The Broken Circle
By Jane Tawel
April 28, 2019
Yesterday afternoon, while Raoul and I were being metaphorically “blown away” by the eternally classic and in this production, at the Pantages Theatre, phenomenally performed “Fiddler on the Roof”, more people, in my country this “land of the free”, were being literally blown away because they are Jewish. The horrible “inhuman” who did this latest evil, said in his obvious and utterly hateful stupidity, that one of his inspirations was the greatest Jewish human who ever lived, Jesus, who some believe was the Jewish Messiah. I wish I could say, oh, how ironic, but this surpasses irony which I usually get at least some enjoyment out of noting. This claiming Jesus the Jew as inspiration for violence against Jews, is instead a meta-example of what I have come to believe is the worst plague ever visited upon humans – the plague of ignorant hatred. It is the sickness that happens when people let their hatred make them stupid. It is the stupidity that we allow when we do not teach people the difference between right and wrong. It is the false sense of identity we get when we allow ourselves to choose traditions that are easy to keep and a religion unmoored from its historical basis. It is what people who call themselves “little Christs” do when they focus on something other than the traditions God has entrusted them with as followers of Yahweh.
If we as humans do not start trying to figure out and teach truthfully, intelligently, humbly about The God of Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Deborah, and David – and frankly, also the God of Ishmael, Jesus, and Paul– we will continue to live with the violence born from our godless fear of “the other”, whomever that “other” happens to be. If we do not see “the other” as we do the men and women we like so much at a distance, those we choose to accept as Jews if they entertain us on our televisions or that we like to claim as our own now, those Jewish heroes we like to quote from like Joshua or Jonah—if we do not change our hearts and do something about the continuing prejudices that lead to yet another tragedy– then we are not following a God that we claim to find in The Bible. Oh, we all love Tevye, that iconic Jew in the musical – the one that makes us laugh and cry, that Jew that we “all just love!” as long as he stays on the stage and doesn’t talk back to us. But if we don’t teach our children more than a few musical song and dance routines about a God and the people He has chosen to carry-on the traditions of the type of faith and worship that God has given and required of all human beings, of all nations and tribes –then we will keep waking up to a world where our own personal Sabbaths are in vain and our traditions of faith are nothing more than the lies of entitlement we cling to.
We have to do something more than shake our heads and talk; especially those of us who want to be “grafted on” to Jesse’s tree, but who seem to have tragically and perilously thrown out the tree and kept just our “Christian” lopped off branches. We have thrown out the traditions that all God’s Chosen People are encouraged – nay! required to follow. We have stopped telling the Passover Story. We have stopped meditating on the stories of redemption that God commands His people to humble themselves with in the telling. “Remember, I am the God who brought you out of Egypt”, God says with every single command He gives. We have used the current and modern nation of Israel as an un-criticised and misunderstood shield against truthfully figuring out who exactly does God choose as His. We have thrown out Shabbat and Sabbath rest and replaced it with some psychological feel-good pep talks by well-paid speakers, followed by brunch, shopping and football. We have thrown out the study of Torah and the meditation on the Tanakh and refused to accept that the One we claim to be The Son of God had only those books of Torah to teach him and bring Him close to God’s Kingdom on Earth. We have stopped creating circles of peace and instead have formed lines of entitlement.
As I watched the character of Golde, the Jewish mama in the play, prepare the Shabbat Seder meal, unbeknownst to me at a Passover Shabbat meal preparation in San Diego, Jewish families were once again mourning the tragic persecution of loved ones due to the prejudice against Jews the world has long stoked and looked away from. I sat in my cushy, front and center chair—the tickets were a wonderful, special gift from my daughter for my husband’s birthday. My daughter, Verity, has a tradition of gifting us with extravagant tickets to plays, concerts, shows that we otherwise would not see. It is a tradition born out of her love and generous heart.
In the play, Tevye too, has a deep love and a generous heart, for his family, just like my daughter. Tevye also has a tradition of taking his problems off to one side and talking in asides to God. This has been a tradition for centuries of course, of the men and women who talk to God. Talking to God can be done as a group- event, but it really works best when done in humbled solitude and in private – just the human being talking with and listening to The God-Being. There are famous recorded asides to God even before God chose the Hebrews to talk with and listen to. What is considered possibly the earliest book of the Bible has a long and famous aside by a character called Job. Abraham went in private off to one side and gambled with God over Lot and the ten good men he hoped God could find in Sodom. Moses spent forty days in that historically famous aside with God on the mountaintop, receiving the Torah and God’s commands for the people that God alone could lead to the Promised Land. Samuel, who became a great prophet of the Jews wouldn’t have existed without the private prayers that Hannah his mother, would pray alone to her God, begging Him to hear her cries. Later, Mary, the mother of Jesus would, as an aside, recite a Hebrew psalm of praise for her chosen status as a poor and persecuted Jewish woman, who was nevertheless to be highly exalted because she as a Jew, was called to do God’s will. And then there is that Jewish man, that my own religious tradition holds to be our Savior. That Jew named Jesus spent more time in asides and in prayer to Yahweh, God of the Hebrews, than he did in talking with the characters in his own story.
But as I watched Tevye and Golde, Lazar Wolf, and Yente, and all those amazing characters brought to life by the actors on stage; and as Tevye walked to one side of the stage to say in an aside to his God: “God I know we are Your chosen people but every once in a while couldn’t You choose someone else?” –as I laughed with the ironic humor of Tevye’s words — a Jewish woman named Lori Kaye had been shot dead, and three people were injured — Noya Dahan, an eight year old Jewish girl who is just a little younger than that famous and in the hindsight of history beloved Jewish girl named Anne Frank; and the Jewish Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, and a Jew named Almog Peretz – those Jewish people were not walking off stage after gathering for the traditional prayers to their God. Those Jewish people from the Chabad Synagogue in Poway – those Jewish people were joining the age-old tradition of people being targeted, persecuted, and killed because, and only because – they are Jewish.
