Thursday, March 27, 2014

Tazria: What Lurks Under the Skin...

Ah, here we are; back again at the Torah's most uncomfortable Torah portion. Every year, rabbis cringe at having to talk about Tazria, because it deals with a whole range of 'fascinating' topics, ranging from menstrual bleeding to skin disease; baldness to moldy fabrics. So yeah, this is a fun
one to talk about... And yet, I think it's important for us to listen for the music behind the words. First of all, these things are a part of life. They're not thrilling to talk about, and they're certainly not wonderful for the person going through it, but nevertheless, we accept that they are all a part of life. Like walking down the pharmacy aisle that covers medications you DON'T want to admit you have: sometimes you have no choice... The Torah doesn't shy away from talking about the really personal, embarrassing topics, which really highlights for us that God is there for us, literally through ANYTHING we might be dealing with. And that can feel comforting. But I also think this Torah portion teaches us something about human nature, and the power of fear.

I think one of the unifying themes of all these weird 'conditions' that the Torah is talking about is fear, communal fear. I remember when I was still in rabbinical school, and I was interning as a hospital chaplain. Our supervisor taught us to listen to the music behind people's words. 
If a patient was screaming about why they didn't get the lunch they ordered, it's possible they're ACTUALLY upset about something else - like cancer - and they're using this (seemingly mundane) opportunity to express emotions that are scary, difficult, and hard to let out. Something similar is going on in our parashah. When we hear, for example, about a woman who has given birth being sent outside the camp because of her 'menstrual infirmity,' our initial reaction may be outrage: 'She just created another human life and pushed her/him out of her body - one of the most incredible acts of partnering with God imaginable - why the heck are we throwing her out of the community like some diseased leper?!?!' But if we can get past that emotional reaction, there's actually more going on under the surface.

The Torah (or perhaps more accurately, the MALE author of the Torah) is uncomfortable with bleeding. Especially in this context, where the bleeding is not the result of physical injury, and does not lead automatically to death. It's weird, it's unfamiliar... it's scary. 
And the same is true for skin diseases, mold, and (the insecurity that comes with) baldness. The ancient community, faced with all these inexplicable phenomena, tried to ritualize them and bring them into the context of their society. And again, we may frown on HOW they chose to deal with these issues, especially regarding women, but let's not get too distracted by that. We should try to focus, instead, on the underlying issue: fear. Because it's still an issue today. Just a couple of decades ago, people did not understand AIDS, and many religious leaders tried to blame it on the gay community, which at least helped them make sense of what it was. Today, we struggle with many kinds of 'plagues,' either in the form of diseases like cancer, dementia, Alzheimer's, and ALS, or societal problems like addiction, alcoholism, and bullying. 

Sometimes, problems just feel too big to deal with. We find other ways to explain them away (punishment from God, sports-related injuries, kids just being kids, etc.), so we don't have to take on the challenges they pose. But in the long run, avoidance hurts more. The emotional cost of 
trying every tactic imaginable NOT to deal with the real problem is SO much higher than just facing the demons themselves. Sometimes it's hard to see that, but I promise it's true. The first step is to listen for that music behind the words. And that's hard too. But when you hear it, and when you are then able to see the fear, insecurity, and anger that are lurking underneath, then the real work begins, and change can happen. We all have 'Tazria's' in our lives; the issues, emotions, and experiences that we treat like skin diseases. We avoid, deny, and ignore them. But they fester, and the problems grow. It's time to start working our way back to purity, both of body and of soul.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Rob Stinnett on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of  on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Gruff15 on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Colin on Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Shemini: Organizing an Uncomfortable Service

Rituals are tricky. On the one hand, the Torah is explicitly clear about how to do certain things, like in this week's Torah portion, where Aaron and the Temple priests are given CLEAR instructions on how to offer sacrifices to God. And yet, I wonder if every High Priest after Aaron did it in EXACTLY the same way. 'Well, the Torah gives precise directions,' you might say. 'Why would any later priest do it any differently?!?' 
So that's where I come back to my original statement: Rituals are tricky. We aren't very good at doing the SAME thing, every time. Or the SAME thing as our parents, grandparents, and ancestors did. Or even the SAME thing as our neighbor does, our rabbi tells us, or our teachers instruct us. Rituals evolve, change, and shift. My guess is, the practices of the priests developed over time, just as everything else does. If, for example, I asked you what typifies a Passover Seder (I wonder why Pesach is on my mind right now...), I'm sure each one of you reading this would tell me the essential parts that HAVE TO be included, or it just wouldn't feel like a Seder... and you'd each describe different rituals! And what one person considers non-negotiable is wholly expendable to another. So you see? Rituals are tricky.

