I’ve learned that Fiddler on the Roof is one of those universal “Jewy” references that people love to, well, reference. In fact, I’ve definitely referenced it a few times right here. And truth be told, that movie has brought me to tears – tears of deep emotion around our beloved traditions, children coming of age, the inevitable assimilation of some of our children, the endless anti-semitism. And, too, it has made me laugh so hard I’ve had tears in my eyes (the dream scene!). The music is absolutely magnificent both thematically and musically.
So why is it my unfavorite movie?
Here’s what I think. See, my grandmothers, who are (thank God) still alive, remember the shtetl. But as I suspected all along, and unscientifically “confirmed” in my recent research project on the subject, most Jews in the world do not have a living relative who remembers living in the shtetl. So for most of them, impressions of the shtetl are largely formed by movies such as Fiddler.
What’s wrong with that, you may ask?
Well, a few things.
1. No one in that movie actually seems to know why anyone is keeping any of the Jewish observances.
The trademark song “Tradition” basically says, we have no idea why we do these things, but it’s our tradition so we’ll do them anyway. Now, I have no need to romanticize life in the shtetl (just as I have no need to romanticize life as a modern-day Orthodox woman) but I do want the truth as I have experienced it to be told.
In my grandparents’ families, there was a deep education and connection with the meaning of the observances, such that my grandparents still recall and repeat today. In fact, I feel that the movie disrespects their experience. Of course I am sure that there were some families who just observed out of habit or social pressure, but an entire village? Even the rabbi is a little clueless, which brings me to…
2. The rabbi is a fool.
Here are his most brilliant, sparkling lines, full of wisdom, depth and guidance (not). This is still a problem today. I see some “shtetl-era” books being issued for Jewish kids today. Most of the time the rabbi is totally unkempt and stupid. Again, some rabbis are unkempt and I’m sure that some rabbis don’t have particularly good advice, but for this to be the “shtetl-era” rabbi image emblazoned in the minds of your typical American Jew? What happened to respect for our scholars and leaders, for our role models, and those more learned? What kind of message is that for our kids?
My grandparents describe the utter reverence for their holy rabbis; the deep respect accorded them by the parents of the household; how the members of the shtetl would vie for the privilege of caring for their needs, hosting them in their homes, attending their lectures. Where is any of that? The question about waiting for the Messiah is a good one; why is no response given?
3. Yentl the matchmaker is a caricature but her impressions remains.
To this day when I tell people about how many in the Orthodox world meet and date they immediately think of Yentl. Yentl of the ugly wife and the blind husband: a match made in heaven. Granted, “dating” in the shtetl is not identical to Orthodox dating today, even when a “matchmaker” is employed, but I believe this image has damaged the reputation of the matchmaker, casting him/her in the role of “arranger of marriages” rather than how it really is today, which is “arranger of blind dates.”
I’m sure there’s more, but these are the top three that come to mind. And lest you all think I’m just a Jewish humor grinch be it known that I love to laugh and think lots of things are funny. But sometimes, I’ve learned, I think different things are funny or enjoyable than other Jews, because of my Orthodox orientation. The “Jewish” things I find funny are more like inside Orthodox jokes, whereas I find “typical” Jew jokes corny.
And as far as Fiddler, I will end where I started: it’s a masterpiece and a classic. And a bit sad, because for many viewers, this, and only this, remains the vision of our rich shtetl era.
Unfortunately, the "typical" Jewish jokes are putdowns. People think they're OK as long as they're said by Jews, but I've always found them highly offensive and not funny (and also untrue).
And don't worry: Anyone who reads your blog knows you have a sense of humor.
🙂 thanks, DG. I'm always grateful when people think my jokes are funny!
Actually, I think the movie portrays traditional Jews in general (not just the rabbi) as fools. The "inevitable assimilation of some of our children" is depicted as progress (albeit sad). The progression is seemingly logical: from going against tradition to choose one's own spouse, to marrying a nonobservant Jew, to marrying a non-Jew. But the objection in all cases is the same: tradition. It's not clear why one break with tradition is any more problematic than another; hence the inevitability. Because the depiction of Judaism is superficial, there can't be any powerful reason to stay Jewish.
Yes! Your last sentence.
Actually, I changed my mind. It doesn't portray traditional Jews as fools. It portrays them as backward and primitive. Lovable, but not dignified.
In general I don't like anything Jewish holywoodized>
I have yet to find a Jewish character which makes us look good rather than, stupid, greedy, hungry,crazy etc..
"Entre Nous", a beautiful French movie. Probably totally un-kosher for O Jews. "Aimee and Jaguar", a really problematic and intense movie, based on a true story, of Jewish women passing for non-J in 1940s Berlin. Also totally un-kosher I imagine. Brecht has a stunning, touching short piece called "The Jewish Wife"–nothing un-kosher in there that I can think of. But I guess you are talking about representations of *O* Jews. And none of these examples is Hollywood. But Hollywood is not so good at complex, non-stereotypical portrayals of ANYONE. Women are all beautiful and silicon-enhanced, for instance. Fat people are laughworthy. And so on.
I'm open to recommendations for complex, interesting representations of O Jews in cinema.
I've thought about this often. Pretty much all depictions of Orthodox Jews in the cinema are made by those who are not Orthodox, or used to be Orthodox and are now disenfranchised. Whenever I see an Orthodox person onscreen I laugh, because it's so obviously fake. But as bratschegirl said below, that's true of all "insiders." It's good for me to realize this, because I should be equally skeptical of every stereotype I see onscreen, especially those I know little about and thus am more vulnerable to accepting what I see.
Ushpizin came the closest (granted I'm not the biggest movie-watcher in the world) as far as the Orthodox characters, but even that was slightly odd.
This is also not my favorite movie. The writer of the story it's based on was not religious himself, and I think his attitude toward religion is apparent in the movie.
Ruchi: No offense, but in many regards I think your view of shtetel life is romanticized as much in the positive direction as Fiddler was in the negative. There was a reason for the massive defection of observant Russian and Polish Jews to secular movements like Zionism, Socialism, Communism, etc.
Pragmatician: I recommend Gene Wilder as the rabbi in Frisco kid for an example of a Jew who is mensch.
Sarah: Shalom Aleichem's Tevya the dairyman stories were significantly re-written for Fiddler. It is isn't fair to him to blame him for the choices made by the American writer and directors of the play/screenplay. Also, the author was a satirist/comic writer, by and large. Try reading The Adventures of Menahem-Mendl to see secular (but completely unassimilated) Jews be the butt of the humor.
I've never seen it. I guess I always assumed it would be what you described. Thank you for saving me the time of ever trying it!
I agree with Larry that there were plenty of Jews that did things out of tradition rather than deep belief (either because they lacked education or because they lacked interest). I might even suggest that they were a majority, since nowadays the majority of Jews are non-Orthodox, and I guess they are the descendants of those who were doing things because "that's how it's always been done" rather than out of conviction.
I also fully believe that Ruchi's ancestors were deeply educated and understood the meaning behind the traditions, had wonderful rabbis and were happy with their religious involvement – that's why the family stayed religious through generations.
In short I think that "Fiddler on the Roof" depicts the ancestors of those who came to be today's non-orthodox Jews, albeit I agree that it does it in a highly holywood-ized manner.
On a side note – what movies would you recommend as faithfully depicting the life of Orthodox Jews, either now or in shtetl times?
That is a very interesting view. Chicken before the egg kind of thing. I am not a big movie-watcher, but see what I said above about Ushpizin.