This phenomenal production I saw, of “Fiddler” stays true to the historical time and place of the original: “The Pale of Settlement of Imperial Russia around 1905”. Of course, it must stay true to the setting in a play that is as historically specific as this one. But there is one slight change the director made that for me made a world of difference.
At the top of the show at the gorgeous and glorious Pantages Theatre, the patriarch, the “Papa”, Tevye, walks onto a completely bare stage. He is not yet dressed in the garb of a poor 1905 Russian Jew. The actor comes out, minus the head covering that Jewish men wear to humble themselves and to show that God is over and above them in power and respect. He is minus the tallit, whose four tasseled corners will hang down from Tevye’s waist throughout the performance. The tallit is worn by Jewish men because they are commanded in the Torah, “to recall all the commandments of the Lord, Your God, and to observe them”. Tevye, that iconic and beloved Jew of fiction, comes out instead as modern man in a maroon anorak, hatless, his brown, slightly greying hair curling up like a halo around his ears, wearing modern eyeglasses pushed up on his trim nose, looking like any one you might currently meet on any street in America. In the actor’s hands, he carries a small leather book that he is silently reading. He just stands there for a bit in silence, reading something in the pages of the book. And then without speaking yet, he hands the book off to another villager just then coming onto the stage, whisks off his red winter coat, to reveal underneath, his costume as Tevye, and the play begins with the introduction to the song, “Tradition”.
At the end of “Fiddler on the Roof”, Tevye’s entire village is forced to leave their homes and livelihoods and although they have no money and little means, they are forced to find somewhere else to live. Tevye, Golde and their two remaining young daughters are off to throw themselves on the kindness of a relative who lives in America. One of Tevye’s daughters and son-in-law are going to Warsaw, Poland. It hit me for the first time yesterday, that the author of the musical’s book probably chose Warsaw as a foreshadowing of what would happen to the Jews there, just as it was happening to them in the musical’s setting of pogrom-ready Russia. It hit me, as I sat in my plush theatre seat yesterday, when I heard the hopeful young couple tell their parents, Tevye and Golde that they would join them soon in America – I thought, they will never make it to America. They will die in Poland. The little Jewish baby that Tevye’s daughter holds in her arms will be about thirty-four years old when Germany invades Poland.
Meanwhile, another Jewish woman – a descendant of a Jewish couple who surely had to flee somewhere in the world at some time in the world’s history– was dead in America and three others wounded, including a Rabbi. Six months earlier in Philadelphia, eleven other Jewish descendants of other Jews were targeted and slain. Tevye’s village leaves still holding on to a strong hope for their futures, but of course we know in the audience, that soon the Jews will be slaughtered by the millions and the world will be witness to a holocaust that will only end when metaphorically once more the Red Seas are parted and the hands and chariots of destruction of those who would eradicate God’s Chosen People are stayed again by the God who has promised to never break His covenant with His People.
As the play ends, and all the villagers carry their belongings away from the only home they have known, the character of the Rabbi carries only a large scroll. The Rabbi may have to leave his home with the others, but he will carry Torah with him wherever he goes. The characters, rather than leaving the stage one by one as in past productions, push carts of their belongings and walk single file, until they eventually are walking around and around the stage in a tight and closed circle. The circle of actors keeps going around and around, and in this show, the symbolic character of the fiddler on the roof, does not stay behind but rather joins Tevye and the others, to go fiddle precariously in a new and foreign land. The circling Jews are being expelled, being robbed of their goods and homes, having been beaten, separated from loved ones, imprisoned –but they are holding fast to their faith and wherever they go they will cling to their identities as God’s Chosen People and they will trust in The Lord Who Took Them Out of Egypt.
The Jews of “The Fiddler on The Roof” form a circle on the stage that keeps going round and round, and round – a circle of silent resignation; a circle of community that will stay strong no matter where they disperse to; a circle of hope for the future of God’s people born out of their suffering and yet intent on grasping at joy; a circle of identity they share, not in any nation—any nation—but only in God’s community of humble followers; a circle of tradition.
At the very last moment of “The Fiddler on the Roof”, when the audience expects to rise as one and applaud, suddenly, out of the circle of Russian 1905 Jewish characters, and without warning, steps the modern looking– maybe American? maybe European? maybe even Israeli or Palestinian– man? He is dressed again, not in the peasant clothes of the character Tevye, but in the eyeglasses and the maroon anorak, minus the skull cap, minus the prayer shawl, with his greying hair uncovered before His God. And this modern-day Tevye comes silently out of the circle. It is Tevye, but it is not Tevye. In his hands, the man holds that same leather-bound book and he is silently reading it. Then he looks up from the book, looks at the circling, circling, ever circling cast of Jewish men, women and children going around and around the stage, as if he is gazing at Jews on this spinning globe, going around and around the world. Then the man in the modern coat looks back at the book. The circle of villagers begins to break apart and leave the stage until the man is left alone with the leather bound book. Finally, he looks up and out at us the audience, and then – did I see it or just imagine it? – he takes a quick look up at His God, the God of The Book, as if to ask in a private aside:
“God, when will this cycle of pain and persecution end? When will Your People live in safety and freedom and joy? When will the circle be unbroken, Lord?”