arab countries intent on destroying them. American Jews suddenly felt proud of being Jewish. They wanted to express their heritage. And BOOM–here it was! A story about how their grandparents lived–what nachas! (joy)

Mind you, even fifty years later, when those grandchildren now have grandchildren, it still translates to the modern day. Imagine how much American culture has changed since 1971 when this movie came out. Nostalgia for the past, changing traditions–all of these are concepts that modern Jews can latch onto. And… it’s good to have a reminder that our ancestors were persecuted, that three of my wife’s great-uncles were sent to Siberia, and how Kiev and Odessa were not far enough to escape that life. It’s only in America where we were free to forget.

Is there a film that does that for you? A view back on a world that your family lived through but is now gone? Share it with me in the comments below!

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