I agree with Larry on his first point. The shtetl was an extremely uncomfortable and unhealthy place. People left it in droves as soon as they could and didn't look back. What's more, I find the current romanticization of "the shtetl" and attempts to bring it back ill advised and worrisome.
That said, I am not a big fan of Sholom Aleichem's stories. Perhaps because I see assimilation as an inevitable alternative to tradition. Or maybe because I chose to make the opposite journey from SA and his characters – abandoned the secular lifestyle and "returned" to Jewish tradition.
Also, I would recommend reading Simon Dubnow's memoirs for an in depth look at how a thinking intellectual young Jew with loving and caring parents and a Talmudic scholar of a grandfather who he learned with for many years came to remove the "yoke of Heaven" from himself.
Bring back the shtetl? I would hardly advocate that. Truth be told, no one on this thread REALLY knows what it was like in the shtetl. But I do not think that my grandparents' experience has been told. So I'm here to tell it.
When I saw Fiddler for the first time since I became frum, I had a similar reaction, Ruchi. While I loved the music and the acting, the storyline made me so sad. I'm sure living in the shtetl was difficult. Constant pograms, oppression by the government, grinding poverty, you know, that's pretty difficult. I remember reading (I think in All For the Boss), about how in the winter, the streets would be so thick with mud that people would literally lose their boots in the mud.
Okay, now I'm just rambling. But I don't care for the characterization of Jews in this movie. Love the music, though.
Of course you do, sista!
limited time so just 1 short question for now. those of you that have highlighted the hardships of the shtetl, are you referring to hardships politically? Economically? Or religiously?
Movies are fiction. Their depiction of anything that takes place in real life is "wrong" the vast majority of the time. Ask a doctor about any film portraying any aspect of medicine, ask me about any one set in the field of classical music, etc. etc. Any viewer who is actually on the inside of whatever world is on the screen always has to cringe at numerous inaccuracies.
YES. See my reference to your comment above.
I think the rabbi's blessing to "keep the czar….far away from us" is funny, and actually a clever reflection of strategic awareness among Jews: the czar let the Jews live (albeit in extreme poverty and I think confined to the Pale of Settlement? I might have the history wrong), and so there would be a sort of limited gratitude but also the awareness that being politically ignored was probably the safest thing. It even strikes me as a kind of allegory for European Jewish historical relationships to 'tolerant' governments–good that the government allows us here, even better if they pay no attention to us, because attention usually means nothing good. I think that line shows the rabbi being ironic and wise in his irony.
It is also ironic that O Jews find the movie offensive and misguided–and I see why–while in my experience R Jews love it, and it makes them feel 'nostalgic' and proud and Jewish-identified.
The image of the shtetl is so fascinating. Some time ago I read a review of a book that had come out and debunked a famous photographer's representation of the shtetl–was it "World of our Fathers"? (A book that all the R Jews I ever knew had on their coffee tables.) The book under review apparently showed that the photos were cropped and even some were staged in ways to satisfy a contemporary audience's sense of what the shtetl was about.
One example I remember was that some famous picture of a Jew staring through a peep-hole in his door was cropped to make the scene look a little threatening and the man possibly afraid, and was described in terms of a foreboding sense for what would eventually happen to all these E. European Jews. Meanwhile the original complete photo shows that he is staring at a boy doing something silly and the whole scene is one of amusement and playfulness. And the book apparently also argued that the photographer took disproportionate numbers of pictures of worship and staged photos of pious-looking behavior, because this is what people in the 1960s and 1970s wanted to believe about the shtetl, and very few of ordinary life, commercial activity, people being silly and ordinary. Sorry that I can't remember any of the relevant info on author, book, date.
I think you're referring to "A Closer Reading of Roman Vishniac" from the NYT magazine:
As a photography curator, let me just fill in some details here. The photographs were by Roman Vishniac, and the book was "A Vanished World", published in 1983. My understanding of Vishniac's work, through conversations with his daughter and the director of the Vishniac archive, is that these photographs were taken in the 1930s to document a world that Vishniac understood was in danger. They were intended to document, not patronize. Vishniac was trying to raise awareness of how rich Jewish life was in these communities because he knew the future was grim. He intentionally wandered the shtetls inobtrusively, his camera hidden under his coat, the lens visible through a buttonhole.
Here is the article you mention:
The article you and I both linked to debunks, or at least strongly questions, the idea that Vishniac documented the shtetls in a secret manner. The article also notes that the captions in his published works were composed years after the photos were taken; that reflections in the glasses of subjects prove the camera was visible in front of his face; and that a poor girl shown in bed because she had no winter clothes to keep warm was found in another image properly clothed.
Thanks for filling in this info! Great to have specialists around.
SBW, I actually thought the line was brilliant for the movie-watcher but the whole exchange silly for a real-life rabbi. He's sort of like Jewish Santa Claus (no offense, all). I love the line and roll my eyes at it, all at once. And that article is fascinating. Never knew about that.
I can understand your discomfort, Ruchi, but I for one am grateful to depictions of the shtetl like "Fiddler on the Roof" and Vishniac's "Vanished World." I don't consider myself a ba'alat teshuva – my parents made that journey so I didn't have to – but I don't have a direct legacy of the shtetl, or Orthodox life. No relative I ever met spoke Yiddish or studied in cheder. These superficial recreations are one connection to my past, the life lived by my great-great-great-grandparents. (And yes, I mean that many generations. My family affiliated with the Reform movement in 1840s urban Germany.) They give me the flavors, the sights, the sounds, the emotions to fill in the history and halachic knowledge I have gained on my own.
I just finished reading "Out of the Depths" by Rabbi Lau. One piece of it that was interesting to me is his descriptions of Orthodox life in Poland just before the Holocaust. I've always thought of shtetl life as ending in the 19th century, fading out as people (such as my family) emigrated to the U.S. or assimilated in the urban centers. I hadn't fully realized how strong this rural small town life still was until the moment the Nazis destroyed it. Ruchi, you grew up knowing this was recent history, with your grandmothers' faces attached. To me it has always been ancient and remote.
I think people understand that "Fiddler on the Roof" is a Hollywood tale, as much as "Frisco Kid" (must rewatch that!). It is a musical, a comedy, not a documentary. And yeah, it could be a little more respectful, but better a weak connection to this component of Jewish history than none.
You're so right, Miriam.
To me it's sort of like The Red Tent, the Ten Commandments movie, Josehp and the Dreamcoat. People KNOW it's fictionalized, but that's still the only image in their brains, so there it remains, for lack of anything else. Is a skewed image better than none?
I remember learning about the Exodus from Egypt (the Biblical version) in elementary school. The teacher kept getting really frustrated with kids saying, “But that’s not how it was in the movie!”
Are The Red Tent, The Ten Commandments, and Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat any more or less fictionalized than Bereishit Rabbah or any other midrash aggadah? Jews have a long history of taking their canonical texts and writing stories about them.
Eliana, your question leads me to believe that you do not accept the Oral Law as divine. We can agree to disagree about that. So my answer to your question is: absolutely more fictionalized. While some midrashic aggadot are metaphorical/symbolic as opposed to literal (per the Maharal's commentary and Maimonides' introduction the the Shemonah Perakim), that is not the same as "fictionalized."
You're right that Jews have a long history of doing that, but when the narrative contravenes the Oral Law, I find it depressing that this is the only impression many Jews will have of Biblical figures, because I consider them inaccurate at best and insulting/sacrilegious at worst.
The Ten Commandments intentionally incorporates many midrashim and textual details. While still fictionalized and Hollywood-ized, the production team worked very hard to base their decisions and depictions on traditional sources.
