While some of my friends and neighbors are getting ready for the holiday season by watching Christmas specials, I recently decided to watch a different sort of “tradition-al” film— Fiddler on the Roof.
“Fiddler” is celebrating 50 years since it first opened on Broadway. Like many people, I associate the musical with old-world life in the shtetl. But, watching it recently, I was struck by how much remains relevant to Jewish life today, particularly during the holiday season.
As Tevye, the main character, and his family face the influences of secularism and Christianity, he struggles to reconcile his love for his family with his love of tradition. And, when his daughters’ pursuit of love comes up against his passion for tradition, he is willing to adapt, and he does…until he can’t.
The struggle reaches a climax when his third daughter marries a Christian. After his dreams of arranging his daughters’ marriages has already been shattered by his two older daughters (with the eldest marrying a poor tailor, despite Tevye having promised her to a wealthy butcher, and the next one leaving home to join her political prisoner love in Siberia), the final straw comes when his third daughter proclaims her intentions to wed outside the faith. When she and her beloved come to him, their exchange is painful:
CHAVA: Papa, I beg you to accept us.
TEVYE [to himself/to the heavens, as the others all freeze]: Accept them? How can I accept them? Can I deny everything I believe in? On the other hand, can I deny my own daughter? On the other hand, how can I turn my back on my faith? My people? If I try and bend that far, I will break. On the other hand…No. There is no other hand.
What I find most beautiful about this musical is that regardless of whether one thinks Tevye should be more accepting of his daughters’ choices or if you think that his daughters ought to have more reverence for the traditions with which they were raised (matchmaking included), one cannot help but admire the characters’ willingness to struggle.
Holidays seem to bring this struggle to the forefront as our observance of tradition is made public with whether and how we celebrate Hanukkah—whether we put a menorah in our windowsill for all to see, whether we have people over for latkes and whether we give children gelt or gifts. Perhaps though, the more confusing dilemmas are related to whether and how a Jewish family acknowledges and/or celebrates Christmas.
I encourage everyone who struggles to watch Fiddler on the Roof. If nothing else, it is proof that those who struggle are not alone and that the struggle is not exclusive to our generation. I also believe that an even more profound message is in this classic film – a lesson not to be too quick to judge others for their choices during the holiday season. Remember, for each “on the one hand,” there is an “on the other hand.” Because even though Tevye initially says “there is no other hand”…. His struggle does not end there. He only seems to reach a wall—but the wall is porous, as we see Tevye’s love for his daughter shine through. When the Jews of Anatevka are forced to leave, Tevye’s daughter Chava and her Christian husband come to bid farewell to her family. They express that they, too, cannot stay in a place where people are treated so poorly. At first, Tevye does not acknowledge her but as she walks away, he mumbles: “And God be with you.”
During this holiday season, let us honor the struggle Jews have faced for centuries and recognize that there is a myriad of ways in which we could honor tradition and the choices of our families, friends and neighbors. And, as we try and stay true to our “on the one hand,” let us always remember that somewhere there lies an “on the other hand.”
The Jewish world is full of debates. Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
For many, the end of Daylight Savings Time is associated with an extra luxurious hour of sleep. Since modern electricity mitigates our lighting experience throughout the day, I don’t really consider the fact that it also means that it will get dark earlier in the evenings and lighter earlier in the mornings. I can switch on a light and read while it is dark outside, and I can close my blinds in the morning if I want my apartment to get darker.
But this year, I’m wondering what it would be like if at sunset, I could no longer read, no longer maneuver around my crowded apartment without candlelight, and I could no longer see someone while I am talking to them.
This is in large part because I listened to this TEDx Zurich Talk still in rough form given by Anya Cherneff, Executive Director of Empower Generation. (Anya’s talk is about 52 minutes into the unedited clip.) I met Anya through her father, Peter Cherneff, the founding board chair of Footsteps. As Executive Director of Footsteps, I was often inspired by the Cherneff family’s commitment to social justice. Most inspiring to me was that when it comes to social justice, the Cherneffs’ vision is global, transcending their own personal experiences.
Personal experience influences how we see the world. Years ago, I co-founded and championed Footsteps, an organization that supports the choices of people who want to enter or explore the world outside of the insular ultra-orthodox communities in which they were raised. Like many founders, I was inspired by my personal experiences and the challenges I faced and witnessed around this life transition. Peter did not share the same background, but his support of Footsteps members has been unwavering. For some, working with people from such a drastically different background would have been a Herculean task. But not for Peter, who with compassion and curiosity became one of the most effective drivers of change on behalf of the Footsteps community.
