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Spengler

Unforgivable Fiddler

November 5th, 2013 - 7:05 pm

fiddler-on-the-roof

Pop culture critic Terry Teachout has a piece at Commentary magazine on the half-century anniversary of Fiddler on the Roof. It’s behind the paywall, so I won’t cite it. Fiddler disgusts me, not because of the cheesy faux-Klezmer score, but because it misrepresents Sholom Aleichem’s character Tevye as a lovable schlemihl, a Stetl variant of Seinfeld or Sergeant Bilko. The original stories have their comic moments, but they are not overall cheerful (one of Tevye’s daughters drowns herself, an incident excised from the Broadway version, for example). But the high point of the Tevye stories occurs when Tevye faces down a mob of Ukrainian pogromists who have come to burn down his house. At risk to his life, and with high nobility, Tevye demands that the mob consider whether there is a God in Heaven who judges us, and asks whether they believe that God would look favorably on their actions. He speaks with eloquence and desperate courage and persuades the mob to disperse.

Tevye may be an ordinary Jew, but he is capable of heroism inspired by deep faith. Sholom Aleichem may not have been a great writer, but this is a great scene. (The movie version has Tevye telling the Czarist official who has delivered the order expelling Jews from the district that he still owns his land for three days, demanding that the official get off it — a cheap shot).

The Harvard Yiddish scholar Ruth Wisse has taken Fiddler to task for distorting the humor of the original. There are other things to object to (for example Tevye’s anachronistic tolerance of his daughter’s intermarriage: the dramatic issue in the original is whether Tevye will forgive his daughter after she abandons her Gentile husband). But the recasting of Tevye as a clown is unforgivable.

“Normality is overrated,” I wrote some years ago. “The normal condition of the nations of the world is to vanish beyond memory. If you want to remain an exception, you have to be a hero.” Tevye was a hero. Most American Jews, by contrast, want to be normal. That’s why non-Orthodox American Jews are disappearing.

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Cross-posted at PJ Lifestyle; visit for additional comments and discussion

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Top Rated Comments   
Not Marxism. That way over the top hyperbole. They have embraced liberalism and relativism. Both of these doom Reform Judaism.

Liberal Jews like liberal Christians buy into the disdain for parenting dismissing their more orthodox brethren as "breeders". Children are seen as carbon footprint increasers. Liberal Jews, again like liberal Christians, have embraced homosexuality which also obviously decreases reproduction.

Now, the sentiment behind liberalism is admirable. Justice demands that societal wrongs be addressed. But it is incredible to me, that liberals can't see that 50 years of the collective, top down have been a miserable failure. If you want justice, empower the individual to act locally.

Secondly, liberals Jews, like liberal Christians, have embraced relativism. "We're Jewish. We think that this is the right choice for us. But kids need to make up their own mind." Their faith is so shaky that they can't even make a credible case to their kids. As a result, a large number of the few kids that they have don't follow the faith.

The result is predictable decline.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
All of Tevye's descendants would have perished in that festival of brotherhood called the Holocaust, even the ones who intermarried. Today, Europe, by supporting nuclear Iran, calls for a second Holocaust
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Most American Jews, by contrast, want to be normal. That’s why non-Orthodox American Jews are disappearing."

They have substituted Judaism for Marxism. That's why they are disappearing. That's their REAL religion. And it comes with so much money and power. An added bonus.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (65)
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Didn't like their "The Rothschilds!" either.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
I remember hearing a story that after the Austrian Emperor emancipated the Jews of his realm,he was reproached by the Tsar of Russia. The Tsar complained that here he was trying to destroy the Jews of his country,1/3 dead, 1/3 fled and 1/3 converted via draft while the Austrian empire was giving them rights. The Emperor turned to the Tsar and said in 2 generations, I'll have destroyed more Jews than you.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
Duckman wrote below, "Why my son was young we, too, read Torah. And the Psalms. And especially Ecclesiastes. Also the writings of the early Christians. (The Book of James I found of great value.)".