Please explain how O Jews believe the oral law to be divine. Does that mean that the people who supposedly said those things didn't exist, or that God put the words in their mouths, or that God wrote down what they freely said, or that he 'pre-wrote' what they ultimately said (so they didn't have free will to not say those things)? I think R Jews think that it was inspired by God but written by free people.
Miriambyk, I did not know that! (I also did not see the movie.)
Sbw, here is a good summary: http://www.torah.org/qanda/seequanda.php?id=759
Ruchi, before I go on at length, let me ask a simple question. In your understanding is Kohelet Rabbah (midrashim about Ecclesiastes) part of the Oral law?
my instinctive response is yes, but it sounds like a trap.
Some may say I'm being overly precise, but I think that the population as a whole thinks sloppily. (Yekkie, after all.) In my understanding (there are others),the Oral Law was given to Moses on Mount Sinai. It consisted of a large amount of actual halachot not given in the written text (for example, the shape and color of tefillin, details in proper shechita), perhaps some aggadata (stories), and meta rules. One set of meta rules allows one to extract the hidden meanings from the biblical text and thus derive biblical laws (gezerah shava is one example). Others rules set the authority of rabbis to resolve blank areas in the law (example, status of a carmelit) and create new legislation of their own (examples, forbidding eating chicken and milk together, muktzeh).
The key element in this theology is that the Oral law, like the written, was a one time revelation (although whether it concluded at Sinai or on the plains of Moav with Moses' death is an open question.) It is certainly possible that the legends associated with Bereshit were given at Sinai. But I don't see how Kohelet Rabbah, which deals with a book that wouldn't be created for a thousand years or so could have been given at Sinai.(*)
That's not to say that the Midrashim were not divinely inspired, albeit written down by human authors. After all, that is what the works of the Prophets and the Writings (Psalms, Proverbs, the 5 megillot, etc,) are. And I find it unlikely that the author of the Red Tent was divinely inspired. But, perhaps as a result of my non-O upbringing) I don't see wrestling with the text by means of creating midrashim as forbidden, even if I find some such attempts to be unsatisfactory or even blasphemous.
(*)There exist people who insist the entire Mishna and Gemara were given, verbatim, at Har Sinai; that thousands of years before Beit Hillel existed we followed the laws as given by Beit Hillel and not by Beit Shammai. They base this on the Talmudic statement (paraphrased) that even the smallest chiddush (innovative idea) recited by a student before his teacher was given to Moses at Mount Sinau. If one believes that, I can't see any problem with believing that midrashic explanations were given before the texts which they explain.
Larry, thanks as usual for your edifying remarks. When you say "people" in your final paragraph, do you mean Rishonim? Acharonim? Lay people?
Ruchi, as I stated above, my attitude is formed by my heterodox upbringing. I've written midrashim, both for class and for my own edification, and found it a useful exercise. I've also participated in Bibliodrama. The particular scenario I saw enacted, in the context of a multi-denominational retreat, was an excellent example of the dangers involved in these exercises, as well as the benefits.
When I say creating a midrash, I don't mean ascribing ancient authorship to text I have written, nor do I mean describing something that actually happened. Perhaps contemporary midrashim should be regarded as a mixture of drash (homiletic interpretation) and chiddush(Ruchi, please explain chiddush to your readership)?
Chiddush is coming up with a novel thought in Torah that has not been previously intuited and yet does not contradict anything that is part of the tradition.
Larry, why does that need to be called midrash? If neither Torah accuracy nor ancient authorship are necessary, can't we just call it creative writing?
Well, that depends. If you view what you are doing as continuing to forge links in the chain of the mesorah, midrash is a better word for it. You are doing what you imagine the rabbis of old did. If you think that age of midrash has passed just as the age of prophecy has, then I suppose you could say 'creative writing about the bible is 1/60th of midrash.'.
(Side note – my understanding of sayings such as 'sleep is 1/60th of death' and 'dreams are 1/60th of prophecy' was revolutionized when a friend pointed out that in most cases 1/60th is the smallest part of something that retains its name – e.g., batel b'shishim (if you accidentally add milk to meat and there is less than 1 part milk to 60 parts of the combination then the milk does not count and the mixture is still kosher meat.)
Yes, I do think the age of midrash has passed with prophecy. But I have a problem with creative writing about the Bible. May I ask what the purpose is?
Love the 1/60th thing…
I'm with Ruchi here. Not because the age of midrash has passed but because Chazal (the Rabbis) used midrash to teach us serious lessons. Calling these creative ideas midrash sounds to me like calling a second-grader's composition a doctoral dissertation. The difference is that in the latter case no one would take the term seriously, whereas in the case of midrash, people might. This demeans the significance of Chazal's teachings: they wrote midrashim; I can write midrashim. Why not call these things historical novels (if they're long enough) with (perhaps) a moral? Were the people doing this knowledgeable enough about Jewish tradition to forge links in the chain of Jewish tradition?
Whoa, Ruchi! I beg to differ here. Midrash came long after prophecy ended. I don't know when it started, but midrashim are stated in the name of rabbis who lived way past the end of prophecy.
I didn't mean they both ended at precisely the same time. You are right, of course.
Fascinating, and to me so otherworldly!
I'm not surprised that Ruchi and DG think that the Midrash window has closed, so to speak. I am a little surprised (but why should I be?) that Larry writes 'midrash'. Does the lower-case 'm' help at all to mitigate the difference in views? Would it be different if he wrote "his own midrashic interpretations"? Honestly the question of naming the 'thing' at issue here is sooo interesting.
I hope eventually to hear more about what chidduch 'not contradicting the tradition' means when the tradition includes (as with the many answers to why Esther invited Hamann) already contradictory ways to think about something. Can a chidduch contradict any one single part of the tradition (and thereby go along with another part) or does it have to not contradict any resolution to a series of 'reasons why' (as in, "Esther had all these in mind" [not possible, but ok]).
I can't speak for Larry, but I was simply being careless with my capitalization. When I'm not being careless, I write "Midrash" for the body of work as a whole. Each account within that is a "midrash" (plural: midrashim). Capitalization of the adjective is a matter of style, just as everyone capitalizes "Bible," but some styles prefer "Biblical" and some prefer "biblical." Nothing more significant than that.
I brought up the discussion of writing midrash over Shabbat dinner at a friend's house. After some discussion, we found that he thought that when I said I was writing midrash, he thought it meant that I was writing things that I thought were actually additions to the canonical midrash. That isn't quite what I meant – when I say I am writing midrash, I just meant I am writing stories about biblical characters and situations. You can think of it as Biblical fanfic, if you wish.
Does that make the practice more acceptable in your eyes, or less?
Regarding the age of Midrash being over, I assume you would place the end well before the late 1700s, right? Yet a very famous midrash (the one about the Jews in Egypt keeping their clothes, language, and names) seem to have been put together from other midrashim as a response to the haskala (Enlightenment).
I want to be sure I understand the point of controversy here. If you (Larry) say you "write m/Midrash", is the problem you think Ruchi would have with that would be that either 1. it elevates your own writing (to the status of 'actual addition to canonical midrash') or 2. denigrates canonical midrash (as biblical fanfic–thanks for the new-to-me word)? I realize the two alternatives are related but I think a difference between them can be made.
And the reason you do not have a problem with calling your writing 'midrash' would seem to be: 1. You do not feel that actual Midrash is at all denigrated when you use the term for your own biblical fanfic, because it is holy and what you do cannot metaphysically violate that. 2. You feel that Midrash is a historically given name to a body of work and so the name is open to further uses.
