Why Faith Is Greater Than Tradition – lessons from Fiddler on the Roof

Michelle VL[Today’s guest post is from Michelle Van Loon, a wonderful writer who covers faith, life, and the occasional foray to Israel. I read her posts all the time, including this one that first ran in her blog a few months ago. You can catch her on Facebook and Twitter, too.]

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Selling the idea of a musical about the pogroms in Russia at the turn of the last century must not have been easy. Imagine the first time the creators of sat down across the table from a potential investor and tried to sell the idea. “So there’s this Jewish milkman, poor as dirt, and he has these five daughters. The three of marrying age make choices that move each away in progressively greater ways from the milkman’s faith and traditions. And then the whole family gets kicked out of the town in which they’d been living for generations because of religious persecution. Do they all live happily ever after? Who knows? Want to write me a check?”

Obviously they did a good job convincing investors that “Fiddler On The Roof” would be for the early-mid 1960’s what “Hamilton” is for us today. Though its received its fair share of criticism – and a bit of light-hearted confusion from a few in the Hasidic (Orthodox) Jewish community – it has been a touchpoint in my life since the original Broadway soundtrack made its way onto the hi-fi in my family’s den in the mid-1960’s. Why, you ask?

My grandma, Leah Cohen Markowsky/Marks, grew up in a village in the Pale of Settlement. She and her family were forced from her home during the same time period depicted in “Fiddler”. She made her way to the U.S. first, then worked her keister off to bring her siblings here. Most of the family ended up in the booming Jewish metropolis of Peoria, IL. Grandma Leah never lost her Russian accent or her incredible work ethic.

One of my neighbors when I was growing up was a retired jeweler. He told me he grew up about 75 miles or so from Anatevka, the village depicted in “Fiddler”. He wanted me to know it was a real place, and emphasized to me that my grandma grew up in a place just like it.

“Don’t you dare ever marry a goy”, Grandma Leah would tell me. Perhaps even more than my own parents’ warnings against marrying a Gentile, Grandma Leah’s threats scared the living daylights out of me. Though she never attached a reason to her Don’t, I could infer much from the tsk-tsk way in which she’d talk about Jewish friends and family who had intermarried. Maintaining Jewish identity for another generation in an anti-Semitic world was victory in the face of the suffering she’d experienced in Russia – and then living as Jews in central Illinois before, during, and after the Holocaust. Tradition was the primary way in which my family maintained connection with our Jewish identity.

My husband’s mom is Jewish, which makes him Jewish. Would Leah have approved of me marrying this man with the goyishe last name I met at a Bible study? She died shortly before I started dating Bill, but I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t have been any happier with him than my parents were. All that Jesus stuff Bill and I shared pretty much negated the fact that I actually did bring home a Jewish guy to marry. Which leads me to the wedding…

I longed for a flower-child wedding where I wore a simple dress and we had a potluck reception. My parents were almost as mortified by this idea as they were by my choice of a groom. To make matters worse, I wanted one the pastors at our church to do the ceremony. In what became a brokered deal, we negotiated the following: Our pastor friend would do the ceremony if he promised to dial down the Jesus talk, and they would hire Phil Weiss, Wedding Planner, to plan a reception to which they could proudly invite their friends. I was 19 at the time. I figured this would be a workable compromise since at one point, my parents threatened to boycott the wedding altogether.

It is tradition for both parents to walk a bride up the aisle in a Jewish wedding ceremony, as both of them are giving their daughter in marriage. My parents suggested that a good song for the processional would be Sunrise, Sunset. Have you listened to the words of this song? It starts out “Is this the little girl I carried?/Is this the little boy at play?/I don’t remember growing older/When did they?” and just gets more wistful from there.

The only reason I think my parents made it through this emotional walk over hot coals down the aisle with me is because by day of the wedding, the arguments between my parents and I about the day had frayed our relationship to the point where maybe they felt more relief than nostalgia. Meanwhile, now that Bill and I have parented three children to adulthood, and are watching our grandsons grow up, I can’t make it through the first few notes of this song without weeping. Truly, the years flow too swiftly.

Though “Fiddler” is at its heart a deeply Jewish story, its themes of social change and generational disconnection are universal. The three daughters in Sholom Aleichem’s Yiddish tale move away from the ways of their forebears. The oldest marries a poor Jewish tailor for love instead of allowing herself to move into an arranged marriage with an aging butcher. The second daughter marries for love as well, but her choice is an idealistic, secular Jewish revolutionary who appears to have cast aside religion.

The third daughter lived Grandma Leah’s worst nightmare. Chava marries a Gentile, one from the very group who have been persecuting the Jews of Anatevka. This is the unpardonable sin in papa Tevye’s eyes, and leads to him disowning his beloved Chavalah (the dimunitive form of Chava). Though there is a glimmer of reconnection between the two as the remaining members of Tevye’s family are exiled from Anatevka at the end of the story, the anguish in this movement of Fiddler goes far deeper in me than doe the nostalgia of Sunrise, Sunset earlier in the movie.

My parents saw me as a Chava, a traitor to my Jewish identity, though they never disowned me. I mourned for the gulf my faith in Jesus created between my parents and I. And as I’ve watched my own children move into adulthood, as so many of us parents do in some form, I’ve lived Tevye’s side of the story, too.

Tradition hasn’t sustained me, but faith has.

Shortly after Bill and I got married, we found our way to a young Messianic congregation. We’d gather with them on Friday nights for worship. We sang the Sabbath Prayer from Fiddler, rooted in the traditional Shabbat blessing, to close out the service. The song connected me to my family, my people, and my heavenly Father.

It still does.

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7 Responses to Why Faith Is Greater Than Tradition – lessons from Fiddler on the Roof

  1. Adriana says:

    Michelle, As a huge fan of Fiddler on the Roof and your writing, I can’t tell you how much I love this post. I both laughed and got misty eyed over it. Thank you for sharing this touching aspect of your life with us.

  2. michellevl says:

    Thank you so much, Adriana!

  3. Tim says:

    Michelle, thanks for letting me run this today. Your encouragement in the faith is a blessing to me today.

  4. “Phil Weiss, Wedding Planner” — I see a movie right there.

    I love how you’ve linked Fiddler on the Roof to your own story in this post. Thanks, Michelle.

  5. Catherine Wiley-Parkin says:

    Michelle, I enjoyed your article, but discovered it in my genealogical quest to find out more about my grandson’s forefathers. His great-great grandfather was Solomon Cohen, brother to your grandmother, Leah. I have very little information regarding the Cohen roots, but have visited Leah’s father and mother’s graves in the Jewish cemetery in my hometown of Galesburg, IL. I would be so appreciative of any family stories you might be able to share that were passed on to you by your grandmother.

    Thank you, Catherine Wiley-Parkin

  6. Pingback: How I Got by with a Lot of Help from My Friends | Tim's Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another

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