Between the movie and various theatrical presentations, I must have seen FIDDLER ON THE ROOF ten or more times. After all, it’s the story of my people. I know most of the lines and lyrics by heart. Each time I see it, I cry. All four of my grandparents came from shtetls like Tevye’s Anatevka, little Jewish enclaves within villages and towns in Eastern and Central Europe from which pogroms or inscription into the czar’s army had driven them. They arrived in the new promised land of America in the decade before the turn of the 20th Century. Israel was not yet available. None spoke English.
My parents were born in the next decade: 1905 for my dad, 1903 for my mom. They both spoke Yiddish, the lingua franca of Slavic European Jews, and learned English in school. My sister came onto the scene in 1931, with me following in 1939, both of us English speakers and, as we grew up, 100% American. Our parents kept salty secrets from us by discussing them in Yiddish. Later, when I learned German, which ironically shares about 80% of its vocabulary with Yiddish, they needed to be careful, since now I could get the gist of their exchanges.
Anyway, in the Wedding Blessing song from FIDDLER, which Tevye and his wife, Golda, sing to their first daughter and her new husband at their wedding, the bride’s parents pray, among other things, that God “keep them [the kids] from the strangers’ ways.” We Jews came up with the concept of “Gentiles [Hebrew and Yiddish, Goyem],” people of the nations, i.e., not us. Of course, we’re not alone in this kind of othering. Most nations, tribes, and ethnic groups do it. Heck! Even high-school students do it to students from rival schools. It’s part of being human.
My parents were not religious, but their circle of friends was completely Jewish. Their contact with the Gentile world lay outside the doors of our home, except for Florine, our live-in “colored maid,” who turned out to be a pivotal figure in my life and a main reason I am a Christian who married a cradle Christian, twice! Today, according to the Pew Research Center, 58% of all Jewish marriages since 2005 have been to members of another faith. The rabbis are rightfully concerned. It looks like assimilation has led us to the strangers’ ways bigtime. For my part, I’m delighted. I’ll still cry when I see FIDDLER, but on our big blue marble, there are no strangers, only fellow human beings whose ways we haven’t yet learned enough about. Oy!