I am interested in how the NAME 'midrash' can evoke certain reactions and how it is or is not seen as connected to divinity, metaphysics, human choices, etc.
Larry, in that case why don't you just say you are writing fiction based on Torah stories? Since that's what it is – fiction. No? Why is it necessary to use the word "midrash"?
As far as the midrash ideas you quoted from adderabbi (I admit that was really interesting):
That's why I'd call the 2 original sources (from Vayikra Rabbah and Pesikta Zutresa) "midrash" and the quote from Maharam Schick a "dvar Torah."
SBW, maybe this will make my reaction more clear. I consider "midrash" to be exactly as holy as "Torah." So imagine someone told you he was going to a Torah writing workshop. What reaction would that evoke in you?
Even calling it Torah fiction bothers me, and this is where I get antsy when I encounter works such as "The Red Tent" (sorry for the quotes instead of italicizing but I haven't figured that out yet here) or movies about Torah figures. Here's why.
Imagine someone said he was writing fiction about your mother. "Don't worry – I'll brand it as fiction." But he's using your mother's name, and true identifying details and other accurate information mixed with the fiction, without overtly distinguishing between the two.
How would you feel?
This is how I feel when people write midrash.
Is the idea behind writing "midrash" just to write fiction based on an intriguing story from the Torah, or is it to gain (or provide) a better understanding of the lessons of the Torah?
Imagine someone said he was writing fiction about your mother. "Don't worry – I'll brand it as fiction." But he's using your mother's name, and true identifying details and other accurate information mixed with the fiction, without overtly distinguishing between the two.
Would it make a difference if it was your brother doing it?
The urban fantasy novel my wife is writing (with my assistance) involving vampire-like creatures from Jewish mythology, the last Satmar Rebbe, and an interesting take on the Midrashic character Lillith is not something I would call midrash. A story about Joseph's relationship with his wife Aseneth bat Potifera, which explores how Joseph's feelings about his heritage changed based on the naming of his two sons, is something I would call midrash.
I would expect my brother to respect my mother's authentic history even more.
I understand what you are saying. The former (whoa) is fiction; the latter conjecture. Nevertheless, I don't consider it midrash, which is truth, or spiritually accurate analogy that is "true" on the four levels of Pardes.
Here's a first: I think I agree with almost everything everyone has said so far.
The shtetl was multifaceted. There was vibrant religious life but also a lot of people abandoning religious practice. The well-known yeshivas were for the intellectual elite. Most boys had very little Jewish education once they were old enough to work. Girls had none at all until Sarah Schenirer founded the Beis Ya'akov school system. Even in the prestigious Volozhin yeshiva, many students read Haskalah literature and abandoned Jewish practice.
The Jews were dirt poor. At the start of the 20th century, there was mass emigration by desperately poor Jews trying to get away from the poverty in eastern Europe. But the poorest people couldn't leave because they didn't have enough money to cover the costs. In addition, pogroms and other manifestations of antisemitism caused despair and desperation (see http://www.jewishhistory.org/dawn-of-the-century).
I agree with Ruchi that the depiction of Jewish life is inaccurate and uncomplimentary. As Bratschegirl said, Hollywood is inaccurate about everything. Just ask a police officer how true to life police dramas are. The first priority is to sell tickets, not to teach people what the world is or ever was really like. (The second priority is to sell tickets. The third priority is to sell tickets.) But the fact that Hollywood cares little for accuracy is no reason not to criticize a movie for an inaccurate and negative portrayal of Jews and Judaism. Sure, we should be aware that it wasn't done out of malice. But if people get their opinion of Judaism from that movie, they should be made aware that it isn't even close to the truth.
I think it's ironic that Reform Jews feel nostalgic watching what I think we would probably all agree is an unpleasant way of life (poverty, pogroms, and the ignorance that Ruchi pointed out).
W: That's an interesting theory. I wonder what percentage of secular Jews today are descendants of those who were doing things back then without knowing why. I would say, though, that the alternative was knowledge rather than conviction. And my guess is that ignorance would have led to the explanation that "God said so in the Torah" rather than "That's how it's always been done." Also, as I mentioned above, some of the intellectual religious elite also abandoned Jewish practice.
SBW: That book sounds fascinating. I would love to see it.
Ha! Love your first sentence. I agree with everything you said here.
I am curious as to your thoughts on Haym Soloveitchik's article "Rupture and Reconstruction" .
In it, he argues that "In the enclaves of Eastern Europe, going to shul (synagogue) in the morning, putting on a tallit katan (fringed garment) and wearing pe'ot (side locks) were for centuries the way of life of the Jew. These acts were done with the same naturalness and sense of inevitability as we experience in putting on those two strange Western garments, socks and ties."
According to Soloveitchik, mimesis, or what Tevye calls "Tradition" was the major part of shtetl-observance. Not asking the rabbi questions, not halachic codes, certainly not education (who could afford to send every single child to learn at a yeshiva or seminary for 1+years?) and not the contemporary search for "meaning". In fact, halacha could be re-read based on tradition.
Just curious: What's strange about socks? They keep my feet warm.
Eliana has a great point. I for one would not hold it against anyone who was (as DG said) dirt poor, not able to educate much–and not living very long anyway, and under threats of other kinds, if they didn't practice with any great insight and education and knowledge about what they were doing. Perhaps they just did it as a matter of course because that's how they always did it. To me this is not at all denigrating as a way to consider Jewish shtetl practices, although I think it might be to some.
It does strike me as a very 'modern' view that people of centuries past would be very conscious of what they are doing and why, and what it means for their personal spirituality and such. Maybe some were, and maybe some just did what everyone did. To me the latter is perfectly noble.
What bothers me is not that people did things the way everyone did. And actually, a lot of the things listed in the "Tradition" song are socially determined, not matters of Jewish law ("who does Mama teach to mend and tend and fix"). What bothers me is the implication that there's no other reason for Jewish practices. People believed that God expected them to follow Jewish law, even though the average Jew probably didn't know the exact source of every practice.
I think "knowing why" is overrated. This maybe is more in response to W's suggestion above that "non-Orthodoxy" came about as a result of people doing things only for tradition's sake, or "because God said so" and thus were lacking education or insight. It seems to me that you could just as easily argue that education (for most of history a luxury) could be a gateway to questioning traditions rather than continuing them.
To me a lot of energy expended on "saying why" or "knowing why" looks like overcompensation. Practices exist and get practiced, in my view, and this has a nobility of its own, and I'm not sure that they always HAVE to have such great reasons or that we have to be aware of them except to "just do them". Like manners: you tell the kids to eat with silverware many, many, many times. Once in awhile you explain, again, that it's because it makes people more comfortable and is less disgusting, but ultimately it's because THAT IS WHAT WE DO. And then you (I) go back to just plain barking the reminder, which seems more effective than the explanation (in my house at least).
Ruchi, I was very maddened last night by "Letters to a Buddhist Jew" for precisely this reason. I feel like Tatz loads up the "reasons why" to a point of ridiculousness, and pomposity. For instance he has a long passage explaining why Jewish men dance in a circle: Because it's a symbol of life, and eternity, closure, connection, blah blah, as if circle-dancing were a BETTER and more profound practice for having so many reasons and meanings. Actually, dancing in a closed space just functions more smoothly if you all go in a circle–or even better, it's just WHAT PEOPLE DO. And apart from that, circle dancing is NOT uniquely Jewish. It is just how people often dance when it's not couples dancing. When it's a group celebration. No major spiritual explanation necessary. All those "reasons why" to me are a far WEAKER case for O practice than the practices on their own.
SBW: I must say that is a highly unique way to look at things. I don't think I've encountered that before.
