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.”
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What do you do when you have a mission to promote Southern Jewish history, but you have no physical place in which to do it?
Well, I think it’s a good idea to make friends… with benefits!
Specifically, friends with access to a beautiful art gallery, who want to team up and host a photograph exhibit about an important historical event that happens to have an interesting Jewish connection.
As I previously mentioned on this blog, Scottsboro Boys: Outside the Circle of Humanity is a powerful exhibit curated by the Morgan County Archives. The ISJL helped bring this exhibition to Jackson though a collaborative partnership with the Margaret Walker Center at Jackson State University.
These types of collaborative connections are the standard for Jewish programming in the this region. Small populations and limited resources inspire communities to look outside the box for new “friends with benefits,” creating partnerships to make programs possible. Whether it’s a new congregation using a church space for services, or an academic institution sponsoring a Jewish scholar, outreach is a strong and important tool for our communities.
And the results can be pretty fabulous. In my case, we were able to plan three unique events that attracted diverse audiences from across the city. I’m partial to the party that we managed to throw on the last day of Hanukkah in conjunction with a lecture on Jewish lawyers and activists involved with the Scottsboro case. I have yet to check the official university records but I’m pretty sure it was the first Hanukkah party ever thrown at Jackson State. Even though the latkes were a little mushy (had to prep them the night before!), we were able to pull of a successful cultural exchange that may not have happened if we were within a traditionally “Jewish” space.
Have you ever partnered with a non-Jewish entity to create a shared space where Jewish programs can be enjoyed by all? We’d love to hear about it!
Today’s post is from guest writer Joanna Brichetto, Experiential Educator at Nashville’s West End Synagogue, who also runs the website Bible Belt Balabusta. Her Hanukkah program was so cool, so we were THRILLED she wanted to share this post and her amazing pictures here on our blog!
For too many years, miles and multicolored wax candles separate kids from the “miracle of the oil.” Until now.
This year, students at West End Synagogue Religious School in Nashville, got to make olive oil—shemen zayit—like Maccabees: with a life-size, working replica of a Hellenistic-era olive crushing installation, featuring a crushing wheel, pivot pole, and basin. Kids pushed the pole to rotate the “limestone” wheel over fresh olives, and scooped the mash into sacks for pressing. Meanwhile, costumed interpreters showed posters of the five-step oil production process from tree to Temple Menorah.
Underwhelming it was not!
I dreamed of bringing an olive crusher to our school for years, and looked for synagogues doing something similar, but aside from a handful of churches that host all-out Walk Through Bethlehem events, I found nothing. Chabad has an excellent franchised oil workshop, but it uses modern tools like an electric centrifuge, and I was after an experience as historically authentic as possible. I had to have a big wheel. A friend helped me track down plans for a crusher, and once I showed them to Sharon Paz, our Director of Lifelong Learning, she commissioned a congregant to build it for the school. Our 2nd century BCE replica looks remarkably like stone, and to see it is to want to work it. It is simply irresistible, which is an ideal descriptor for any lesson plan.
The crushing installation was the centerpiece of our Hanukkah “Oil Crush” program, around which rotated complementary oil-themed activities created by Sharon and myself. Students and families practiced brachot and how to light a chanukiyah; made oil-based treats for our homeless program; judged a kosher chanukiyah contest; made and ate latkes; decorated chanukiyot to take home; bobbed for sufganiyot; and nibbled at an olive oil-tasting bar. Even our tzedakah project was oil-based: we collected funds to help local seniors with heating bills.
Honestly, we didn’t end up with enough oil for a single “cruse,” much less enough to fill the Temple Menorah, but this very fact gave students a sense that it was no easy feat for Maccabees to make the massive amount of oil—of any quality—needed in a short time. Our program was more “exploration” than”“demonstration,” and we’ll certainly expand it next time. Meanwhile, a room full of families, volunteers, staff and teachers got a greasy, hands-on reference point to Hanukkah oil that no one is likely to forget.
P.S. Our Oil Crush program was funded by the West End Synagogue Religious School Enrichment Fund and the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee.