The French actress Simone Signoret entitled her autobiography “Nostalgia Isn’t What it Used to Be.” You may have heard me speak or read something I have written about nostalgia in the American Jewish community and how we at times long for a past that never existed or is remembered much differently than it actually was. If I had a nickel for every Jew who told me that their grandparents or great-grandparents were “very Orthodox,” I’d have a lot of nickels. But if you are like the majority of American Jews, descendants of Eastern European Jews who immigrated between 1880 and 1914, your grandparents were more likely to have been Socialists or even Communists than they were “very Orthodox.” Of course there were varying shades of observance and my great aunts and uncles (I never knew my paternal grandparents) kept kosher and occasionally went to an Orthodox synagogue but they also read the Forverts, the Yiddish daily which you may not know was a Socialist newspaper. They belonged to the Workmen’s Circle. And they listened to radio station WEVD, which was named in honor of Eugene V. Debs, the five-time Socialist Party candidate for the presidency of the United States.
I suspect that for many of us, Fiddler on the Roof is remembered primarily for its costumes and choreography and such songs as “Tradition” and “Sabbath Prayer.” And of course for being a huge popular hit on Broadway, and as a film, which was proudly, publicly, and affirmatively Jewish in a way that American Jews had not previously been used to.
But Fiddler on the Roof is actually more than just nostalgia. When I was the Hillel Director at the University of Virginia in 1989, a couple of students came to me and asked to start a theater company under Hillel’s auspices. I agreed on the condition that their efforts be educational and not simply entertaining. They decided to do Fiddler and I actually took a small role in the play -- the Rabbi. As a member of the cast, I was there during rehearsals to coach the cast on dialect and Jewish practices and also explain to them the historical context of the story. The script is most definitely not an exercise in simple nostalgia. It raises the existential questions that Jews faced in Czarist Russia 125 years ago. Can I maintain religious tradition under conditions of oppression? Should I throw in my lot with the Socialists in hopes that a new world of freedom will mean freedom for Jews as well? Emigrate to America? Make aliyah to Eretz Yisrael? Assimilate and simply become Russian? The details of the choices Tevye and his family had are different than those we face, but the dilemmas of universalism vs. particularism and modernity vs. tradition are no less pressing.