Friday, November 13, 2009

Stamford and Anatevka: Our Little Village

That ringing you heard at about 9 this morning was the sound of a gaggle of worried parents calling their realtors, considering a flight from Stamford, after reading the headline story in today's Advocate about yesterday's tension at Westhill High School, which led to six arrests.

You want to hear about tension? I witnessed a full fledged riot yesterday afternoon, as hundreds of Stamford school students fled for their lives, not from mere gang members, but bloodthirsty Cossacks bent on killing, evicting and generally destroying a centuries-old way of life.

Of course, what I saw wasn't really happening. It was a rehearsal for the all-school performance of "Fiddler on the Roof," which will be presented at the Rippowam Middle School next month. Students from every school in the city are in the cast (full disclosure: including my son Dan), both public and private schools are represented, including parochial and day schools, a hundred of them on a single stage, kids from all religious and ethnic backgrounds and all ages. This production is, in a word: fantastic. It also demonstrates what is absolutely fantastic about Stamford and why those frightful families would be horribly mistaken to flee.

More full disclosure: both my kids have attended Westhill and thrived there, socially and academically. They have been able to go as far as they wished to push themselves (with a little parental nudge from time to time) and most of their teachers have challenged them to do just that. They and their friends are getting into the very best colleges; but more importantly, they are being prepared for life, real life, in an atmosphere that is far more nurturing than it is tense.

When I picked Dan up at school yesterday and asked him about the police presence, he had no idea that there had even been an incident.

The school is not without its faults - the entire school system has faults. Incidents involving violence cannot be taken lightly. But leave here? Leave a town that has farmland, city and sea, with bustling restaurants, fascinating neighborhoods, balloon parades and Jerry Springer?

But I digress. Because I want to tell you more about Anatevka.

I went to the "Fiddler" rehearsal yesterday at the invitation of the organizers, as the cast's official rabbinic advisor. It turns out that the kids wanted to know something about the little world they were inhabiting on stage and the tragi-comic characters they were portraying. I came in expecting a few simple questions about what "mazal tov" means or why we light candles on the Sabbath. I was overwhelmed at the sophistication and depth of their questions.

I began with a brief overview of the tumultuous period when the play takes place, those decades just before and after the turn of the 20th century, when Jews living in the Eastern European Pale of Settlement under Czarist rule. I explained that this was a time of jarring change, of modernization confronting traditional societies, that most Jews were confined to shtetls, living among themselves. The cultural mix was extremely rich and diverse in the shtetl, with religious Jews mingling with socialists (hello, Perchik!), secularists and Zionists. But most, like Tevye, simply struggled to get by on their wits and their wisdom.

Things got turned upside down in 1881, when Czar Alexander II was assassinated. The Jews were blamed. We discussed what the word "scapegoat" means and why the Russian government found the Jews to be a convenient victim around which they could bolster their flagging popularity. This led to anti Jewish rioting known as pogroms, featuring murder, maiming and eviction, leading to a mass immigration of 2 million Jews to America by 1920.

I pointed out to the kids the great historical irony that, had these 2 million not come to America in the early 20th century, they and their children would likely have been killed in the Holocaust that followed a few decades later. Some would call it the miracle of Jewish survival. Since all of my grandparents were among those huddled masses, I'm not one to dispute that point.

May God bless and thank the Czar... for kicking out 2 million Jews!

But "Fiddler" would not be so universally adored were it only about the Jewish experience. I sensed from this very diverse group of students a desire to wrap their arms around these characters and make them their own. So they had lots of questions. It got to the point where the director said "last question" about a dozen times, and even then, kids came up to me after they were dismissed. Bear in mind that I was the only thing standing between a long day of school and rehearsals, and their dinner. When finally it was time to leave, we agreed that I'd respond to any other queries via e-mail.

They asked relatively simple questions, like why people kiss the mezuzah on the doorpost or spit three times to ward off the evil eye. And then there were tough ones. Why did the family sit shiva for the daughter who married a non Jew? I explained, as sensitively as possible, the emotions that were behind such an action, and how Jews have always seen immortality less in terms of their own souls' ascent to heaven as in their children and subsequent generations carrying on the faith.