And re: circle dancing… take it or leave it. It's hardly one of the 13 principles of faith. But yeah, I get what you're saying! 🙂
The "why"s were in the learning that they did in yeshiva, then brought home to their families. I don't think people themselves had the luxury of personal quests for "meaning."
Eliana, firstly, welcome to OOTOB! I think this is your first comment, possibly? You write: "naturalness and sense of inevitability" – yes, I don't think there's anything wrong with this. I and many of my friends have a naturalness and sense of inevitability about our observance – that doesn't make it meaningless. I have to pay attention to "kavana" – intent, to remind myself that it's not supposed to be robotic. Being learned exposes you to the "why"s.
DG, as usual I just love how you put things: "What bothers me is the implication that there's no other reason for Jewish practices. People believed that God expected them to follow Jewish law, even though the average Jew probably didn't know the exact source of every practice." Yup. That's exactly what I meant.
I'm surprised at your surprise at my view about how "knowing why" is overrated! Here is an idea I have about this for which I have zero substantiation: We in modernity are more about introspection, knowing meanings, and having reasons for things. And this is also more 'democratized' in modernity, we think *everyone* should know why they do what they do and be introspective about it (e.g. not just yeshiva learners). This is part of what modernity is about–having your 'own' relationships to God (and other people and things) built on introspection and knowing meanings.
But why should it always have been this way? I even would guess that the kinds of 'Jewish' emphasis on this that Tatz and others pile on is possibly related to the same kinds of historical turns toward introspection that produced the shift in Christianity from Catholicism to the Reformation. Not that knowing reasons and performing introspection are totally new in modernity, but the emphasis on them, and the idea that this is important for everyone, are a historical development.
Tatz's lengthy citations of multiple reasons for things like circle dancing feel to me, therefore, like a modern attempt to reconstruct meaning where there was just a longstanding practice. And like an attempt to pass off this modern understanding as how everyone always understood it–and THAT they always 'understood' it, as opposed to just doing it 'because'.
Maybe you are surprised because I am indeed expressing great respect for the simple fact of certain practices and their perpetuation totally apart from reasons and introspection. I am actually a little surprised at myself for that, but I guess I am discovering it as I think this through. All those 'reasons', however, seem to me to be an add-on. They undermine in my view the dignity of the practice itself.
In the second-last paragraph I meant to say that Tatz "inserts" or "fabricates" meaning instead of "reconstructs" it. Or even just he "constructs" meaning, which would be a more neutral term. But the point is that the meaning isn't so much there, it's produced after the fact. Way after.
There are unquestionably practices that people have added "meanings" to later. I agree with you about the circle dancing. Actually, I never heard anyone try to explain it before. It never occurred to me that it was supposed to be significant. And as you said, it isn't just Jewish. I wonder if trying to add meanings to things detracts from the real meanings of the practices that are indeed meaningful. There's a big difference between why we dance in a circle (which isn't required) and why we keep kosher, for instance. Fabricated reasons leave me cold.
Your fourth paragraph, SBW: yes. I have never met a non-Orthodox Jew who has expressed that view. Especially one in academia.
Re: Tatz. He doesn't cite any sources but I know he draws upon sources. So I'd be super-curious where that circle dancing thing comes from. I had never heard of it either.
Welcome back, Diplogeek.
My immediate thought is that many of Rabbi Tatz's ideas are based on kabbalistic thought, which predated any of us. But I wanted to reread the passage. SBW, I looked through my book and didn't see it. Can you tell me the page numbers? It seems, without having reread, that Diplogeek's last paragraph and Tatz's thoughts are mergeable.
It's on p. 252 in my hardback copy. He explains–for those of you who might not have the book–that there is a "deep reason" for why yeshiva boys dance in circles, "Deep Torah sources point out that a circle is the only conceivable shape that has no distinctive point . . . . Now the idea of dancing in a circle is the redemption, or elevation, of this shape. As we move around, we are seeking to infuse the seemingly irredeemable world of habit and tired unconsciousness with chidduch, newness."
In contrast to moments like this, I had some respect for Tatz's explanation (p. 206 in my copy) for how Abraham's major contribution was NOT monotheism, but as inaugurating embodied practices through which people relate to God.
In general I think Tatz is far better when he follows biblical 'logic' and explicates passages than when he tries to cook up explanations for 'traditions' and reasons for commandments. Like on p. 185, "So dwelling in booths [on Sukkot–SBW] serves to sensitize you to the higher world, to draw up your gaze metaphorically, through the sukkah's thin cover [he just described the insubstantial roof–SBW] and not to your mansion's concrete roof for security." I can see how the sukkah evokes insecurity and such, but he mixes up a metaphorical gaze with a literal 'thin cover' roof. And it doesn't need this overblown attempt at reasoning.
There is a difference between a "reason" for something and an insight that can be gleaned from it, which is more of a "take it or leave it" thing (depending on the source – again, Rabbi Tatz does not cite his source). For example, Shabbat is celebrated as a sign that we believe that God created the world and "rested" on the 7th. That's a reason.
The circle thing and the sukkah thing are insights. We should keep mitzvos without those insights, but insights sometimes help you get more into it. They are called in Hebrew "taamei hamitzvos" – a "taste" of the mitzvah. The taste of food is a fringe benefit and does not change its nutritive value. So too the "tastiness" of the mitzvah can (or may not be) enhanced by insights. One is not required to buy into them for the mitzvah's spiritual nutritive benefit.
And some, like you, are fine doing them just because they are done.
Diplogeek's comment from above got inadvertently deleted when I was trying to remove some spam comments. Sorry Dipkogeek. Here it is:
For instance he has a long passage explaining why Jewish men dance in a circle: Because it's a symbol of life, and eternity, closure, connection, blah blah, as if circle-dancing were a BETTER and more profound practice for having so many reasons and meanings. Actually, dancing in a closed space just functions more smoothly if you all go in a circle–or even better, it's just WHAT PEOPLE DO. And apart from that, circle dancing is NOT uniquely Jewish.
I've circle danced with friends at various establishments for dancing, (and I don't even like dancing or go out that much!). Somehow, I don't think that Rabbi Tatz would assume that we were dancing in a circle in any of those venues to symbolize long life or eternity or whatever. Ahem. We're doing it because it's a practical way to dance, which is probably about as much thought as the average group of guys once gave it when they started dancing on Simchat Torah. I suspect that the reasons Rabbi Tatz gave, as is so often the case (I mean generally, not in his case in particular), evolved long after the circle dancing when someone showed up one day and asked, "So why not dance in a line?"
I mean, why does a sports team stand in a circle and huddle before a match or at half time? Because it makes you all both physically and psychologically closer, not least because by huddling in a circle, you're shutting out anyone who's not in your group. My friends and I always joke about people being in "the circle of trust," but those jokes are based on reality. Huddling up, circling the wagons… these aren't specifically Jewish things at all, but they foster the same feelings for those involved as dancing in a circle at a wedding might for a bunch of Jews.
I can see the insight vs. reason thing. But Tatz seems to not make any distinction and in fact to present insights, or what I would call 'meanings that have accrued to a practice' as reasons FOR a practice. Which to me reads like overkill. And like an attempt to speak to modern desires to have 'reasons for' things–which is also in itself respectable, but it feels sneaky to present them as ancient 'reasons for'.
I don't think he was implying that yeshiva guys have planned a circle dance due to knowledge of these deep reasons. I'm not exactly sure what he is saying with the circle dancing, but in the sukkah example, he is actually saying one should keep this insight in mind during sukkot because it's one of the meanings of the holidays [not THE REASON].
Here is an example of what I mean that will show you that past, present and future are not so static (I am also responding to Larry's yekkie comment above about how Oral Law is extracted):
In the Purim story, Queen Esther invited the King to a royal party to discuss Haman's treason against the Jews. She invites, of all, people, Haman himself. Why? Here's the Talmud (aka Oral Law) Megillah 15b:
Our Rabbis taught: For what reason did Esther invite Haman?
– Rabbi Eliezer taught: She laid a trap for him, as it is written, "May their table be a trap before them."
– Rabbi Yehoshua taught: She learned this from her father's house, as it is written, "If your enemy is hungry, feed him bread" etc.
– Rabbi Meir taught: In order that he would not take counsel and rebel (Rashi: "Against the king, for he was at the pinnacle of success.")
– Rabbi Yehuda taught: In order that it would not be recognizable that she was Jewish.
– Rabbi Nechemya taught: In order that the Jews would not say, "We have a sister in the king's house" – and [rely on that, and] not plead for Divine mercy.
– Rabbi Yossi taught: In order that he would be within her sights all the time
– Rabban Gamliel taught: He is a fickle king. Rabban Gamliel said: We are still in need of the Moda'i, as we learn, "Rabbi Eliezer the Moda'i taught: She made the king jealous of him, she made the ministers jealous of him."
Etc. There are 12 opinions given, in all. When another Rabbi, Raba bar Avahu, meets up with Elijah the Prophet, he asks him, "Which of the 12 rabbis were right? Which reason did Esther actually have in mind? Elijah responded that she had ALL 12 reasons in mind when she invited Haman.
So which came first, her reasons, or their opinions? Past, present and future are all intertwined here. Hard to fully explain this concept on this forum, but it's more complex than it seems from reading Tatz. He does explain the concept somewhat on page 88, first full paragraph.
Ruchi, maybe our pagination is different, my page 88 is about how the world is a projection of Torah.
I love the multiplication of reasons. It is beautiful. The multiplication speaks against any one of them being the sole truth. Which to me seems itself true.
You offer the insight/meaning/reason distinction with a much lighter hand than Tatz. In my view he is not as wise as you are about the difference, nor as respectful of his readers in what he offers them, nor as humble in how he offers it.
Please rest assured that Rabbi Tatz is far, far wiser than I in Torah scholarship. (A book author does not have the advantage of knowing a questioner's intent.) In any event, there is ALWAYS a multiplicity of reasons. According the the Talmud itself, there are 70 facets to everything, and each is one aspect of truth. My husband, for example, does not connect to Rabbi Tatz's teachings as I do, and chooses to teach from other modern sources.
I AM talking about p. 88 – if the world is a projection of Torah, which came first, the world, or Torah? Did Torah concepts (the meaning of Chanukah) predate its occurrence? I see the explanation on page 88 shining light on this conundrum.
How did the 12 rabbis each come to their opinions about Esther's motivations? Did they have access to oral traditions? Did they first come to a decision about what the motivation was, and then find a text to support it? Or while studying their proof text, did they realize that this text could explain Esther's motivation? Or some other explanation, perhaps involving Ruach HaKodesh?
Also, did each Rabbi originally believe they had the sole answer to the question of Esther's motivations, or did they realize all their answers could be true?
I'd say a combination of access to oral traditions, very full awareness of textual support, speculation, what made sense to them, and intuition based on connection to Hashem via Torah.
To your second question, presumably they were all aware of the 70 facets concept.
Oh, and SBW, I also think the czar comment is funny, although I disagree with your gratitude theory. Supposedly, an advisor to Czar Alexander III (reigned 1881-1894) had a vision for getting rid of the Jews in Russia: one-third would starve to death, one-third would convert, and one-third would emigrate. Whether he actually said it I don't know, but Russian government policies didn't earn the czar gratitude from the Jews.
You would think having graduated with a history degree I would have thought to have questioned movies that are lightly based on historical fact. I never have with Fiddler, so I just wanted to thank you for this post and making me think of this movie in a new light.
Welcome to the blog, Shula! Thanks for commenting.
I am really curious about that desire that Miriam mentioned to feel connected to this Jewish history–apart from the question of whether or not it is being romanticized or Hollywoodized or false or distorted. I think that desire was also behind the coffeetable presence of whatever shtetl book it was that all the Reform Jews I knew had. Is there a difference between Miriam's O desire for this connection and my family's R desire?
My impression is that it's not just Jews who have this kind of desire. Different kinds of ethnic/national/group identity narratives [tiptoeing around those words] have narratives about golden ages, and miserable-but-golden ages. So I don't know if that desire for connection to a more 'authentic' past is uniquely Jewish. Or am I wrong about the desire for connection to a shtetl past to be about a desire for something more authentic? Or is it just a desire to have some definable past to point to?
SBW, I agree that it is not just Jews who desire to have a connection to "the old country", the "good old days", the lifestyle of our ancestors, etc. Many people want to connect to their past. Look at how popular genealogy is today. But I don't think Ruchi claimed that there was anything "uniquely Jewish" in this post 🙂
I don't see any difference between my desire as someone who identifies as an Orthodox Jew to connect to the Jewish past versus anybody else's. Well, maybe just a little bit. There is a piece of me that feels like I have regained a heritage that my grandparents and great-grandparents lost or set aside. Like hopefully I can find the answers and meaning in traditional/halachic Judaism that didn't work for the intermediate generations. My grandparents expressed a lot of disdain for my Orthodox observance, and I like to think that if I went far enough back I would find ancestors who are pleased that I live a traditional Jewish life. Depictions of the shtetl connect me to these ancestors I could never know.
Is there any way to get a real sense of percentages of Jews in that era who had deep education and intellectual connection to their heritage, versus those who observed purely because it was their heritage?
I'm curious about your family's experience, Ruchi – and whether the difference might be due to geographical differences between their shtetl and others that were more like Anatevka? My sense has always been that the Jews of Eastern Europe did tend more towards "simple faith," while there was more intellectualized study among Jews in Sefardi/Arabic lands (eg. Rambam). (Probably an oversimplification, but one conveyed by my college and graduate school teachers!) Maybe there were many shtetls where "simple faith" ruled, but some in other areas had a more intellectual connection?
I've always had mixed feelings about Fiddler, but mostly just because I don't enjoy movies that make me sad; I'd rather be made to laugh! Which brings me to two points about the show:
(1) I actually think it portrays assimilation as a negative – which I always thought was kind of nice, given that it comes from a secular writer.
(2) I like the rabbi! Or at least, the only line of his I remember – the blessing for the czar. (May G-d bless and keep the czar…far away from us!) Probably if I saw it again (it's been a while), I would be annoyed by his being a fool – but that line, at least, is brilliant!
Wow! This is what happens when I write a new post the night before a busy day – you all have this amazing conversation without me.
I will respond to some of your specific comments above, but for now, here's this:
Just spoke to one of my grandmothers tonight to get more detailed info. She lived in Chust (it was either Czechoslovakia or Hungary then) which was a larger shtetl. It had several rabbis and a dayan (judge). Her family was poor but very learned. She said they didn't think to ask "why" – just that their life was rich and meaningful. But a lot of the "why"s would be included in the studies.
As another example, I have read the biography of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter who delivered absolutely brilliant and deep lectures that everyone would turn out for. His story is not unique. My grandmothers till this day have a deep reverence for rabbis. She also acknowledged to me that not everyone in the shtetl was learned like her father, and by extension, their family.
