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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I have always derived great pleasure from personal prayer during worship services. Spirituality is core to my identity; the journey of our Shabbat and holiday liturgy is familiar to me and comforting to me. It is my time, which might sound selfish—and I had not realized just how dependent on that selfish time I had become, until recently when I became a Jewish professional.
Last year, in addition to my work with the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, I accepted the position of Educator at my home synagogue in New Orleans. Along with this amazing dream of a job comes the awesome responsibility of teaching others how to involve themselves in worship. One way we do this is by teaching the liturgy in Hebrew classes and prayer services; another, for me, is by setting the example of being sincere in my own prayer.
The irony? Sincerity in my own prayer has never been an issue—until now, when I am on “display.”
Trying to strike a balance between teaching, leading, and praying is not an easy task! During the High Holidays last year, I was so very busy trying to keep up and catch up with all of my responsibilities that frankly I did not even attempt very much personal prayer. This year, by contrast, I was totally prepared, and had all of my projects for families and children set up in advance… in an effort to set the stage for my own prayer space once again.
I still wasn’t back to my usual spiritual self. Even with all of the preparation, the holiday experience was still just off-and-on successful. I feared a return to truly meaningful prayer while “on display” might be a lost cause for me, until a good friend and cantorial soloist pointed out something really simple and profound:
My personal prayer and spirituality can be every bit as sincere and meaningful as it once was, if I accept that it will never be the same as it once was.
My cantorial soloist friend taught me that now, my greatest spiritual moments were to be focused on enhancing the worship experience of the congregation. This is where she derives her Shabbat and High Holiday holiness, outside of herself. And this is where I am now learning to do the same thing. Part of this experience is not taking myself so seriously! I began to see the insanity in what I was trying to do, and it made me laugh at my own self, and simply relax and let it be.
With this new role, I also appreciate new elements of prayer. I still, and always will, value my private prayer moments, too. But when I see a kid have an “aha” moment connecting the dots in our liturgy, or lead a prayer with confidence, or an adult catches my eye during a sermon because he or she remembers that we discussed a similar point, or I notice someone following along in the Hebrew because I helped them learn how to do that, these will now be my personal worship experience focus!
What has been your journey as a lay person or a Jewish professional in personal prayer? How is it different as you have aged, grown or changed roles?
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My sister, Chanie, and my new brother-in-law, Joel, got married this month. I’m very fortunate to have incredible co-workers who are happy to see pictures of the very special occasion and hear all about the event itself—and of course, I’m also happy to share one of the beautiful pictures here, because that’s what proud sisters do!
But I also want to share with you a thought I had before the wedding—a thought that extended from marriage to the larger community, and also seemed particularly appropriate at this time on the Jewish calendar.
I had the honor of sharing a reading under the chuppah. As I looked at books of readings for weddings, poems, websites with readings and other sources, I came across this reading. I didn’t end up reading it to the happy couple under the chuppah, but it spoke to me.
“Until we can receive with an open heart, we’re never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.”—Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are
This line is meant to describe the giving and receiving that takes place between partners. In many ways, however, it articulates my feelings about service. There is so much judgment associated with receiving help. Too often, even well -intentioned givers, engaged in the generous act of offering help, make judgments about the people receiving our assistance.
We may find ourselves judging others for “allowing” themselves to get into this situation. We might feel saddened by their vulnerability, their need—or willingness—to rely on others. We may even use those in need to make us feel better about ourselves: hey, at least we are not in their position.
Judgments of these kinds really impede on our ability to give lovingly and completely. Giving with judgment is still giving, and it is better than not giving at all. When someone is hungry, food is essential. Food without judgment is like getting icing on the cake.
But that is not the type of giving and receiving that a couple strives for in a marriage. Nor should it be the giving we strive for as we serve our communities. Rather, community offers us a lot sometimes, without us asking for it. And by receiving the joy given to us by our communities, we can truly give to people who rely on the greater community for things like food, shelter, and so on, without judging them or their situation.
While I have given thought to the relationship between those who conduct and those who receive the benefits of service (a problematic construct), thinking about it in the context of a marriage—particularly the marriage of two people who truly give to each other and the world with all their hearts—gives me a unique appreciation for the special bond that unites us as people who are constantly giving and receiving.
During this time in the Jewish calendar when Jews ask for a lot—forgiveness, health, a sweet new year–let us also ask for the ability to gracefully receive all we are given this year as well as the ability to give gracefully, without negative judgment of those who receive our help.