Then another toughie: Why weren't girls and boys allowed to dance together in the wedding scene? Keep in mind that these questions were being asked, in large part, by cast members who are not Jewish. In the play itself, Tevye expects the audience to have only simple questions about matters like "why we keep our heads covered and why we wear these little prayer shawls." Evidently, the students of Stamford schools are far more curious and more sophisticated than the typical Broadway crowd of the mid 1960s.

And less afraid to ask.

I paused for a moment and decided not to get into a detailed discussion of the subject of sexual contact (for more details, see my recent posting Ask the rabbi: Does my hand have a disease?") Definitely not the right place for that. So I just talked about how traditional people of all faiths are concerned about modesty; for Jews, that meant very little contact between boys and girls until marriage.

They asked whether Yenta the matchmaker still exists. Yes, I said, only now she's got a new name: J-date (which of course they had no idea about, so I added, "or E-Harmony"). Someone asked whether rabbis are revered as much now as they were then. I smirked knowingly at a few Jewish parents in attendance, said something like "If only!" and spoke of how the prime role is - and was - to be a teacher and as such to be respected because of the teachings we represent.

Then it occurred to me. These kids come from as many backgrounds as there probably were on the boat that brought my grandparents over, from Minsk and Smorgon and wherever (you can find your own ancestors at ). What an experience, for them to be in this show together. How amazing, for Tevye to be bemoaning intermarriage when one of his five daughters is African American, another is Asian - and he's Catholic! How incredible, that despite these confusing mixed messages, somehow this production of "Fiddler" makes perfect sense, to them, to a Jew with a traditional background like me, and maybe it would have even to Shalom Aleichem himself, a man who embraced life's messy absurdities, saying, "No matter how bad things get you got to go on living, even if it kills you."

One of the youngest cast members is the fiddler (he fits the requirements to play from that roof: small, agile and talented). He asked me about the symbolism of the fiddle. I mentioned that Jews have long gravitated to that instrument, including several of the world's most famous violinists. Maybe because it's music comes closest to a human cry. The emphasis there is on both words: "human" and "cry." Balancing that song of life in a world so shaky is no easy trick. Which is why we love these characters so much.

The original Tevye of the Shalom Aleichem books suffered much more than his watered down Broadway version. A daughter actually converts out of the faith and another child commits suicide. Novelist Dara Horn noted how her students came to see this literary Tevye as "a model for the Jewish people—because of his talent for “rolling with the punches,” because of his reservoir of inner strength, and because of his unique ability, woven from modern irony and sacred text, to forge meaning out of the absurdity that is so often the Jewish condition. In navigating a new world where being Jewish or even American can mean being a living target, Tevye, whose world was no less absurd, became their guide. Quoting the Mishnah, a Rabbinic text, Tevye often said, “You live regardless of your own will.” Tevye’s “translation”? “A person’s life is never pointless.”"

The Jewish condition is in fact the human condition. But in order to understand that, you need to live in a place where you are exposed to the widest possible variations of the human. You need to breathe the air of difference. That rarely can happen in a gated community, or in some of the towns nearby where homogenity is the rule. You can't put on a play like "Fiddler" in Stepford. You can only do it in a place like Stamford.

But in our little village of Anatevka, everyone of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a simple, pleasant tune without breaking his neck. It isn't easy. Why do we stay up there if it's so dangerous? I'll tell you, I don't know, but it's a tradition!"

Are we talking about a roof in Anatevka - or the cafeteria at Westhill?

Only in a place like Stamford can this play resonate so full-throatedly, despite all the seeming contradictions and inconsistencies. I cannot imagine having brought up my kids anywhere else.

A Catholic Tevye kissing a mezuzah? Sounds crazy, no?

1 comment:


let's hope the entire Stamford (and it's neighbors) come out to support the kids.
in this economy, a terrific time at the theatre for "a song and a dance" - even free parking.

Enjoy some previews Sunday, 11/29 1:00 - 4:00 STAMFORD TOWN CENTER


Saturday, 12/5 7:00
Sunday, 12/6 3:00
Friday, 12/11 7:00
Saturday, 12/12 2:00 and 7:00