It is commendable that you tried to engage w/your son in these texts. But, as our host has written elsewhere, religion is "a life". The texts have to be given life w/in the context of a community of imperfect and struggling but serious Jews guided by righteous rabbis. If not, your exercise risks becoming a course in comparative religions taught from your POV.

I'm glad you joined the conversation. Great thread. Shabbat Shalom to all.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
"as our host has written elsewhere, religion is "a life". The texts have to be given life w/in the context of..." Of? Says whom?

Doesn't this depend on one's goal? If, as appears to be the case for some here, that goal is the enlargement (or at least continuation) of a certain, traditional, Jewish community, then yes, it may indeed require what you say.

But what if one has a somewhat different goals? In my and my wife's case it was to help our son become a thinking, feeling, responsible human being capable of living his own life to the full.

To accomplish that she (my wife) developed a home teaching method that had my son reading at a tested college level when he entered first grade.

When asked at an admission interview "what is your favorite book?" and he answered "To Kill a Mockingbird" the interviewer took a double take. (What was she expecting, The Cat in the Hat?) Yes, he said, he had read it twice.

At age thirty one he became a VP at a large investment corporation - quite an achievement. But what thrilled me more was about a year later when I met a fellow who had just started working under my son and when this man learned I was ____'s father he said "You should be so proud of him" and then went on to tell me how a few weeks after he started working at _____ my son had greeted him in the firm's parking garage and took note of the man having balding tires on his vehicle. His story continued "A few hours later I was asked to go to ____'s office and when I got there (wondering what I had done wrong) he handed me a paid for bill of sale for a set of tires and told me to call and make an appointment to have them installed."

What sort of community creates such a man? One that my wife and I created with carefully chosen friends. One where example of quietly living one's values is only daily display.

Yes, it depends first on ones goals, and then upon the effort put forth to help ourselves and our families and our chosen community to reach them.

Perhaps some of ours are the same or similar. Others apparently are not.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Most American Jews, by contrast, want to be normal."

And in the United States of America, if they choose a good model of normal, that can be a fine thing. Nothing wrong with "normal" Americans. Or is the writer trying to say that it is somehow "better" to be Jewish?

This is the stuff which slowly melts down, drips away, and ends up fueling antisemitism. In THIS country, religion is not your identity, your birth, genes, your duty or obligation, it is your choice. That's a feature, not a bug.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
You all will be interested in this new important Pew Study, Portrait of American Jews. Here is a link to my take on it, but be sure to read the entire study.
http://www.bizpacreview.com/2013/10/22/latest-pew-research-study-a-portrait-of-jewish-americans-85737
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
Losing Jewishness. Losing Christianity. Losing America.

I always feel sad when I read one of these articles. I used to read Commentary, which I consider among the top 2 or 3 periodicals in English.
There just doesn't seem to be any nice way of getting around the idea that
the non-Jew is the problem, acting in concert with the Jew who has lost his or her way. It always comes out sounding as 'separate but equal.'

How many different ways can it be said that Jews should marry Jews and live as Jews? I...get...it.

Our family supports the state of Israel. As Christians, we acknowledge with pride our Jewish roots. Nonetheless, one of the conceits of being non-Jewish is that no matter how close you think you are to understanding Jews, you eventually understand that you will not. You come to understand that you shouldn't try because the ground always shifts. Like a line that was popular in the 70's, "It's a BLACK THING." Now, the broader, "You wouldn't understand," comes in handy for, oh, so many things.

If I say, "I don't want my son to marry a ______, who offers me understanding? No broad public audience, I assure you. Yet, routinely, I came across this general line in Commentary and, as you may have guessed, decided that such words were not meant for my ears. So, I'm left with these questions, "Where is MY dispensation? Why do I have to include the likes of 'him or her' within my sphere?"

Well, I'm an American Christian. I don't get that dispensation because my mind is free and I make my choices---those choices are not made for me; which is another way of saying that I'm not one of "The Chosen," the connotations of which are myriad.

