Friday, November 1, 2019

Shabbat-O-Gram for November 1: All Roads Lead to Anatevka



  Lauren Redniss speaking to TBE Sisterhood about her creative journey and her outstanding work, which bridges the divide between journalism and art.

RADIOACTIVE Official Trailer (2019) Rosamund Pike, Anya Taylor-Joy Movie HD
See the just-released trailer for the film RADIOACTIVE, based on Lauren's book, starring Rosamund Pike

Shabbat Shalom

I want to begin with a reminder of what I discussed last week - the eerie, jarring and sudden fall of one of our Torah scrolls from its perch in our ark, at a time when no one was near it - it had been returned to that spot a couple of minutes before.

The sound of that Torah hitting the ground seemed designed to knock us from complacency and to recognize that "it is a Tree of Life," but only if we "hold fast to it."  

How does one "make good" from this disruption?  Fasting for forty days, from sunrise to sunset, is a commonly cited remedy.  In some cases.  But I proposed something different.  Let's have at least forty people in the congregation donate the monetary equivalent of one day's worth of meals to a recognized charity fighting hunger and poverty. 

Around 850 million people around the world go hungry every day, according to a 2017 study by the United Nations.  So let us turn our trauma into a hungry family's blessing.

Between now and next week, please consider making a donation to one of the charities listed below - or another one of your choice that addresses hunger - and let me know when you have done it.  We can go beyond forty donations, naturally (and I hope we will), but we need at least forty to put things in balance again.

I am happy to say that we are nearly halfway to our goal.  Nearly 20 have made donations since the call went out.  But we need more.  Please consider making a donation to one of the charities listed below - or another one of your choice that addresses hunger - and let me know when you have done it.  We can go beyond forty donations, naturally (and I hope we will), but we need at least forty to put things in balance again.

An Extra Neshama

There is a belief that on Shabbat we gain an added measure of spirituality, a neshama yetera, literally an "added soul."  Well, this Friday night that adage will take on new meaning.  The great Neshama Carlebach will join us at services, to sing and to speak - and she will bring added soulfulness, as she does wherever she goes.  At Saturday night's cabaret (BYOB), that soulfulness will increase all the more.  See the flyer below. And on Sunday morning at 11, find out about the Jews of Cuba from the professor who will be escorting our group there this March, Stephen Berk.  It's free and open to the public, and includes brunch.  Thanks to James and Elissa Hyman for their sponsorship of that event, and to sisterhood for helping to bring Neshama Carlebach here.

Balfour Day
Nov. 2 is Balfour Day, commemorating the date in 1917 when Lord Balfour wrote this letter: 


All Roads Lead to Anatevka - "Fiddler" and Ukraine

Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles | Official Trailer
Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles - Trailer

I had the chance to watch the documentary Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, at this week's Jewish Film Festival. I highly recommend it.  The documentary explores the numerous ways this immortal musical touches on key aspects of the human experience - from parental love to the fear of displacement - exploring its resonance for Japanese and Africans as well as for American Jews.  Contrary to the common assertion that the show is dated, overly nostalgic and kitschy, a closer look reveals layers of depth worthy of Shakespeare.  There is nothing kitschy about it.  It was strangely comforting to learn that the first reviews for Fiddler's initial Detroit tryout were horrible - or they would have been had the local newspapers not been on strike that week, keeping that bad buzz off the streets and giving Jerome Robbins time to make numerous improvements.  Once it got to New York, opening night reviews were also far from perfect (though the New York Times called the character of Tevye "one of the most glowing creations in the history of musical theater").

The documentary premiered in August, but it was completed long before President Trump asked the White House operator to "get me Zelensky" on the now infamous day of July 25. No one had yet heard the names of former Ukrainian Jews named Vindman, Fruman and Parnas.  Yet, Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles concludes with a scene that now appears uncannily ironic and strikingly  poignant in the post-July 25 world.  

Like Fiddler the musical's final scene, the documentary closes by zooming in on the little Ukrainian shtetl of Anatevka.  In Fiddler times, when Shalom Aleichem wrote his Tevye stories, Ukraine (then called "the" Ukraine) was the epicenter of the Pale of Settlement where Jews were allowed to reside during the latter part of the Czarist era.  You can see the Pale in the map below.  The late 18th century partitions of Poland had brought approximately 900,000 Jews into Russia, where the government immediately confined them to a region in the western part of the Russian empire. There shtetls flourished - for a time - and the Jewish population ballooned.