I put in another call to my other grandmother and am awaiting her callback. Unfortunately, she doesn't use the internet 🙂
One more factoid. My grandmothers were young teens when they were taken by the Nazis. So they were not adults in the shtetl.
Just spoke to my other grandmother. They lived in a shtetl called "Taitsch" in Hungary. They were very rich but most of the shtetl was poor. They had a clothing store that did very well. It was a good life for my grandmother. Political conditions were good (until they weren't, in 1944). There was a rabbi and a shoychet in the shtetl. They respected the rabbi very much ("of course!"). They asked him all kinds of questions, both halachic and advice.
I asked her if they knew why they kept the mitzvos. She said it was natural and they didn't ask why. It occurred to me that it was a deep abiding faith that fueled that "simple faith" – this is what was missing from the movie. Doing things for "tradition" is not called simple faith. It's called habit. But my grandmothers both had something more than habit, something that is still sorely lacking in many today and that is a true, simple, unquestionable relationship with God.
So when I said in my original post that they had a deep connection to the meanings, I see now that it doesn't necessarily mean on an intellectual plane, but in a deep, core-place that stemmed from a rock-solid faith. That's how my grandmothers still say "baruch Hashem" (blessed is God) and "gloib tzu Gott" (with belief in God) in every conversation, after having gone through Auschwitz.
And that's NOT the same thing as "tradition."
Tevye does talk to God–both in the film, and in the original short stories. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d8q9EIi863c. He has consistent "rock-solid" faith. Immediately before Tevye breaks into tradition, he says "For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer shawl that shows our constant devotion to God". He actually ascribes a ta'am to a mitzvah! He does not understand the history of the mitzvot, but that's not the same thing as not understanding a simplistic meaning.
It seems that your grandmothers' didn't link faith in God to individual mitzvot. Either the simple faith that Tevye has is the same one that your grandmothers have (had?), or neither of them "actually seems to know [knew] why anyone is keeping any of the Jewish observances".
Mrs. Koval, how does the rabbinic concept of amei ha'aretz (who have always existed, despite the amoraim's distaste for them) fit into your historical narrative of what halachic Judaism looked like "back in the day"?
Hmmm. That is very interesting. I had forgotten about that. (and so have most of here, it seems). Only that one word "tradition" sticks with me. This I will have to ponder.
Which historical narrative do you mean? My grandparents came from learned families, and I am telling their stories.
Must mention the Tzena Urena, a very popular Torah text in the shtetl, especially among women:
" For many generations the Tzenah Urenah played a major role in the informal education of women and their children by broadening their knowledge of many and varied Hebrew sources, leading them in the ways of Jewish thought and behavior and presenting them with a treasure of stories and narratives. The impact the Tzenah Urenah made on its readers' spiritual world, on their reading habits, on their literary taste and on their written and spoken language still awaits research, together with many other aspects of this important work."
Any chance you would do an interview of each grandmother for the blog?
I sort of already subjected them to an interview of sorts, yesterday and today. But I am in the process of formally interviewing my husband's grandmother, who was born in Taylor, PA, but whose husband, Grandpa Koval, and parents all lived in the stetl.
Keep your eyes open for it.
Mrs. Koval–The historical narrative that I was talking about was where you said "Of course I am sure that there were some families who just observed out of habit or social pressure, but an entire village?" Do you have any evidence for your grandparents' individual experiences that have been relayed several decades after the fact, with nostalgic longing for the past, was any more prevalent than the existence of amei ha'aretz?
Funny that you should mention the tzene-rene. Jeremy Dauber, in his book "In the Demon's Bedroom: Early Yiddish Literature and the Early Modern" argues that the tsene-rene was less about informal education, and more about trying to keep women more interested in cute midrashim than in reading secular texts. In any case, the tsene-rene's existence demonstrates the lack of Hebrew education among women, at least. Most women were not engaging with text in the original. Dauber also argues that some more learned people were reading the tsene-rene, but it's target audience was amei ha'aretz.
Hi again Eliana,
Feel free to call me Ruchi (unless you're a child, which is either highly doubtful or highly impressive).
Basically, how can anyone know anything about the shtetl? Any first-person account is subject to bias. I didn't say their experience was any more prevalent than anyone else's. I just said it existed and was underrepresented.
Re: Tzena urena. Again, one can look at anything in a variety of ways. I am glad that the women were literate and learned, and had textual (whether in the original or not) access to Torah concepts and core beliefs, regardless of the language of the texts they studies. Most Jewish women (and men) today are not studying Judaism anywhere near that level. Regarding midrashim being cute, I'll comment on your midrash thought below.
For those of you that are unfamiliar with this work, here's a definition from myjewishlearning.com:
"Tzenah Urenah is a rendering in Yiddish of the Torah, the Megillot (five scrolls of the Bible) and the Haftarot. In the Torah, the discourses are based on a selection of verses and topics from the weekly portion treated in an exegetical and at times homiletically inclined manner, drawing from numerous sources, primarily the Midrash (especially Bereshit Rabbah) and the Talmud, Rashi and his interpreters and many other exegetes, with R. Bahya ben Asher ibn Hlava (Spain, 13th century) in the lead."
Fiddler on the Roof is a typical Broadway musical where the characters conform to preconceived ideas. Thus, it falls into a cookie cutter format that Broadway viewers expect. For Jews, this portrayal is not always accurate, but that is unimportant to the show's makers, who wanted to appeal to the masses with easily understandable "types." Also, I have always found Irving Howe's assessment of the show spot-on: The year it opened (1964), Howe drolly wrote in a Commentary review that “Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof is the cutest shtetl we’ve never had.”
🙂 love that.
Here's another thought: I just got a PJ Library CD of songs from Jewish camp or something like that. So the song Going on a Jet Plane (or whatever it's really called) is on there. Now in Orthodox camps we didn't sing any of the songs on that CD. And I'm listening, fascinated, to this CD, curious about what kinds of songs non-Orthodox kids sing in Jewish camp, and this song comes on, and I'm curious how it made it. So my friend who was raised Conservative was like, of COURSE!! We ALL sang that song! Because the guy who wrote it was Jewish.
So I was like, I don't understand why that song is for kids. It's about this couple, kiss me, never let me go, someone's wearing a wedding ring, are they getting divorced? Or are they engaged? Then why did she say she doesn't know when she'll be back again? And both of my friends look at me and were like, well, we never really thought about that.
So maybe I'm over-analytical. I have definitely been accused of that.
"Leaving on a Jet Plane"? Never thought of it as a camp song (I went to Camp Ramah, Conservative camp) but one of my favorites. The lyrics aren't that complicated — two adults are dating/engaged. One is about to go on a long trip, and promises the other he will return to marry his love. When I went off to Israel post-high school, leaving my boyfriend in the States, it was like my personal anthem.
OK, Ruchi, gotta ask – what is the connection, or was this just a stream-of-consciousness post?
🙂 Sorry, a few people were like "I loved it as a kid, never thought that hard about it" – so I'm linking a similar experience with the CD, where people accepted a cultural Jewish icon as a child without delving into it much, and I am analyzing it critically, maybe more than most people would have thought to (especially as a kid).
It was written by John Denver. Not Jewish. I do remember liking it as a kid, but we didn't sing it at Camp Ramah either (although maybe they did in the older bunks).
I once told a friend that a particular song that she liked really bothered me because of the lyrics, and she said she didn’t pay attention to the words, even though she could sing along. In other words, she knew the words and would sing them without noticing them. I guess some people focus on the music and some people focus on the lyrics.
