I screened Fiddler on the Roof today as a non-obligatory section of my Introduction to Judaism. I offered similar notes of introduction that I did last time I screened it, only this time I also added a parallel to Downton Abbey (the notice I sent out to students made use of this parallel).
Although I’ve seen it many times it’s only when I screen it for students that I notice its faults, cringing as if it’s my own responsibility for sharing them something that is less than perfect (in truth, there are so many excellent films I would like my students to watch, but I haven’t figured a way to link them thematically to the courses I teach). The final scene is unnecessarily prolonged, and minor places where the acting is somewhat “wooden” become more noticeable.
But the thing that gives me most concern is the portrayal of Jews for a non-Jewish audience. This is the flipside of the exact same reason that I screen the movie: it is replete with stock images of Judaica, and I like giving the students in a single viewing see a Shabbat candle service, the wedding canopy, a Torah scroll brought out from the Aron Qodesh, and so forth.
At the same time, its stereotypical portrayal of Jews is problematic. Part of this portrayal derives from the original writings of Sholem Aleichem, who was openly critical of traditional Jewish society, and like Mendele Mocher Sfarim and others taunted their semi-functional societal structure. Another part derives from the transition of inside-jokes into external settings: when Tevye raises the memory of the dispute about an age of a horse, it’s amusing and good-hearted like many other jokes on disputes among Jews. But watching it with non-Jews as part of their introduction to Judaism, I cannot help but doubt myself, and wonder whether I am unwittingly promoting antisemitic stereotypes (of Jews as argumentative, contentious, etc.) to people who don’t have context to assess this. This is a minor degree of the same thing that occurred with the Gospel of Matthew: being the gospel that was written by a Jew, it is the most critical of Jews, and its portrayal of Judas is the most vile among the gospels. It was written by a Jew, perhaps even with a Jewish audience in mind. But over the centuries it was read by Christians who saw it in a completely different light than the author intended it.
Back to the Downton Abbey parallel: Reb Tevye and Lord Grantham both have three daughters and their troubles marrying them reflect the changes that modernity and technology impose on traditionalism. The surprising appearance of the train in Fiddler on the Roof (a first sign of technology in a primarily premodern setting) also reminded me of train shots at Downton Abbey, and the most recent episode included an introduction of a sewing machine, with Mrs. Patmore being apprehensive of the new appliance (unlike Motl the tailor who takes pride in the machine, and the entire shtetl comes to see it).
Both movies convey a universal sense of nostalgia and respect to conservatism in an extremely particular setting. There are hardly more disparate communities and characters than Tevye and Grantham, which makes the parallels between the two narratives all the more striking. It is also instructive to reconsider strictly distinct categories as etiquette and religion as partially overlapping, and both serving similar purposes, and using similar rituals (clothing regulations, strict laws of food, etc.).
It makes me wonder about the cultural circumstances and impetus for producing such nostalgia. In the past, I already considered some socio-political causes for Downton Abbey. This is how I framed it:
I’ve developed a thesis on the cultural representation of American capital as an agent of change and erosion of national values, seen in Downton Abbey and Mr. Selfridge. The idea is to associate this representation with the aftermath of the Blair-Bush years and the view of the UK as a second fiddle to US Empire. I have neither the time nor resources to write this up properly, so I’m putting it out there, for the benefit of the public.
I can only surmise the events in the background of Fiddler’s production, and proceed with great caution, as it is easy for the historian to point to two events in a proximate period and then draw a line between them. But I suddenly think of the Jewish revolutionaries of the 1960s and the 1970s, and look at Tevye as a counter-response to them. Against Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, Jews in the entertainment industry manufacture a counter-insurgence Jew, one that fears change, and while willing to adapt slowly, is not half the radical as them.
After reading the Covenant Code, a student commented on the preponderance of capital punishment, at times for what seemed to be minor offenses. I replied with a readily prepared response by Greenberg: Yes, ancient Israel is violent, but in the context of its surroundings they are quite progressive and lenient.
Later I regretted the apologetic aspect of my response. Part of it is true, and needs to be said, but I would prefer to avoid a discussion that somewhere in its background has an undertone of “whose tradition is better” with me presenting Judaism to the local Christians. Surely, that is not what I intend to do in academia.
