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 recently completed a one-year Kahn Fellowship for the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. My aim during the fellowship was to specifically work on engaging the young queer Jewish community. In return, my own personal growth would be nurtured through an additional immersive experience. My colleague Margalit suggested something called TENT.
One of TENT’s week-long intensive programs, “Tent:The South,” would be take participants from all over the country on a road trip, from New Orleans to Memphis through Mississippi, learning about Jewish history and contemporary culture in these regions.
I had never thought about Jews in the South. It was so far removed from everything I knew about the history of the South – which was delineated along racial lines that excluded Jewishness. I was excited to go on this trip. Who were these Jews in the South? Perhaps even more interesting, who are they now?
We started out in New Orleans, a city rich with history and supporting three synagogues. Even the Orthodox synagogue in town, Anshe Sfard, is working toward inclusivity and seeks LGBT involvement. This was astonishing to me, but also exciting. From there, we traveled up through Mississippi and into the Delta, all the way up to Memphis. We stopped in many towns and small cities, and met with local Jewish communities, continuously learning about our Jewish history in the South.
I had many emotional and informative experiences on this trip. Perhaps most personal to my understanding of my own identity was really digging into what the South “is” and “isn’t” and what it really means to me as someone who was raised in a border state.
Growing up in Maryland, whenever I spoke with Northerners I was told I was from the South, and whenever I spoke with Southerners, I was told I was from the North. I tried to claim my border-statehood, but that wasn’t good enough for people – they needed to “other” me to the other side of the tracks, or in this case, the other side of the Mason-Dixon line. I left Maryland at 14 to go to a private school in Pennsylvania, and I’ve never identified as a Marylander since.
It was on this trip, this Southern Jewish trip that I got to go on as a result of my work with the LGBTQ Jews in Los Angeles, that I learned to own the Marylander in me. And in a way, more of my Jewishness too.
Growing up, I saw myself as an “other” compared to the Jews I knew, because of my queer identity. But now I really see the cultural narrative of Jewishness as one of “otherness;” and I see my Jewishness as part of my personal narrative. Many people say they are Jew-ISH; I used to say I wasn’t practicing – I was just good at it. Now I don’t know what to say. I suppose I am “exploring my Jewishness.”
Finally, now I see: not feeling like I’m from the South or from the North, not feeling like my home state has a place in this country’s delineation, is really part of my greater narrative. I am a person in-between, or on the line, an “other” from the norm like all Jews and from the Jewish “other.” Never here nor there. I live on the border between the LGBTTQQIA2S (and growing) alphabet. I live on the border between secular and religious (and changing). And now I am finally owning that I grew up on the border between North and South. I am from a border state, and like the place from which I hail– I, too, am a perpetual border state.
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Why did the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) meet in Chicago for its recent board meeting?
Well… why not?
Many of our board members divide their time and attention between both large and small towns in the South. Others share a story similar to my story.
I grew up in Wynne, Arkansas, also known as “The City with a Smile” and home of the Wynne Yellowjackets. I attended synagogue, religious school and youth group events at Temple Israel in Memphis, Tennessee, just a short 60 mile drive east over the Mississippi River. I loved spending my summers going to camp at Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi, where I embraced my Jewish identity and found lifelong Jewish friends. Always, I had my immediate family around me who lovingly taught me how family and Judaism were intertwined and a part of my life and tradition.
For the past 25 years, I have lived in Chicago and its suburbs. I am involved in the Jewish community, ensured my children went to religious school and had their bar and bat mitzvahs, and remain an active member of a congregation. However, I have continued to have a strong connection with my Southern heritage, my Southern Jewish heritage. Visiting my parents when they still lived in Wynne, and now where they live in Hot Springs, Arkansas, is wonderful—but visiting was not enough.
I felt like I wanted and needed to do more to stay involved and be involved. A few years ago, I was approached about serving on the Board of the ISJL, and was asked if I would be interested in working with the group that delivers amazing rabbinic services, educational programming and cultural events to communities throughout the ISJL’s thirteen-state region. I found out more about the history department and preservation initiatives, as well as the cultural tours and travelling exhibitions of the museum department. I was intrigued with the community engagement department, which was newly formed at the time but has now developed into a program which partners with nonprofits, schools and congregations to pursue tikkun olam, repairing our world, in meaningful ways.
I decided that joining the ISJL Board to promote Judaism and our heritage was just what I needed and wanted to do.
Are there others like me in Chicago? Yes, I know there are. There are other similar Southern transplants who would like to reconnect with their roots and be involved with the ISJL and support the ISJL. They are here in Chicago, and they are also in Detroit, Seattle, Boston, Los Angeles, Portland, Denver, Des Moines, and New York City. They live all over our country and outside our country.
So, gathering in Chicago made good sense. As will gathering in other cities, and finding other Southern transplants and allies to become friends and active supporters like me of the ISJL. Of course, next time we meet in this part of the world, perhaps we’ll pick our spring board meeting instead of our fall/winter meeting… still, discussing Southern Jewish life as the snow began to fall brought both of my worlds together in a meaningful way.
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