I like to say to people at Ohev Shalom that the phrase 'organized religion' strikes me sometimes as an oxymoron. 'Religion' is so incredibly personal; it's YOUR own connection to God, heritage, tradition, and yes, 
 ritual. And when we 'organize' it, we try to create one standard that works for an entire community, and that's tough to do. And yet, that's what churches, synagogues, and mosques are all about. So even though we each value different parts of the Passover rituals, when we come together for a communal Seder, we need to find common ground, try to include as many of the 'classic' Seder parts as possible, and make sure that SOMETHING speaks to each participant. And make it meaningful for everyone. Oh, and by the way, come to our Ohev Second Seder on April 15th! 

I wanted to focus this blog post on ritual and the challenge of negotiating our differences, because an interesting situation occurred at Ohev Shalom earlier this week. We were visited by a gentleman who was staying in our area for a couple of days, while working at a local hospital. He was hoping to say Kaddish for 
his mother, who had passed away many years earlier, and was looking for a minyan. He was, however, Orthodox, and not comfortable praying with an egalitarian, Conservative group. So, that morning, he prayed alone outside our chapel. But after services, he asked me if we could make an all-male minyan for Mincha (the afternoon service) to allow him to say Kaddish later in the day. I debated this back and forth for a long time. Yes, I could have sent him elsewhere, though our area has no Orthodox minyanim close enough for him to get there and back during the workday. And I could have insisted he conform to our rituals and our standards or take his business elsewhere. But in the end, even though it strongly went against my personal, theological, and RITUAL standards, I decided to help this man make a 'traditional' minyan. 

To be totally honest with you, during, and after, the service itself, I continued to feel conflicted about it. It did NOT feel like an Ohev service. Having women even in the room would have made him uncomfortable, so if a female congregant had stopped by, could I have asked her to leave?!? And yet, ultimately, I am glad that I made this happen. It was a win for the concept of 'Klal Yisrael,' the 'community of 
Israel,' the togetherness of our people - the 'organized' part of 'organized religion.' Sometimes we make concessions to create unity. Congregations around the world all run their services differently. Some of our rituals and practices are VASTLY different. But if we, the Jewish People, are going to make this work, if we're going to continue to be the bearers of Moses' and Aaron's legacy for another couple thousand years, we've got to find ways to combine our personal 'religion' with the 'organization' of our people everywhere. It sometimes still feels like an oxymoron. But then, all of a sudden, putting together a 20-minute service to help a visitor, far away from his home and his community, trying to pay tribute to his late mother, makes everything feel just a little less 'moronic.'

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Dauster on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of דרור אבי on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Vert on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image of the mechitza, partition, at the Western Wall courtesy of Juan Reyero on Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Fiddler Sermon 4 - Why a Fiddle? And Who Plucks a String on a Roof Anyway?!? – The Metaphors of Fiddler on a Roof

In the 1999 movie, ‘The Sixth Sense,’ a young boy, played by Haley Joel Osment, begins to see a child psychologist (Bruce Willis) because he claims to see dead people. And not just see them, he interacts with them as well. And as the movie progresses, we watch him indeed speaking to, dealing with, and eventually assisting the spirits of people who are deceased, who no one else can see. Now, I probably shouldn’t ruin the ending for you, but I really think there has to be a statue of limitations on these kinds of things. You should have seen the movie by now, people!

So, the big plot twist at the end is, Bruce Willis, the psychologist, is ALSO dead, and he is one of the spirits that the boy is helping. Until that big surprise was revealed, however, we, the audience, never noticed that no one else EVER interacted with him. It was one of those really fabulously well-orchestrated build-ups by director M. Night Shyamalan, where the moment you ‘get it,’ you go back in your mind and realize that no one else ever saw, spoke, or related to this psychologist. And, in truth, it kind of blows your mind.