It should not—and did not—surprise me then when Anya and her husband Bennett Cohen founded Empower Generation in 2011. Empower Generation is an organization that seeds and supports women-led enterprises addressing energy poverty. The vision of this organization is “a world where women living at the base of the economic pyramid are empowered to lead their communities out of energy poverty, where human dignity for all and environmental sustainability are universal values.”
Empower Generation has been focusing its efforts on Nepal which, as they explain, “is one of the poorest countries in the world, with half the population living below the poverty line and more than half living without access to reliable power.” As she explained in her TEDx Zurich talk, that means that families need to choose between using the limited light they have to do homework or cook.
Nepal is far from where Anya grew up here in the U.S. but, like her dad, she has forged friendships and alliances that have made citizens in Nepal who are impacted by Empower Generation truly valued, engaged, full partners in this endeavor.
Empower Generation is an example of what we can do when we allow ourselves to be moved and when we value the ideas and wisdom that are rooted in experiences outside of our own. It is also the outcome of reflecting on resources we take for granted. Light is one such resource, and as we prepare to lose an hour of light in the evenings, let’s think about those who live without access to reliable power. In a country where power is abundant, let’s think about the impact our energy usage has on our world at large. Instead of just gaining an hour of sleep, let’s also gain some insight.
Like this post? Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
How we treat others matters. Today, banks and schools and government organizations are shut down for Columbus Day—a national holiday that has grown controversial. After all, Christopher Columbus was an important figure in history, but did not treat others well. Today, many are instead encouraging the celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day rather than Columbus Day.
Whether you are observing Indigenous Peoples Day, Columbus Day, a day off, or another Monday, today is different. We mark this day in the middle of an Ebola scare here in the United States, and an Ebola epidemic in Africa.
Ebola is testing our country. It is testing our medical capabilities and the confidence we have in our healthcare system to contain the spread of a deadly and contagious disease. But, it is also testing our values—our compassion and our concern for the dignity of all. It is testing how we treat others.
Dallas, Texas, is where this country’s first Ebola patient, Thomas Duncan, was hospitalized. Dallas County Judge Clay Lewis Jenkins was determined to respect the dignity and well-being of Mr. Duncan’s family, when Mr. Duncan was diagnosed, when he was treated, and when he died.
While many of us watched with concern and fear for what Mr. Duncan’s diagnosis meant for the health of all Americans, Judge Jenkins made it a priority to show Mr. Duncan’s family that their dignity mattered. On NBC last week, he said that he intends to see to it that Mr. Duncan’s family is treated just like he would want his family to be treated if he were the one in the hospital. He made it clear that he is not throwing caution to the wind, but acknowledging that even while a family is sequestered, they should be treated well and with humanity.
Judge Jenkins is a mensch. He is striving to do right by the public but is finding every possible way to ensure that it doesn’t come at the expense of others.
When I consider how I would react in a situation where in order to address the needs of many I may have to cut the liberties of few, I can’t say that I would be as determined to consider the dignity of a few. I could only hope that I would, because though it took us some time to get there and though the process is ongoing, ultimately that is what our country was founded upon: the belief that everyone’s rights are important and that the rights of a few need to be protected from being trampled over by the majority.
It is also a Jewish value—recognizing that even when it is difficult, it is important to treat everyone the way we would seek to be treated. Perhaps it is these values that have led me to imagine immigration officials taking the temperatures of any person from Africa and being subjected to an intense screening process before entering our country. As I picture this, I remember the many stories of Jewish immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island during the time of a Cholera scare. After traveling hundreds of miles in a crowded steamship, they had to have a “clean bill of health” before being allowed into this country. They could be scrutinized by one doctor after another, subjected to police intimidation, and unfairly treated. As the MyJewishLearning.com article states: “Currency exchange rates and prices of railroad tickets and food were inflated; bribes were demanded; rudeness and cruelty were rampant,” until in 1902, when “a new commissioner of immigration instituted drastic reforms, heralded by signs everywhere demanding ‘kindness and consideration’.”
Now, at JFK we are incorporating Ebola screenings for passengers arriving from West Africa. There is the risk of ostracizing and marginalizing people. While I continue to hope for the safety of everyone in our country, and the world who is faced with the threat of this awful disease, I also hope for dignity. I admire the efforts of people like Judge Jenkins. I hope that screenings and examinations that take place are done in a way that honors the dignity of all people and reflects the highest standards of “kindness and consideration.”
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.