We sang "Jet Plane" at JCC overnight camp. No particular meaningful logic to it, except it was the 1970s and the camp's guitar guy was a folk music kind of guy, and that's what folkies played back then. When I became a counselor I found out that the camp director wanted the kids to sing it on the last night because it is so mournful, in order to get them to feel all nostalgic about the weeks they had just had, so that they would resolve at that moment to sign up for the next summer.
DG I hear kids singing songs today with lyrics that make me blush.
SBW that is just hilarious.
Ruchi, I don't mean to nitpick but isn't the correct phrase "geloibt tzu g-tt" meaning basically thank G-d vs. "gloib tzu G-tt" you mention
I've never heard the latter mentioned in simple conversation, but I could be wrong. (More "grandmother homework" for you…)
very likely you are right! I'm going on my grandmother's thick Hungarian accent and Yiddish, which is only my third language!
But either way, her connection to God is and remains amazingly strong. Just read a book by Elie Wiesel – "Open Heart" – he just wrote it. Amazing, amazing stuff. Reminded me of this whole convo.
When I saw it in the theater as a kid I was mesmerized by the music, emotion and pageantry. Many years later as an adult I was struck how the movie clearly reflects prevalent themes from the era it was made, emphasizing a desire to throw off the shackles of rigid authority. The scene that now strikes me as outrageous (and very '60s) is the elderly rabbi finally succumbing to an apparent urge to dance in public with a woman, and smiling naughtily as if he was finally liberated. Quite clear where the filmmakers were coming from, and it wasn't a place of knowledgeable Judaism.
I take a lesson that comes from the discomfort you (and I) feel about the movie: That it is their ignorance of the meaning of their actions that leads to their children gradually abandoning their ways. And the moral for those who want to avoid the fate of Tevye's daughters is that they need to make sure to give their "Tradition"s meaning and explanation as they grow older and more mature.
I'm reading this conversation late; read most posts, skimmed some posts. I saw Fiddler on the Roof before I was observant. I liked it because of the Jewish scenes, for example lighting the Shabbas candles. I probably unconsciously took the positives, and maybe didn't pay much attention to the fact that the daughters' observance was going in a downhill direction. When I saw it as a grown-up and as a frum person, the movie saddened me, though yes, the music is beautiful, and the dream scene funny.
I agree with all your points. Great movie, but really held us back by the world at large. I meet so many gentiles or irreligious Jews who think this is what life looked like for everyone in Europe or even today. Blah.
Clarification: It is Yenta the Matchmaker. Yentl was that really bad Barbra Streisand movie when she cross-dressed in the old country so "she could learn." Now THAT film was embarrassing.
Oh my gosh, yes.
So a friend invited me to a special Christmas Eve sing-a-long showing of Fiddler on the Roof, and I couldn't resist. In addition to enjoying the songs which I still know by heart, and shedding a tear or two over the challenges of raising children (my eldest just went off to college this fall), I watched it carefully with all of you in mind.
The movie is actually more accurate about religious practices than I remembered. There were details like Tevye kissing the mezuzah as he walks in his house or starting to daven mincha to avoid Golde's nagging that I didn't remember. (Some of you may see that as disrespectful; I saw it as funny because my ex-husband used to do the same thing– start davening or benching to end a discussion.) Tevye has a strong relationship with Gd, talking to Him throughout the movie, accepting his lot in life even as he wonders about Gd's thought process. Part of Tevye's fantasy of being a rich man is being able to sit and learn from the holy books all day. And Tevye is clear that intermarriage is the line that can't be crossed. Even in the ending scene, he does not speak to the intermarried daughter.
I don't think the rabbi is portrayed as a fool, or disrespected. He is in the background, but only because Tevye is front and center the whole time. The rabbi receives the most food from Tevye the milkman, and doesn't line up to get it himself. He has a place of honor at the wedding feast. In the wedding scene, the rabbi is horrified to discover he is dancing with a woman, but smiles when he comes up with an acceptable solution to the situation — pulling out a handkerchief so they can dance without touching. When asked to bless the tailor's sewing machine, he says in Hebrew "may the labor of your hands be blessed". The rabbi's two main lines — about the czar and waiting for the Messiah someplace else — struck me tonight as more wise than foolish. As the villagers are grumbling about protesting the evacuation order, he brings them to their senses and tells them to start packing.
It seems that in our recollections of the movie, we blended a few characters. Watching it closely, there was one character who was the town comedian, and he has most of the laugh lines. Another character seems to be the only one who read Russian, so it was his job to keep the community informed.
The biggest inaccuracy that jumped out at me was when the whole community files out of town at the end, one boy is carrying a pet dog. My understanding is that shtetl Jews basically didn't have pets, that dogs were associated with the goyim and not part of shtetl life. Also, I think I saw a pig at one farm where Tevye delivered milk.
Clearly Tevye is not a learned man, but he is devoted and devout. Other men in the village are presented as more knowledgeable, closer to the rabbi. He isn't questioning his practices, and I don't think his daughters abandon the traditions because he can't answer their questions. Someone mentioned earlier in this thread that the show reflects the values/ideals of the '60s and '70s, when it was created. And I think this is true. The movie is presented as a time of great societal change, which it was, and the daughters' choices are an inevitable part of that societal shift. I think that component of the storyline pulls strongly on the '60s ideals of change, progress, love conquering all, etc.
Thanks, Ruchi, for getting me to look at the movie so closely!
Now you've intrigued me. I have to see the movie again, and soon! Thanks for your impressions.
I've only ever seen the play. Time to rent the movie.
Oops, I meant to say THANKS Miriam for these detailed observations! Now I'll be watching for these items.
Would love to hear your impressions.
My friend Jessica Semel just facebooked me this link, and while I have not yet seen it, I am totally jonesing to:
Have you seen this?
This article connects what it calls 'dusty museum' and 'archaic' elements of shtetl life to what it characterizes as Shalom Aleichem's 'ridicule' of 'backwardness'. I don't know Aleichem's work firsthand, so I don't know how satirical he meant to be, or how ridiculing. But let me clarify that while I, weirdly coincidentally, used the language of 'dusty museum' and 'archaic' in a previous thread (chosenness), I did not mean it in terms of ridicule. I meant that the whole thing feels ancient and mythological. I have a lot of respect for dusty, archaic museum pieces, they give us insight into fascinating ancient history.
I'm glad you got a chance to clarify that. I misunderstood.
I disagree with you about the Rabbi. I find him to be a good teacher, kind, warm, and practical.
As far as the czar line, I think it's just a good joke and shows that he's good natured and grounded in the world.
But the Moshiach line I think is profound, and of the best lines of the movie. That is a climax point in the movie where some of the Jews want to fight and probably some are losing faith (my conjecture). The Jews are confused. The Rabbi basically says to be patient. The Jews will wait somewhere else as they have for two thousand years. This is a key idea in life. You don't always get what you want and sometimes unfair things happen. But you must continue to live and persevere. Rash action is usually not called for. The Rabbi's statement embodies this positive and practical outlook on life.
Personally I thought "FOtR" was a lot of fun. It wasn't intended as a historically accurate documentary.
My problem with it is that they cut the best song out before it opened. The song is called "When Messiah Comes". It has a great line in it: "Kings they were; gone they are; we're still here.
I think the reason I always loved the film is because apart from Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments series, which has a Jewish character named Simon Lewis who's clearly extremely proud to be a Jew, Fiddler was the only secular book/movie/TV show/whatever (at least in my experience) that ever featured any positive images of Jews whatsoever. Sure, there was that one episode of Law and Order: SVU that featured Hasidim, but they were portrayed as people who hated Gentiles outright. If that's positive, you can count me out.