I mention this at the start of my D’var Torah today, because I sometimes think of the Fiddler, in ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ the same way. Not that he’s dead (necessarily…), but that despite being the title character of the play, and the first one you see on stage, and the last one who leaves at the end of the performance, and whose music is so essential to the flavor and atmosphere of the play and the town of Anatevka itself; despite all these things, NO ONE, except Tevye, ever notices or interacts with the Fiddler.

So, who is this guy? Is the Fiddler a real person, living in the village of Anatevka? If so, who’s paying him to play, and why do they want him to sit on rooftops all the time? Where’s the rest of his klezmer band? And is there a training program specifically for musicians on rooftops? Seems like a rather narrowly-focused skillset… You may laugh, of course, because it IS a bizarre element in the play. And the Fiddler does not ever come up in the dialog or music of the show, other than Tevye’s intro, where he claims that ‘each one of us is a fiddler on a roof, just trying to play a little tune without breaking our necks.’ That one line basically attempts to tie together the title and the content of the play, but it leaves me (and maybe only me…) wondering about how the Fiddler fits in with everything else.

It is interesting to note, on this subject, that Sholem Aleichem, the original author of the stories about Tevye the Milkman, never imagined a Fiddler playing on any rooftop in his little village. His eight books about Tevye all focus on the man and his family, and it was only when the stories made their way to Broadway in the 1960s that Jerry Bock, Joseph Stein, and Hal Prince gave the play the title, ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ It’s kind of crazy to think that Sholem Aleichem himself, were he to come back today and see the great success of his characters, wouldn’t really know what was going on with this title, or how a balancing violinist all of a sudden hijacked his wonderful stories!

According to Alisa Solomon, in her book ‘Wonder of Wonders: A cultural history of Fiddler on the Roof,’ the title was inspired by the paintings of Marc Chagall. Though even there, we can’t actually refer to any one painting called ‘The Fiddler on the Roof,’ or that even focuses exclusively ON a violinist; it was just one of many themes that recurred in Chagall’s paintings, and somehow came to epitomize shtetl life. Solomon writes about the ‘invented memory of the shtetl brought forth by… Chagall’s paintings, and representations of Sholem-Aleichem’s works.’ Together, the combination of Chagall’s images and Sholem-Aleichem’s stories ‘gave depictions of the people of the shtetl a newly, and nostalgically, noble purpose – not as passive victims but as preservers of a great culture that would be redeemed.’

So intertwined were the stories of Sholem-Aleichem and the paintings of Marc Chagall, that they were already brought together 20 years before the play would make its debut on Broadway. In a 1946 New York Times review of a newly released volume of 27 Sholem-Aleichem stories, the article was illustrated with a Chagall image depicting: “A crooked line of point-roofed houses, a horse draws a cart into the frame and a fiddler rushes along, violin in hand, looking like he’s about to take a tumble.”
Is it any wonder that the creators of the play eventually just ‘made it official,’ and used the Chagall image to make the performance famous across the globe?

And somehow, the Fiddler alone has come to symbolize Judaism everywhere. Any image, painting, story, or backdrop suddenly becomes an Eastern European shtetl if you just stick a guy on the rooftop, playing along on a violin. In fact, just earlier this week, I was reading a children’s story to a group of Pre-K and Kindergarten students at Kehillah, about a group of barnyard animals acting out the story of Purim. On the very last page, out of nowhere, and just to really hammer home the point that this truly IS a Jewish barnyard… we all of a sudden see a cat on the roof of the barn, holding a violin! It’s everywhere!!!

But let’s return then to our original question: If the Fiddler is so prominent, so important as to title the entire show, and if he signifies this era and represents all these colorful characters; how come no one else sees him? Doesn’t he matter to anyone else but Tevye? Who IS this Fiddler on the Roof?

Let me offer a couple of possibilities:

1) The Fiddler represents God’s Presence in this village. Tevye, like a prophet, engages in little, endearing conversations with God throughout the play. Usually, these monologues are directed heaven-ward, not to anyone in particular. But God’s manifestation is never limited to just one medium; we interact with God – in all our lives – in many, many different ways. Perhaps, when Tevye feels like speaking directly to God, he turns to the sky and makes requests, challenges, accusations, and jokes, while yet other times, he prefers to dance, wordlessly, with God, or just gesture towards God’s Presence and share a silent, and beautiful moment together. THAT (might be) the Fiddler.

And though aspects of this might give us a pleasant image of God, it can also be a theologically troubling one. So often we look to God for salvation and justice, but then we don’t see it come to pass in real-time.

Towards the end of the play, the rabbi’s son, Mendel, asks the rabbi, ‘We’ve been waiting for the Messiah our entire lives, wouldn’t THIS be a good time for him to come?’ And the rabbi can only shrug his shoulders and reply, sadly: ‘We’ll have to wait for him someplace else.’ At that moment, we look around for God – for the Fiddler – just to get some explanation, an answer, but there is none to be had. It’s hard to accept, sometimes, that change needs to come from US, from our own actions and decisions; that God offers us strength, comfort, compassion, support… but often from a bit of a distance, like the Fiddler, refusing to come down off his roof…

2) But the Fiddler can also represent tradition. Certainly being the representative of all of Chagall’s paintings, and thus the image of an entire world, and even a mindset, the Fiddler symbolizes all that was, in the shtetls of Eastern Europe. In many ways, Tevye is the gatekeeper between the old world and the new; his fellow villagers holding fast to their old beliefs, and Tevye singing along with them about ‘Tradition!,’ and yet, Tevye also welcomes in the rebel, Perchik, to his home, and acquiesces to the radical ideas of his daughters. He is torn between two worlds.

The wedding scene, which arguably represents the fulcrum when everything shifts, switches from the village denouncing the young men and women dancing together to everyone joining in, only when Tevye steps across the barrier to dance with his wife. Tradition is a very powerful concept for Tevye, even when he sees the need for change. At the close of the play, when everyone else has been evicted, and there is silence on stage, Tevye waves to the Fiddler to join him, as if together with all the other belongings he has packed into his wagon, he also brings with him his traditions and values into the new world that lies ahead.

And because we’re seeing the world from Tevye’s point-of-view, we only see his interaction with the Fiddler. Whether the musician represents God or the ancient traditions, he is a powerful figure for Tevye, and thus he also becomes powerful for you and me, because we are experiencing this world through Tevye’s eyes.

In the original books, Sholem-Aleichem imagined Tevye speaking with the author himself! I was surprised, and intrigued to learn this. We don’t get a complete sense of it in the play; perhaps because it was hard to translate it onto the stage. But Tevye told all his tales – about his daughters, his village, and his misfortunes – TO the author, living in another world, and outside the pages of the book. It was as if the two were good friends, perhaps writing letters to one another, or chatting over the phone (though no such modern invention existed in Tevye’s time). What a fascinating way to tell a story! And we feel some of that in the audience, when Tevye steps outside the narrative, the other characters freeze, and Tevye weighs his options, with everyone in the theater seats as his close confidents.

And that is why, in the end, I feel that you and I must consider who the Fiddler is for us as well. Like the child psychologist in ‘The Sixth Sense,’ once we have figured out that we’re the only ones who can see him, we have to ask ourselves what he’s doing here, and what he represents for us.

Throughout these sermons I’ve delivered about ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ I’ve talked about analyzing the play from the perspective of Sholem-Aleichem and 19th Century Eastern Europe, AND from the perspective of 1960s America, when the Broadway show debuted. BUT we also need to look at it today. What does it evoke for us, for you and me? Looking now at the metaphor of the Fiddler on the Roof in YOUR life, what does he represent?

- What do you bring with you, everywhere you go, that represents your heritage and your ancestry?
- What are the ‘themes’ that play over and over in your head, that help guide you in your decision making, whether it’s about how to live an ethical life, which path to walk, or who to share your journey with?
And does the sound of your own violin work in harmony with you? Does it inspire and motivate you? Give you meaning and purpose? Or is it a sound you try to drown out and run away from, or that you find embarrassing and harmful?

The answers to these questions are SO individual, so personal to you and your experience, to me and mine. And it almost doesn’t matter whether the Fiddler represents God, Jewish tradition, or just a narrative story that we carry with us from our family of origin, or our experiences from childhood. It is still a tune that is ALWAYS with us. Like Tevye, we have to weigh (on the one hand and the other) what to do with it.

And in that endeavor, in trying to decide how our history, our culture, and our relationship with the Divine should impact our lives, we too are often in the midst of a balancing act. Sometimes we adhere to tradition, taking comfort and inspiration from what was. And sometimes we take bold and unfamiliar steps forward, challenging the status quo to see what newness the future might hold. And when we do that, when we balance back and forth, actively in relationship with the voices of our heritage, we are all, ourselves, in those moments, Fiddlers on a Roof.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Tzav: Violent Sacrifices - Of Knives, Costumes, and Gun Laws

This Shabbat is Gun Violence Prevention Shabbat across the country. Saturday night happens to also begin our celebration of Purim, which is kind of a weird mix of events and emotions. Purim is about joy, silliness, 
costumes, and hamentaschen. And clearly, there isn't much light-heartedness around the subject of gun violence. And yet, I find it fascinating that the two coincide this weekend. I would like to speak with you for a minute about the connections between these two, and I'll also attempt to link both to Torah portion we read this weekend, which introduces us to the ancient institution of sacrifice.

Rabbis often groan at having to speak about this Torah portion. The ritual of sacrifice is so alien to us. We try to 'clean it up a bit,' but ultimately it's all about knives, slaughter, blood, and guts. It's an uncomfortable reminder of a time when we were much less sophisticated in how we understood our 
relationship to God. Already by the medieval period, the great commentator Maimonides, Rambam, wrote about how we had evolved; prayer was the replacement for sacrifice. But this weekend we also need to examine whether we really have evolved, or at least evolved enough. Why does our society allow needless, senseless violence to persist? We could all name dozens of school shootings, and the statistics on victims of gun violence and accidental homicides are shocking and horrifying. We believe we have evolved - or perhaps we WANT TO believe we've evolved - but in reality violence and violent acts are still very much a part of our society. We can do better. In fact, we must.

Purim is supposed to be a humorous holiday, filled with fun, and yet it primarily tells the story of an evil man who took offense when one Jewish guy wouldn't bow down to him, and as a result, he decided to exterminate every last Jew in the Persian kingdom. Violence is all around us, even when we want to get away from it. And so, all 
throughout Shabbat, we will be talking about gun violence: Jewish sources on the subject, and why we, as Jews, must act to make a difference. Around Ohev Shalom, I've heard people say that not everyone feels the same on this subject, and so perhaps we'd best leave it alone. But I disagree. What makes us strong as a community isn't that we all feel the SAME way on every issue, but that we value one another's opinions and allow for a productive, informative discourse, even (and perhaps especially) on difficult topics like this one. And what I'm talking about here is NOT a political issue; this isn't about Second Amendment rights. I'm saying that we all need to open our eyes and look around at the society of which we are a part. It is filled with sacrifices; not rituals conducted in Temples with goats and lambs, but tragic, purposeless sacrifices of life, simply because we don't enforce the laws we already have. And, quite frankly, we don't care enough to force a change in this devastating pattern.

In Megillat Esther, the story of Purim, our heroine is afraid to confront the king about Haman's genocidal plot. She tries to close her eyes, pretend the threat doesn't concern her. Her uncle, Mordechai, sends her a message: 'Do not keep silent in this crisis! It affects you as well.' 
We cannot keep silent. We are all affected. When we don't act, we are both victims AND perpetrators. Another medieval authority, Rabbi Joseph Karo, once wrote against bringing weapons into synagogue, saying, "Prayer lengthens human life, and a knife shortens it." How crazy, right? Why would someone bring a knife into services? It sounds so barbaric. We've surely evolved beyond that, no? But the question is, have we evolved so that we now understand that weapons only shorten life, they don't protect or extend them? Or have we merely improved our technology, so that now we bring guns instead of knives? Perhaps we have more growing still to do. Let's hope we do it soon, for all our sakes.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of IZAK on Wikimedia Commons
2. Image courtesy of Francois Polito on Wikimedia Commons
3. Image of 'Samurabbi' Gerber courtesy of Cantor Steven Friedrich, from an Ohev Shalom Purim celebration in 2000.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Vayikra: God is Calling

The Torah has a funny way of naming things. Or, I guess, more accurately, the editors and compilers of the Books of the Torah had a funny way of naming things. You see, each of the Five Books of Moses - the first five books of the Bible - are named after the first significant word in that book. So, for example, if the 
first Harry Potter book worked the same way, that book would not be called "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's (or Sorcerer's, if you're reading the US version...) Stone," but would instead take its title from the first page of the book, which begins: "Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much." And I say 'significant' word, because the word 'Mister' might be pretty common, as is the word 'and' (obviously), and so is 'Misses.' So maybe the first Harry Potter book would be called 'Dursley,' or 'Privet Drive.' My point is, the books of the Torah do NOT derive their names from content or theme, but from the very, very simple principle of using the first important word in that text. And yet, the names seem to mean so much more than just that.

The first book is called 'B'reisheet,' meaning 'In the beginning.' It gets its name from the very first word of the Bible, which is, indeed, 'B'reisheet.' But, of course, that is also a very appropriate title for the entire book, because it tells our origin story, from the Garden of Eden, through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and so on. The second book is 'Sh'mot,' 
meaning 'names,' because the book begins 'These are the names...', but it also goes on to present our ancestors' journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the wilderness, where they made a NAME for themselves. The fourth book is 'B'midbar,' meaning 'in the wilderness,' and gives the full account of our time spent in the desert. And the final book, 'D'varim,' means 'things/utterances/speeches,' and consists mainly of Moses' final speech to the people, and all the THINGS (lessons) he wanted to teach them. But what then of the book we are beginning this week, the third book of the Torah? Vayikra, meaning 'And [God] called,' seems like a strange name. Surely this does not follow the principle we stated earlier, that the title should be the first SIGNIFICANT word in the book. I mean, 'God called' appears tons of times in the Bible! God is sending messages to Moses all the time; shouldn't the book have taken its title from a more important word than that? A noun, perhaps, rather than a generic verb???

But the third book of the Torah isn't like the other four. All the others tell stories, while 'Vayikra' ('Leviticus,' in English) is mainly a list of laws, precepts, and instructions. It speaks of holiness, though mainly through the vehicle of sacrifice and purity. 
However, even though the majority of these laws are archaic, seeing as we no longer have a Temple and our society isn't governed by principles of ritual impurity the way it once way, ritual still matters to us a great deal. Whether we're talking about religious celebrations, baseball rituals, or family traditions; we do structure our lives around habit, custom, and familiar behavior. And if we're willing to see it, hidden inside all of these practices is the Voice of God, CALLING to us.

Take a moment and think about what the word 'calling' means to you. Seriously, stop reading this for a minute and think about how you interpret the word 'calling.' Is God commanding? Inviting relationship? Decreeing? Comforting? Go ahead, I'll wait.

I see this as an opportunity, an invitation, to define your personal relationship with God. And then to redefine it over and over again, throughout your life. How does God call to you, if at all, and how do you respond? Vayikra, the third book of the Torah, is everyday life. 
The other books tell of our history, our journeys, our hopes, and our goals. Vayikra is right here, right now. It's waking up in the morning, typing on your computer, eating meals with your family, and commuting to work; the rituals and rules that govern our everyday lives. And by giving it the name 'God is calling' (sort of), we are reminded, each and every day, to listen for God's Voice in our lives. It's a chance to elevate the mundane to a more spiritual experience, to enrich and enhance what you do, whenever and wherever you're doing it. You just gotta listen for it. Do you hear?

Photos in this blog post:

1. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber's copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (yes, I have the British version...)
3. CC image of the painting 'Rituals,' courtesy of Dr B K Guha on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Zutje on Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Fiddler Sermon 3 - The Powerful Women of Anatevka (But Can They Work Together?)

About eight weeks ago, I first had the idea of doing a series of sermons on Fiddler on the Roof, leading up to our performance of the show, which begins tonight. It’s really quite hard to believe it’s here already. Back when I was thinking of these sermon topics, it all seemed so distant…

And soon after I outlined these four titles, I was invited to speak to the Sisterhood, at one of their Sisterhood: Uncorked events, which are really just informal nights out at a local restaurant or bar, mainly for schmoozing and socializing, but with some learning and thought-provoking conversation thrown in from time to time.

So when I was asked to speak to Sisterhood, and just around the time I was thinking about Fiddler, I thought it would be a good opportunity to ‘test out’ some of this material. And, perhaps not so surprisingly, I chose this third sermon to practice on them. I’m calling this sermon, “The Powerful Women of Anatevka (But Can They Work Together?).” And similar to last week’s discussion about the men of Anatevka, I feel torn about these female characters. On the one hand (as Tevye would say…), they are almost across the board more powerful than the men. If you had to name the top five STRONG protagonists in this play, I think at least four, if not all five, would be women.

And yet, on the other hand, I don’t always agree with the choices they make about how to use their power, and I don’t necessarily see them working together, to help one another out along the way.

But I wanted to begin today’s sermon by mentioning my talk at the Sisterhood: Uncorked event, because something really fascinating happened there. Some of the things that bothered me in the play, didn’t really bother the women of Sisterhood. Or perhaps, they were just more sympathetic than I, and viewed the choices that these women made, or perhaps most women - even today - make, or more specifically mothers feel they HAVE TO make, with greater understanding than I did. And I found that really interesting. But let me get back to that in a few minutes.

As with my previous two sermons, I want to use the theme of ‘generations’ to focus today’s conversation. Simultaneously, we will examine the different generations of audiences that read these stories or watched this play, and also look at the generations of women portrayed in the drama itself.

I want to begin with the people themselves; the women of Anatevka. We see a rift between generations in this story, which is quite significant. Representing the older generation are Yente, the matchmaker, and Golde, the matriarch of this family. We’re introduced to Yente in the first song of the play, ‘Tradition,’ where she tries to set up the bookseller, Avram’s less-than-handsome son with a young girl who is blind. ‘The way she sees and he looks, they’re a perfect match!’ she exclaims, and we all laugh. And yet, it’s disturbing, no? Are these really the top criteria for her matches? Isn’t the whole point of a matchmaker that she’s trying to make GOOD matches, that she would ideally be from this village, familiar with the people of this village, and would really be working overtime to pair people together who could really make it work?

You may say, ‘yeah, but it’s just one time, for a laugh in the opening scene.’ However, the play ends with her coming back to Golde with two boys, whom she wants to set up with the two youngest daughters, Shprintze and Bielke. When Golde asks, ‘which one for which?’ Yente sounds surprised, as if it’s a stupid question, and responds: ‘what’s the difference? Take your pick.’ Again, a good laugh, but now the picture of her in her chosen career is getting even worse. And when the oldest daughters sing their ‘Matchmaker’ song, they too speak of how Yente will happily pair you with someone who is 40 years older, an alcoholic, and/or abusive. All so that she can get her commission for having made a ‘successful’ match?

And the more we learn about her, we aren’t necessarily surprised. She was in an unhappy marriage as well, probably set up by some OTHER matchmaker who didn’t care that much. It’s especially troublesome when you think that as a woman, particularly someone who was NOT in a good marriage, she SHOULD be looking out for the safety and happiness of these younger women. And yet, she is the one they are the most afraid of. Sadly, this is not unlike reality in some cultures. Where female genital mutilation takes place, in some Muslim and African cultures, the women are not only the perpetuators and promoters of this cruel and painful custom, they are sometimes the ones performing the mutilation itself!

And even in Western society, we often talk about bullying, and specifically attacks on young girls and teens regarding their promiscuity, what’s sometimes referred to as ‘slut-shaming,’ and the perpetrators are frequently other girls, mothers, and women in the community.

The other representative of the older generation is Golde. Her first words in the play are sarcastic and critical of her youngest daughters, when they ask where to put the logs they’ve just brought in. ‘Put them on my head. By the stove, foolish girl!’ Not a very nice introduction to Golde and her relationship with her daughters. And the first director of our play, Jessica Stinson, shared an insight that really stuck with me: She pointed out that the girls go to Tevye for love and comfort, not Golde. When Tzeitel is promised to the older butcher, Lazar Wolf, Golde is super-excited and doesn’t even see that Tzeitel is devastated. Tevye doesn’t see it right away either, but when Tzeitel appeals to one of them to save her from this horrible scenario, it’s her father, Tevye, not her mother.

Throughout the play, we really see Tevye being affectionate with the girls (‘THIS ONE is mine, and THIS ONE is mine, and THIS ONE is mine…’), and talking about seeing the love and hope in their eyes. We hear no such thing from Golde.

And this is where the Sisterhood women and I differed. They felt that it often falls to the mothers to be the practical ones, to make tough decisions, to focus on education, future, planning, organization, while the father gets to come in as ‘good cop’ when it’s convenient. The mothers sometimes don’t  have the luxury to see only what Tevye sees. And I thought that was a fair point, and one I had not previously considered.

The truth is, it’s not black-and-white. They older women aren’t ‘evil,’ I think they’re just conflicted. They did not have a say in their own husbands, and so it’s hard not to regard the next generation’s plea for independence and freedom with some jealousy and maybe even bitterness. ‘This isn’t how it’s done! I didn’t get to choose, so why should you?’

But the younger generation won’t be silenced. The oldest daughter, Tzeitel, is really the master of her own destiny. She tries to play within the rules of the game, quietly poking and prodding her beloved (but nebishy) Motel to ask for her hand. And when he essentially fails, and her father has set her up with someone else, she finally steps in and convinces Tevye it’s the wrong match. When Motel then comes dashing in to save the day, the hard part has already really been done by Tzeitel!

Hodel and Chava, the next two daughters, both demonstrate they too are very clever, and that they have inquisitive minds; Hodel matching wits with the university-educated Perchik (which catches him off guard) and Chava through her reading, which she refuses to quit, despite her mother’s chastisement.

A lot of this was really developed in the 1960s, for the stage version of ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ during a time of Feminism and Women’s Liberation. But it’s also true that in the late 1800s, Sholem Aleichem DID write a play about a man with SEVEN (not the later five) daughters, where the father was somewhat warm and affectionate, and his daughters DID make their own choices about whom to marry. So part of this theme of powerful women was inherent in the original story, and then later reinforced in the 1960s. But it really is striking. Yente, Golde, Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava, they are all the strongest characters in the entire play, more so than the main protagonist (who loses nearly every argument with the women in his family), the rabbi, the constable, or the silent fiddler.

Furthermore, when Tevye finally manages to orchestrate a BIG move – paving the way for Tzeitel to marry Motel instead of the intended Lazar – how does he convince his wife? By fabricating a dream in which two WOMEN, Grandma Tzeitel and Lazar’s deceased first wife, Frumah Sarah, come to him in a dream to denounce the planned wedding. It’s as if to say that in order to really scare his wife straight, he needs to turn to women who truly intimidate Golde to change her mind. And sure enough, later in the play when he tries to bellow and throw his weight around (‘when I get angry, even flies don’t dare to fly!!!’), she is completely unimpressed (‘Oh, I’m really scared. After dinner, I’ll faint.’).

One of the reasons, I think, that ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ has such staying power, and delivers such a universal message, is because it speaks of egalitarianism. It begins by pretending that ‘Tradition’ governs all aspects of society, and everyone should, and does, know his or her place in the community. And yet, the play is all about changing that. Everyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps from the lowest rung on the totem pole (to mix metaphors…), and anyone can make his/her dreams come true.

In this story, the heroes are really heroines; women who fight for happiness and equality despite the odds. But it was an inspiration to so many, because we all can feel like these daughters sometimes; underappreciated, ignored, and pushed around. And sometimes we need to take a step back and realize that there are people around us who COULD and SHOULD be our closest allies, and yet we are pulling in opposite directions. The women of Anatevka could run this place, and would probably make it a much more efficient, happy, wealthy, and harmonious place for everyone, not just the women.

This is the realization that is rapidly dawning on researchers in developing countries; when you give the money and aid to men, they use it on alcohol, gambling, and prostitution. When you give it to women, everyone benefits! Education improves, hostility lessens, the environment is positively affected; it’s incredible. The men of Anatevka are busy arguing about whether it was a horse or a mule that was sold, and if an agreement was sealed when they drank on it while wasting their money at the tavern, or whether the terms needed to be settled as well. What a waste of time!

With almost no effort at all, these women could be in charge, but they don’t really work together. And so this is the lesson for us all, as we watch the play and read the stories of ‘Tevye, the milkman.’ How do we identify allies? How can we band together to improve conditions for everyone, not just ourselves? And how can we internalize, and then model with our own actions, the equality that is so central to the message of this play?

The story of the women of Anatevka is a story of power and egalitarianism. Anyone and everyone has the potential to be powerful and to affect change, from the youngest daughter of a poor milkman to anyone of us in the room here today.  

And speaking of the youngest daughters of milkmen, at the end of ‘Fiddler’ we once again hear from Tevye’s two remaining children, Shprintze and Bielke. As everyone else in the village is devastated, deflated, and full of despair, as they mope around preparing to leave Anatevka, the two little girls dance and sing: “We’re going on a train and a boat, we’re going on a train and a boat!” They embrace the future, full of adventure and opportunity; excited to see what awaits them on the other side of the ocean.

May we all learn from, and be inspired by, their powerful example.

Shabbat Shalom!