Rather than placing this in moral terms, in which whoever kills the least is the most moral, it would be better to use it as another peephole to gain insight on how remote we are from the realia of ancient Israel. Death was much more prevalent, but more importantly, it was more visible. The harsh realities of the frailty and even repulsiveness of the body were ever present: people saw sicknesses, deformities, corpses, and healthy, mundane defecation much more than we do. Animal carcasses and animals mating were certainly not a rare sight, and even human copulation was probably not as private as we practice it today.
I heard Jodi Magness once say in a lecture that people of our time and hygiene standards would not survive one day in antiquity. Not only because we are supposedly more refined, but we are also less immune. Ofra likes to quote in this context the saying in Avot 5:5, that one of the ten miracles of the temple was that a woman never miscarried from the odor of the sacrificed meat. So repugnant was the smell, apparently, that only a miracle can explain it.
This brings up much more, far beyond the scope of the student’s question, or any other issue of my class. Longevity and health have increased due to these hygiene practices, but our culture makes most human detached from basic facts of life, denying the realities of the body. The material aspects of popular culture, including an obsessive preoccupation with looks and body image can then be understood not as an actual engagement with the body, but a denial of what the body is, the beautiful and powerful, alongside the limited and blemished. As long as this denial continues, it is hard to imagine a greater acceptance of body image. An image can only reflect on reality.
As I said, this last point is not one that I would introduce to a Hebrew Bible class. I try to stick to the subject matter, and avoid the stance of the preacher or the theologian while in the classroom. And still, there are some thoughts of how I could improve my response for the next time this question comes up.
The study of mysticism can never follow a straight path, it seems. A student seeking to find out the secrets, will be deterred by his masters, directed into all sorts of digressions and red herrings, lest his study is merely instrumental. A student not seeking to find out secrets, will stumble upon them by chance, not realizing they are secrets, or dismissing them.
I became very quickly of the latter sort.
My induction was through secular, Zionist, “Jewish culture” masters. Buber’s Or Haganuz, Pinchas Sadeh’s edition of the Breslaver’s stories. It was a literary curiosity, more than anything else.
I went to university and discovered Maimonides through Leibowitz. I learned of Buber’s mystical side, and wrote a paper on him, realizing more and more that even if he was not observant, he was very much religious. Through the orthodox Leibowitz, I therefore came to disparage Buber for his own religiosity.
Although I did not begin my studies at Hebrew University before the turn of the century (21st), I remained of a very Wissenschaft des Judentums approach, dismissing the mystical and seeking the rational strands of Judaism.
My years in Princeton allowed me to embrace mysticism if not for my own sake, then for scholarship. It was, undeniably, much too important to dismiss, much too present to ignore. Furthermore, the rationalism of the philosophers is never complete. A leap of faith is always required, or even assumed, in order to marry the anthropomorphizing verses in the Hebrew Bible, with Plato, Aristotle, or Kant, depending on the philosopher. As such, the self-contradicting theosophy of the Sefirot or of the Lurianic tsimtsum could seem even to bear more integrity than Philo, Maimonides or Hermann Cohen can offer.
Finally, two quotes I read this week felt just right, and made me realize the long path I’ve walked from admiring Buber, to dismissing him for being engaged with mysticism, to viewing him more nuanced, and Jewish mysticism as even more complex, something that does not hinge on my relation to Buber:
“The fact that an idea which at first sight appears so reasonable as ‘Creation out of Nothing’ should turn out upon inspection to lead to a theosophical mystery shows us how illusory the apparent simplicity of religious fundamentals really is” - Scholem, MTJM 7.4
“The understanding, however, that law and spirit are antithetical has a specific genealogy that goes back to the apostle Paul’s attempt to contrast the Law (that is, the Torah) with the Spirit of God as revealed through Jesus Christ. There is nothing natural or obvious to the dichotomy; it is a culturally constructed one.” – Michael Satlow, Creating Judaism, 231.
It is interesting that even Scholem, who repeatedly criticizes the older, disparaging view of Jewish Mysticism, raises more than a hint of questionability before describing Luria’s theology, claiming, he may have gone too far with his anthropomorphisms (earlier in the same chapter of the above quote). Luria, it seems, was stretching even Scholem’s openness to these aspects of Judaism. But what is so compelling in this quote, is the distance between Genesis 1 and Lurianic Kaballah. There is nothing “reasonable,” in all fairness, in the idea of Creation out of Nothing, but it is presented in the HB as straightforward. The questions raised by the mystics, which yield the development of the En-Sof, tsimtsum, etc. do not stem from a difficulty in the plain meaning of the text, but from a sincere exegetical attempt to reconstruct the history reflected in it. When presented as such, it is not as crazy as it seems at first, and indeed reveals the illusory nature of apparent simplicity, as Scholem writes.