I would offer this, that this topic has a very narrow focus and, like other similar discussions, leaves my gut with the admonition that we'd be better off if we "kept to ourselves."
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
the verygerman Jews in 1930 germany behaved and believed much the same as the Jews in america now. we all know how well that worked out.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
Here is an example of heroism in the arts, from an essay on Israeli classical music I wrote for Tablet some years ago:

The sense of a future in Western classical music evokes the basic emotions with which human beings regard the future, namely hope and fear. When Israeli musicians speak of performing with a sense of risk, they mean the capacity to sustain hope in the presence of fear. It takes a certain kind of personality to do this on the concert stage, with all the attendant artistic and technical demands. Israel, whose existential premise is the triumph of hope over fear, incubates a disproportionately large number of musicians with this sort of personality.

Western conservatories, by contrast, tend to penalize risk-taking. Their graduates are taught to launch careers by winning competitions, and the default strategy for taking a competition prize is to make the fewest mistakes. The conservatory-and-competition circuit tends to manufacture risk-averse savants who play with the spiritual equivalent of surgical gloves.
http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/music/39787/pioneers
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Western conservatories, by contrast, tend to penalize risk-taking."

Have you ever heard the satirical song parody "I did it their way" about go-along, get-along in academia?
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
All ethnic groups assimilate to an extent to be able to survive and prosper. Our immigrant forefathers who arrived on these shores with nothing but their intelligence and each other. They came with centuries of Jewish tradition and cultural values. As they and then their children's generation eased into American society, and particularly after WWII, they were accepted by the larger population as the obvious artifacts of being Jewish from the Old Country had been scrubbed away.

What the ensuing almost-seventy years has done is made it okay not to be Jewish. When everything is permitted, nothing has value at all.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
You write: “Normality is overrated,” I wrote some years ago. “The normal condition of the nations of the world is to vanish beyond memory. If you want to remain an exception, you have to be a hero.” Tevye was a hero. Most American Jews, by contrast, want to be normal. That’s why non-Orthodox American Jews are disappearing.

I disagree; this isn't why young non-Orthodox Jews are disappearing. It's because the non-Orthodox Jewish community largely identifies itself not based on positive aspects of Judaism but as opposition to Christianity. A child who grows up thinking that Judaism is primarily about not celebrating Christmas or Easter has no reason to carry that faith into his adult life or to carry on Jewish traditions. This isn't a desire to be normal, it's simply lazy parenting where the child isn't taught any positive reason for maintaining a Jewish identity, and then the parent wonders why his or her exhortations to marry a Jew go ignored.

This is the case in my family. When I was school aged, my parents were together and active in promoting my Jewish education. We went to a conservative synagogue for Shabbat at least once a month; I sang in the synagogue's youth choir and was active in synagogue youth activities and Hebrew school. 8 years later, my sister reached grade school, my parents had divorced, and practicing Judaism went to the back burner. For her, Judaism was the occasional Shabbat dinner, forced Hebrew school classes, boring High Holiday services, and Hannukah presents.

Now as adults, we both fell in love with non-Jews. But where I had the strong connection to my Jewish identity, my wife converted and we had a Jewish wedding; my sister has absolutely no interest in getting her boyfriend to convert and considers herself to be an atheist rather than a Jew. It's not about heroism vs. normality, it's about defining one's faith through positive values rather than negative reaction. Judaism isn't defined by the refusal to have a Christmas tree (indeed, Russian Jews have trees all the time!), it's defined by following the commandments and maintaining Jewish traditions, at least based on your sect's definition of following the commandments.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thanks for your story. I certainly agree with you that the practice of Judaism is the observance of mitzvot. When the Reform prayer book says that being part of humanity is more important than being Jewish (I paraphrase), it ceases to be Jewish. That is a Christian rather than a Jewish viewpoint; one could argue that the spiritualized, ethicized "progressive" Judaism has a lot more in common with mainline Protestantism than with Judaism.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
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