Shalom Aleichem was born in a cluster of Ukrainian shtetls that included a very real town called Hnativka - just about 20 miles west of Kiev (or, as it's pronounced these days by savvy correspondents, Keev).   The expulsion of early 20th century Jews from Anatevka has gained new relevance to Ukrainians who are now being forced from their homes in the east, where Russians have been waging war for the past several years.  Refugees are refugees, and the message of Fiddler has become increasingly universal at a time when Putin-inspired ethnic cleansing has become all the rage, from Syria to Crimea to...Trumpian America.  But the documentary shows in it's final scenes that Jews are returning to Anatevka and rebuilding there.  Jewish refugees from the contested eastern provinces are constructing a new town in an old place.  And that is where the documentary ends.

But that's not where this story ends.  We all have seen over the past few weeks just how much the Ukrainian and Jewish stories inter-mesh, and how it all comes back to refugees - people like Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the Ukrainian (really, Soviet)-born Jew who came to America at age three with his dad and twin brother. He came by way of Italy, following the over-ground railroad that the Soviet Jewry movement created to bring Jews to freedom.  He was three at the time and he has grown into an exemplary American, like so many Soviet-born Jews I am proud to know.  His journey is briefly described in a video clip unearthed this week:

Vindman as a young boy in @KenBurns
Vindman as a young boy in @KenBurns "The Statue of Liberty"
On the other side of the spectrum, some Jews also with Ukrainian roots have not lived such model lives - people like Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman.  As news of their indictment spread, so did a video of them carousing with their buddy Rudolf Giuliani, with Fruman crowing that "Anatevka is the best place in the world."

Why Anatevka?  

The Forward reported last week that the video was posted to a Facebook group for American Friends of Anatevka.  American Friends is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit on whose board Parnas and Fruman serve.  As the Forward states, "The charity's job is not, as one might suspect, to bankroll productions of Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock's opus, but to support a real-life Anatevka built near Kiev."  JTA gives more details on the project, highlighting the role of a Ukrainian rabbi Giuliani has befriended.  Reading about these characters makes me wonder whether Tevye's grandkids - were they real - would be suing to extricate their hometown's reputation from the swamp.

That Anatekva is very close to the real Hnativka, the real shtetl that was fictionalized by Shalom Aleichem, the place that has sparked hope over the past half century in the eyes of millions who have found themselves displaced, evicted or simply lost in an increasingly untethered world.  No wonder it is such a short verbal leap from Hnativka to Hatikva.

While Lev and Igor are supporting a vision of Anatevka as a haven for Jewish refugees, their associate Rudy has been doing his best create lots more of them, by strengthening Putin's hand in the east.  Meanwhile, Vindman has displayed particular sensitivity to the need to support Ukraine and stabilize that eastern frontier against the brutal territorial ambitions of Russia.   See p.3 of Vindman's opening statement for this week's testimony, on the geopolitical importance of Ukraine. He asserts that American steadfast support for Ukrainian independence is the only thing preventing a much larger humanitarian crisis on that same border.  Far from being the manifesto of a dual-loyalist, as some crackpot conspiracy theorists have asserted, that opening statement comes directly from the heart of a former refugee, a Jewish refugee, one who cares about the stranger because he has seen Egypt.  He has known slavery and he has known what it means to bask in the shadow of Lady Liberty.  

We even have the Ken Burns footage to prove it.

The fact that Zelensky too has Jewish roots has essentially turned this whole Trump-Ukraine episode into a Jewish morality tale writ large.

Reviewer Peter Stein writes, regarding the Fiddler documentary, "The shtetl of Anatevka has come to stand in for every homeland left behind."  Jewish history has made us into experts on leaving places behind - and occasionally returning - but always caring for the wanderers.  That expertise is coming to the fore once again during this decisive moment for Ukraine and America.

Nancy Pelosi may well be right that "all roads lead to Putin." But if they do, they intersect in Anatevka.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

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