This ties in with Satlow’s sensible comment against the divorce of mysticism and law. The quote is taken from a discussion on Karo, who serves as an excellent embodiment of the point. The theologies of Maimonides and Luria are at irreconcilable odds, as if they belonged in entirely different religions. But Karo’s legal enterprise parallels Maimonides’ work, while his theological beliefs side with Luria.
If Jewish history could make these compatible, I certainly should avoid judging which is more authentic, plausible or laudable. I am nothing but a student of this history, stumbling on the path of its long and winding road, with no gates in sight.
I finished yesterday teaching my course “Introduction to Judaism” for the first time. I planned the course along a historical paradigm, divided quite simply into three major eras: Ancient, Medieval, Modern (see paradigm attached). For the last section, I assigned Leora Batnitzky’s recent book, How Judaism Became a Religion. The book is excellent for undergraduate students, and ties together in flowing prose basic pieces of information, memorable anecdotes, and in-depth analysis. All this is accompanied with the benefits of an original and critical perspective Batnitzky offers to long-standing questions, and supplemented with useful lists of suggested readings.
The strengths of the book were especially productive for my own course, since Batnitzky seems to view things from a very different perspective than I do, on more than one occasion. From the outset, she explains how the book is going to examine and discuss the modern invention of Judaism as a religion, meaning the modern aspects of its categorization, perhaps even reduction, as such. I was planning to show how modernity, secularism and Zionism reimagined Judaism as a nation rather than religion. Through the book, I was able to draw in my students to a debate that questioned my own views.
Similarly, my course intentionally steered away from the Holocaust, as much as possible. I did not dedicate a class to it, and repeatedly stated that this was an ideological choice: I refuse to assign any ideological or theological development to the Holocaust. It is part of the history of the Jewish People, but not of Judaism as a system of beliefs or identity.
This argument, too, was undermined or at least questioned, through the readings. When comparing Cohen and Soloveitchik (p. 63), Batnitzky argues that “Cohen’s claim… is deeply problematic because it suggests that Jews ought to make themselves passive victims,” and that Soloveichik cannot accept this in the shadow of the Holocaust. My counter-argument would be that this could be problematic after pogroms no less than after the Holocaust, and the reason that it becomes problematic is not because the extent of the Holocaust is incomparably more horrific than a pogrom, but because an actual alternative to passive victimhood had arisen, embodied in the State of Israel. The fact that Cohen is echoed in post-Holocaust philosophers as Levinas (p. 59), is a further argument that allows me to hold that it is not the Holocaust that causes this shift. Similarly, I ascribe the difference between Kook the father and Kook the son (pp. 95-100) to Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel that shapes a new theology, rather than to the Holocaust and its aftermath.
Considering these differences in interpretation, I cannot avoid noticing a strong (and somewhat surprising) Zionist strand in my thought, which is a result of my upbringing and my existence as a secular Israeli, even if I now live and teach in the United States. While reading, contemplating these differences and discussing some of these ideas with my students, I became strongly convinced that it would be very important to have this book translated to Hebrew, and I can only hope someone has shown interest in doing so already.
This is especially true in light of the second part of the book, which addresses Yiddish culture (represented mainly by Mendele and Shalom Aleichem), then Zionism (Herzl and Ahad Ha’am), and then American philosophers Kaplan and Strauss, which are rarely the focus of Israeli public discourse. This triad places Jewish thought and identity in a refreshing context: Herzl’s lack of originality and depth is known in academia, but was refreshing to read in light of recent debates on Zionism in Israel. Ahad Ha’am, when sandwiched between the Yiddish Masters and American theologians, is highlighted in his maverick and neglected approach to the Zionist enterprise. Furthermore, these chapters bound together question my previous argument, which assigns to Zionism new theological implications on various rabbis and philosophers, and places Zionism in a context that stresses it as an alternative among a range of Jewish identities and responses, not the ultimate result. Once again, I am betraying my presuppositions.
[And nevertheless]: The conclusion of Batnitzky’s book, focuses on the Satmar community in Kiryas Joel, in Orange County, NY. As I have argued before (following a presentation by David Myers and Nomi Stolzenberg at the Tikvah Seminar, 2008), I think that even Kiryas Joel is a very Zionist enterprise, or at least a result of Jewish sovereignty in Israel. The mere name “Kiryat X,” is not something attested in the Jewish tradition, where we find Qiryat Arba’ (Gn 23:2), Qiryat Ye’arim (Josh 15:60), and Qiryat Sefer (Ju 1:11), to mention a few. The closest we come to a name is Qiryat Hanah David (Isa 29:1), “City where david camped”, and that is entirely different. The name Kiryas Joel, is comparable only with those “Qrayot” named after major Zionist leaders: Qiryat Hayim, Qiryat Motzkin, and Qiryat Bialik. But the name reveals, I believe, something deeper: only through Jewish sovereignty in Israel, and the political dealings over their rights to separate from the heretic state of the Zionists, did it become thinkable to contest and challenge authority and to exhibit proud seclusion, as the Satmar eventually do in the case of Kiryas Joel. Admittedly, other religious (non-Jewish) groups have done the same, and US courts accommodation to multiculturalism and personal freedoms need not be dismissed or ascribed to the result of Zionism. But in this specific case and turn of events, it remains an open question for me.
The debate continues: I raise an argument favouring a non-Zionist interpretation (for Cohen, Kiryas Joel, Herzl or another topic), and immediately revert to a classic Zionist response. Whether or not I have answers at the end, I am satisfied to know that my questions have become richer through the worlds I’ve travelled.
I showed Fiddler on the Roof, to my students in an Introduction to Judaism class. I was somewhat reluctant to do it, since using this film for didactic purposes is somewhat of a cliché. At the same time, teaching an introductory course may prove difficult without some clichés. They can be admirably perceptive and useful to have, for someone encountering the material for the first time. Here are (roughly) my brief comments before the screening began, along with the images that accompanied them:
This movie is a project in translation and adaptation. It is a translation from one language to another: from Yiddish to English; it is an adaptation from one format to another: from prose, to stage, to screen. It is both a translation and adaptation from one culture to another.
Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916) wrote in Yiddish. For his Yiddish readers the exposition of the film, including its famed title song (Tradition!), would be superfluous.
He gave the shtetl a name and all the rest came along with it. His readers could imagine the roles, the social settings, the interactions, just from that piece of information.
Sholem Aleichem was a humorist. Even his penname is a joke, as it is nothing more than a common greeting (“Peace be upon you”), and by adopting such a name he becomes a walking “who’s-on-first” act.
However, humor is not everything. His last novel, Motl the Cantor’s Son, demonstrated that well. It’s renowned opening line reads: Lucky me, I am an orphan. So despite the title, the author immediately dispenses of the father, and thus the title becomes a joke as well: Motl the Cantor’s Son, only he isn’t, from the first line. The absent father will remain throughout the book, with a typical mixture for Sholem Aleichem of sadness and joy, that is well-preserved in the film we’re about to watch.
When first staged on Broadway, the main role of Tevye was played by Zero Mostel. When switching to screen, he was replaced, a fact he begrudged for his remaining years.
Mostel had an energetic, domineering – and some would even say obnoxious – presence on screen. Those who remember him from Mel Brooks’ first film, The Producers, will understand. But in choosing to substitute him, the director and producer did more than that, as can be seen from their choice of replacement.
Topol was born in British Mandate Tel Aviv. In fact, his supposedly Russian-Jewish accent in the film, is more of an Israeli attempt to speak English than anything else, but somehow proves more authentic for Tevye, than Mostel’s distinctive Brooklyn accent.
This choice of reincarnating the Shtetl Jew through an Israeli is interesting not only because it defies the project of Zionism to generate a “New Jew,” but also because less than a decade earlier, when Hollywood seeks to personify the Sabra, it chooses Paul Newman to do so.
An all-American Icon as Ari Ben-Canaan eerily correlates with the choice to turn an Israeli Sabra, born and raised in Tel Aviv into Tevye the Milkman. This is not only a box office choice, it is an ideological one, too: telling us something about how Hollywood wishes to view Jews and Israelis, and how they view themselves.
When watching the film, I suggest to consider the following: this image has Tzeitl, Hodl and Chavaleh terrified of the matchmaker and of marriage.
But in fact, it is Tevye who should be petrified. Each on of these three daughters is going to present a challenge to her father. These challenges represent the challenges facing traditional Judaism with the rise of modernity. Tevye’s responses, in turn, reflect the responses Judaism offered to these challenges.
Caplan, Marc. “Neither Here nor There: The Critique of Ideological Progress in Sholem Aleichem’s Kasrilevke’s Stories.” Modern Jewish Literatures. Intersections and Boundaries (Jewish Culture and Contexts; eds. SE Jelen, MP Kramer and LS Lerner). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. 27-46.
Litvak, Olga. "Khave and Her Sisters: Sholem-Aleichem and the Lost Girls of 1905." Jewish Social Studies 15.3 (2009): 1-38.
The first thing I did in my intro to Judaism class, was to read the story about the gentile who asked to be taught the whole Torah on one foot (b. Shabbat 31a). Shammay pushed him with a measuring a stick, while Hillel converted him, saying “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.”
I always read it as a story shaming Shammay and praising Hillel, but yesterday I read it in a new light, for the first time sympathizing with Shammay. Perhaps the appropriate response, that of the reasonable man, is shown by Shammay, while Hillel acts lifnim mishurat hadin. Not a deplorable response viewed in a negative light, but simply reflecting a level that most people cannot achieve. That, of course, is the context in Shabbat, where it appears together with a collection of tales concerning Hillel’s famed patience.
And in that case, Shammay is not an evil, rude person, but a reasonable person, who responds to insolence with manifested agitation. Or even, I suddenly thought, perhaps Shammay shooed the gentile away jokingly, not violently. The gentile asked something to aggravate, partially in jest, partially insolently, and Shammay responded by gesticulating a “get out of here,” but with no intention to harm.
In any case, obliged to teach three millennia of Jewish history and texts in less than ten weeks, I found myself sympathizing with Shammay. I did not shoo away my students, but did not tell them they can learn it all in one sentence, either. I provided them a syllabus, and prepared them for the hard work ahead.
I was reading Song of Songs with my students this morning. They were surprisingly mature about it, and I was even more surprised to see I was more embarrassed than I expected myself to be. Ultimately, it is impossible to discuss sex without disclosing, if only partially and implicitly, one’s own experiences. Naturally, I don’t care to share these intimate experiences with anyone other than my partner, let alone my students. Somehow, we all managed to brave through, and pretend we were only analyzing the text.
We reached v. 5:4. JPS translation reads: “My beloved took his hand off the latch, and my heart stirred for him”. I am sure there could be better ways of translating ומעי המו עליו than “my heart stirred for him,” but that is not half as bad as translating “latch” for חר. Curiously, this word is translated as “hole” in 2 Ki 12:10 and Ezek 8:7 (cf. also in Isa 11:8), “lairs” in Nah 2:13 and “sockets” in Zech 14:12.
JPS does confess that the meaning of the Hebrew in Songs 5:4 is “uncertain,” betraying an uneasiness about the translation offered, but this hardly compensates for this poor choice. If the translator truly believed a door was in question in that verse, why not translate “hole” as in 2 Ki 12:10 and Ezek 8:7, or at least “socket”. Not only does the translation mask the ambiguities – not to mention the double entendre – of the text, it in fact leads its readers astray. Whatever חרmeans in Songs 5:4, it is receptive, something that can be opened or entered. Not so the latch, which adds to something, and cannot contain anything within it. This would be obvious to any Hebrew reader tackling the text, and is completely hidden from anyone relying on JPS for the study of the Hebrew Bible. Mistaking the חר for a part of a door is forgivable, but avoiding the “hole” which is used in a quite straightforward manner in other occurrences (and even as a parallel of “lair” in Isa 11:18), discloses that the translator was well-aware of what actually was alluded to, and was uncomfortable with it. The final choice is one that is disloyal and untruthful to the task of the translator, as well as to the wide public using the translation.
Such choices have infamously rendered the JPS translation less than adequate, which is truly a heartbreaking pity, because giants such as Orlinsky should have been capable of a more respectful and accurate translation, deserving of their name, knowledge and expertise.
Extra Reading: See Joel Hoffman’s And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning (New York: St. Martin’s, 2010). It is written as a popular book, and might feel a little too popular for the biblical scholar, it is still raises important methodological points regarding translation, and is rife with excellent observations and helpful examples for the classroom. All in all, a very enjoyable book.